There were any number of concerns for the Cheshire School District heading into the school year, but Superintendent of Schools Jeff Solan admits that one issue seemed to be on the minds of everyone.
In order for in-person instruction to take place while in the midst of a pandemic, everyone knew that mask compliance would be paramount, and both teachers and parents expressed concerns that children would have the most difficult time staying vigilant.
Those worries, Solan states, proved to be unfounded.
“They (the students) have been amazing when it comes to masks,” said Solan. “It’s to the point now where I don’t even really worry about it at all. They have been terrific.”
That kind of adherence to the new rules surrounding Cheshire schools during the COVID-19 crisis is one of the reasons why the town has been able to avoid any prolonged interruptions to in-person instruction. While other districts have struggled to keep students in class due to staffing shortages and pandemic protocols, Cheshire’s modified schedule has remained relatively unaltered.
“It is kind of insane that we’ve been able to do that,” said Solan. “I am just incredibly proud of the commitment from our students and families, and all of our staff. Everyone is so compliant with mask-wearing and other protocols. Everyone is just making it work the best they can.”
Throughout the year, Solan and his staff have kept in constant contact with the Chesprocott Health District and other health professionals to ensure that schools are adhering to all safety protocols. The goal has been to keep as many students as possible in class for in-person instruction, and throughout the fall and now into the winter, elementary and middle school-aged students have been able to attend classes five days a week, if their families so choose.
One of the initiatives that helped the District keep the schools open was Solan’s decision to employ the help of recent Cheshire High School graduates as substitute teachers, a program that earned him applause from Governor Ned Lamont and state educators.
“We knew that the greatest obstacle to remaining open would likely be staffing,” said Solan. “We knew we had to try something different.”
“I was so humbled by the response,” he continued. “I was proud of the fact that so many (former students) decided to step up. It really did allow us to stay open.”
Now, the District is looking forward, and Solan admits that how the rest of 2021 looks will depend on the availability of the vaccine. As of now, students in kindergarten through eighth grade all have the option of attending in person at Cheshire schools for five days of instruction. According to Solan, only 25 percent of students in those grade levels have chosen to remain in a remote learning environment.
As far as the high school is concerned, 23 percent of students have opted for full-time remote learning. The rest have been attending classes under a modified schedule, where two cohorts of students attend classes twice per week and then the entire school stays on a remote learning schedule for Wednesday.
Whether that changes will depend on when teachers will be eligible to receive their vaccine shots under the state’s rollout procedure.
Federal government recommendations have called for educators to be among the group to receive the vaccine during Phase 1B. The state is currently administering doses under Phase 1A and has plans to begin 1B in the next few weeks. However, Connecticut officials have yet to determine exactly who will be included in each upcoming phase of the rollout.
Solan is hoping that, when those plans are finalized, Cheshire educators will be at “the front of the line” for 1B.
“Because of the pandemic (and social distancing protocols), we removed a lot of the furniture from the classrooms, so we have already begun discussions of when to begin moving that furniture back in” said Solan.
“Our goal is to have those students (at the high school) who want to … attend class all day, every day, as soon as possible,” he continued.
Once the state finalizes its plans, Cheshire will determine how best to go about innoculating educators. Solan stated that, depending on availability, the school could host a vaccination clinic after school for teachers at Cheshire High School. Or teachers could be given individual times to attend vaccination clinics outside of school.
There is no timeline as to when the high school could move back to a full in-person schedule, Solan reiterated, but said that once it is possible, no matter when in the school year, they will adjust the schedule.
“Our top priority, always, is the safety and security of our students and our staff,” he said. “Then, we want to make sure we are providing the best educational opportunities possible.”
As far as what this year’s budget will look likeis concerned, Solan is expected to present it to the Board of Education this evening (Jan. 14). He did offer a sneak preview, however, stating that he will have a normal operating budget request, and a supplemental budget request in case the District is still dealing with the impact of the pandemic into the next school year.
“What if I have to rent tents again (in the fall) because COVID-19 is still with us?” Solan asked. “That’s what the supplemental budget will be for.”
Though the pandemic has interrupted education as usual, Solan insists that Cheshire students are likely in a “better boat” than most others in the state and country. While instruction has had to change dramatically, Solan does not believe students have fallen too far behind, due to the hard work of local teachers as well as better use of technology.
“I know people are worried about the ‘COVID slide,’” said Solan, “but our students are pretty resilient. They are learning a lot. There is still learning taking place.”
“My message to the community is one of pride, and one of hope,” he continued. “I do believe 2021 will be a better year for our kids and our community. We’ve come through a very difficult time, but I believe we’ll be stronger than ever.”