Superintendent of School Jeff Solan made his way over to Doolittle School on Thursday, Sept. 2, just about the time a game of kickball had broken out among the students.
Though classes technically resumed in Cheshire two days prior, the start of the new school year was delayed at Doolittle after the detection of mold forced the school to close for two days. That meant Thursday was the first time all Cheshire students were officially back.
“It was just so relieving to see,” said Solan. “The kids were out playing. It was a beautiful sunny day. It felt … normal.”
The night prior, remnants from Hurricane Ida swept through Connecticut, leaving some areas flooded and residents cleaning up after yet another difficult summer storm. But by Thursday morning, the sun was shining and the weather had turned exceptional, leaving Solan to see a bit of symbolism in the scene on display at Doolittle.
“It felt like we had come through the storm, literally and figuratively,” he said.
Of course, the “storm” Solan has been most focused on doesn’t appear on any radar. It’s been raging for more than 18 months, and has impacted every aspect of student learning along the way.
As Cheshire students arrived this week for a new year, Solan remarked on how much more normal things seem than they have in the recent past. Yet, the threat of COVID-19 remains, as do some of the safety protocols used by the District to try and prevent the spread of the virus within the school community.
“It’s probably the most frustrating aspect of everything,” said Solan. “We are by nature creatures of habit, but we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the future. We can’t plan for it … We have to be ready to manage change.”
Cohorting protocols, designed to limit mingling among students, still do exist, though Solan explained that they are more relaxed this year than last, which will allow for more student movement throughout the buildings. Tents have been set up at different schools to allow for as many activities as possible to be held outside, particularly lunch, which is where Solan stated the most risk of viral spread occurs.
And of course, masks are required by all who are inside school buildings.
The mask mandate for schools has been a particularly controversial issue in both Cheshire and around the country, and things came to a head a week before classes resumed when protestors interrupted an education roundtable being held in Cheshire and attended by Gov. Ned Lamont.
The event had to be cut short, as protestors yelled at local and state officials gathered for the roundtable and proceeded to confront Lamont outside the school, as he and his security team headed back to their vehicles.
Solan explained that, after the incident, he received numerous emails from community members expressing their support for continuing the practice of requiring masks in schools. As for the pushback on the policy, which has been mandated by Lamont via an executive order, Solan explained that he believes it to be “loud, but not broad.”
“What I gather is that the vast majority of people, even those who may be anti-mask, want to see kids in the classroom,” said Solan. “That’s what our main focus is — keeping kids in class every day.”
Making sure that safety protocols are kept in place is what helped Cheshire maintain in-person instruction throughout all of last year. In fact, Solan explained that only three days of instruction were missed by students throughout the 2020/2021 school year, when buildings had to be shut down due to COVID-19 concerns.
“I sympathize with parents (concerned about masks). I try to put myself in their shoes,” he said. “Our main goal is to keep everyone in school.”
“I would just ask them to hang in there,” he said.
In addition to maintaining health and safety protocols, the District has also been busy tracking student achievement. Teachers have employed what Solan described as an “acceleration” model of instruction in order to help students catch up in any areas where they may have fallen behind because of the pandemic.
Solan explained that, if the District had attempted to go back and make up for what may have been lost as a result of remote learning, it could permanently put students behind. Instead, they’ve focused on trying to bridge any gaps in learning while also ensuring that students are where they need to be in terms of their educational timeline.
So far, the results have been very positive.
“We just received our Smarter Balance (student scores) and they are exceptionally high,” he said. “It shows that our students are still doing very well. But it’s something we are obviously going to continue to track.”
Lapses in learning is one area of concern for parents, Solan admitted, but from the feedback he’s received over the last year, it takes a back seat to concerns raised over the mental and emotional health of students. Last year, students in kindergarten through eighth grade were given the opportunity to attend in-school instruction five days a week, but families could opt for remote learning. Most decided on in-school instruction, yet some made the decision to remain home.
At the high school, a hybrid model was employed, meaning students were separated into cohorts and attended in-school instruction twice a week. As a result, many students are returning to five days of in-school instruction per week for the first time in more than a year.
To help with the transition, the District held several sessions for both parents and students throughout the summer, to address concerns about the return to a normal school schedule.
While Solan admits that there was some anxiety expressed by families, most students seem ready to get back into the swing of things.
“It’s only Day Three, so we are just beginning to peel back the onion (on students transitioning back to full in-person instruction), but so far things look really good,” said Solan, last Thursday afternoon. “That’s why today was so rewarding to see. The kids are just diving back in with one another.”
Solan remarked that, in speaking with some students at the high school over the first few days of classes, they commented on how satisfying it was to see all their classmates back in school, some for the first time in well over a year.
“For some of the kids, their usual connections might not have been there last year,” Solan said. “Their activities might have been canceled, or they might not have been around their friends all the time. So it seems like the kids are really excited to have that back.”
As far as what the future holds for this year goes, Solan stated that he and his team are working closely with Chesprocott Health District to monitor case counts over the next several weeks. How the pandemic progresses will determine how the District reacts to certain situations.
Solan acknowledged that parents can become frustrated over the lack of certainty when it comes to exactly what will trigger everything from a school having to be closed to determining how many mask breaks students will receive throughout the day, but the Superintendent explained that several factors go into each decision.
“We want black-and-white metrics to determine when we should and shouldn’t do things, but sometimes those just don’t exist,” said Solan. “For instance, mask breaks. People ask, ‘When are the kids going to take breaks (throughout the day)?’ and it all depends. If it’s sunny and 85 degrees outside, we are going to try and get them out there as many times as possible. If the weather isn’t as nice, we may not be able to (offer as many breaks).”
Those questions will all be answered as the year continues. For now, Solan stated that the District is committed to providing as normal an experience for students as possible, and he hopes the community can build off of what it did last year.
“It’s one of the reasons why I was so disappointed in what happened (during the protests at the educational roundtable). This has been one of the most challenging times in our lifetime, and the way teachers, students, parents, and staff came together to provide a sense of normalcy for these kids, it’s really been humbling,” said Solan. “That’s what this community has been about (throughout the pandemic). We were there (last year) every day for our kids. Cheshire has really been a model for how to support our students, and it’s something that people all around the state really recognize.”