Monday, August 30 was scheduled to be the first day of school for Woodbridge students, with all the hopes and concerns that day carries with it. For many elementary students it is a return to the new normal, for a second year of learning under pandemic conditions. Students (and teachers) will be masked, will be required to social distance as much as feasible, and hand washing will be part of the daily routine.
[At the time of this writing the state is waiting for Hurricane Henri, and it is unclear what impact it may have on the start of school.]
Last school year, about a quarter of the town’s elementary students were learning from home to avoid infection. This year, with a large percentage of the adult population vaccinated, including the teachers, students are expected to return to in-person learning, even though there is no vaccine for kids under 12.
Teachers as of mid-August were not required to get the vaccine, although in School Supt. Dr. Jonathan Budd’s estimation, 90-95% of them did. He said he does not know who is and who isn’t vaccinated out of respect for privacy laws, and relies on state directives going forward.
In-class attendance will therefore be much higher than what it was last year, and social distancing requirements were reduced from the original 6 foot to a 3-foot goal. “Space is a logistical challenge this year,” said Math Specialist Kim Franklin, who is also the president of the Woodbridge Education Association (WEA).
As of mid-August, enrollment was steady, with 835 students signed up to attend school. By comparison, the previous school year ended with 846 students enrolled. Even so, the administration saw a spike in the fourth grade, and added a seventh classroom at that grade level to keep class sizes within the guidelines the district had set for itself.
School Supt. Dr. Jonathan Budd said he managed to do that within budget. Like in many other organizations, the pandemic has led to a larger than normal turnover, with some seven teachers and staff retiring at the end of a challenging school year. The administration spent the summer sifting through hundreds of applications. The hiring process was still ongoing two weeks before the start of school. The new hires will be introduced to the community at the September Board of Education meeting, he said. Among the new hires is also an IT manager, Anthony Billings, who comes to Woodbridge from the New Haven school system.
At this point each student in Grades 2 to 6 has an individual Ipad; the kindergarten and first grades have a set in each classroom to facilitate small group activities, Dr. Budd said. Even so, at the height of virtual learning, the district made sure that every student had access to a device at home.
Throughout the summer the administrative team had looked at the classrooms and how to accommodate the influx of students. “Luckily, many (classrooms) are large enough,” Dr. Budd said. “We’re going to fit them all in.”
Their primary goal for the next months is to re-integrate the students who have been away from the classroom, and to identify those who need extra support. Grant moneys were available to offer summer programs called Summer Academy, which were very successful, both in number of attendance and which showed strong results, Dr. Budd said.
Going forward, the math and language arts specialists who were deployed last year as classroom teachers to cover for those who were teaching virtually, are now back in their roles supporting the classroom teachers.
Literacy specialist Teresa Nakouzi, for example, last year was assigned to a Kindergarten class. Nakouzi had worked as a classroom teacher for 16 years until she became a literacy specialist for the last nine years. Teaching kindergarten during a pandemic had its own challenges, she said.
The kids came to her with no experience of what “school” means, no understanding of a classroom. They had their supplies in laundry baskets under their desk. Teaching phonics through a mask to a 5-year-old who is maybe six, maybe 12 feet away required patience on both sides; desk shields created a physical barrier between teacher and student and could make it more challenging to keep their attention.
Ms. Nakouzi remembered former School Supt. Dr. Guy Stella saying “we built the plane while we were flying it.” “That was true then and it is true now,” she said. Key is to stay positive and proactive, she said, and to work collaboratively. She said without the help and understanding of her teachers’ aides, her colleagues and the support of the administration the year could have gone much worse.
Math intervention teacher Kim Franklin said she hears from some parents who would prefer to continue distance learning from home. That particular learning model is not an option this year, per state Department of Education. She did not know whether more parents had signed up to homeschool.
Should kids be required to quarantine, teachers will have to revert to “blended teaching” – managing the in-person classroom while also following students on the screen. “We are doing the best we can, given the circumstances,” Franklin said.
Lunch will still be eaten in the classroom, although the kids will be able to move through the hallways to the cafeteria and pick it up. As long as the weather cooperates, classes may eat outside. A federal program continues to pay for the hot lunch program, so families are encouraged to take advantage of it. The better the participation rate, the better the reimbursement rate.
On the buses, students will be masked and sit at assigned seats – a requirement that will make it easier to contact trace, should there be a student testing positive for Covid 19, said Beth Cohen of B&B Transportation. “Last year we had very few cases [of Covid 19],” Cohen said., adding ,“We’re just hoping the new year is going to be a great ride.”
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent
Pictured: Third Grade Classroom at Beecher Road School