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Details of school reopening plan during coronavirus pandemic: small groups, 6 feet between desks, masks all day, no more concerts

Bristol schools Superintendent Sue Moreau, left, helping direct freshman Haley Wells to a classroom at Bristol Eastern High School on the first day of school this year.
Bristol schools Superintendent Sue Moreau, left, helping direct freshman Haley Wells to a classroom at Bristol Eastern High School on the first day of school this year.

Connecticut officials are asking that schools prepare a plan to return to classrooms that includes 6 feet between desks, small groups of students for as many grades as possible and a long list of other safety requirements to stem the spread of COVID-19 this fall.

Schools this fall will look and feel different under the new guidelines, with one-way traffic patterns, music classes where students perform 12-feet apart and masks, all the time.

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Last week, Gov. Ned Lamont and education commissioner Miguel Cardona announced that school districts must prepare to return to the classroom in the fall, but provided few details on how that would work. On Monday, they released a 50 page plan that details their recommendations for classroom set ups, transportation, cohorts, building maintenance and containment plans.

“Anything that gets kids back in the classroom is a plus,” Lamont said.

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Every school district in Connecticut is required to develop a plan for reopening that adheres to the state’s guidelines by July 24. Each district has discretion as to how they want to meet the guidelines, officials said.

“Local leaders know their communities best,” Cardona said. “Local boards know their schools best.”

Districts are required to develop plans for in-person learning, a hybrid virtual model and a full distance learning plan in order to be flexible and responsive to a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Connecticut.

Leaders of the state’s two teacher unions, Connecticut Education Association (CEA) President Jeff Leake and AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel, called the plan “incomplete at best.”

“The lack of equity in this guideline is astounding. The reality is that some districts have adequate resources for the kind of plan outlined here, those in high-need communities do not.”

In the classroom

The plan also recommends maintaining six feet between workstations and ensuring that desks and students all face the same direction in the classroom so that students aren’t face to face throughout the day. Students, teachers and staff will all be required to wear masks throughout the day.

According to the guidelines, districts needs to plan for parents and students who chose not to return in the fall and want to pursue virtual learning instead. The guidelines recommend that teachers work with and support students who might not be comfortable or able to return to the classroom. Cardona said guidelines are still being worked out for how districts should handle families that opt not to return to school.

Districts are also asked to split students up into smaller groups known as cohorts that stay together through the day and are assigned a group of teachers to work with regularly. Cohorting is seen as an effective strategy for kindergarten through 8th graders, Lamont said, and should be implemented where possible for high school classes as well.

“How far apart your desks are is secondary to wearing a mask and cohorting,” Lamont said.

Lamont said that cohorting will also be useful because if an infection breaks out, it’s possible schools could send home just a group of students because other classrooms might not be affected.

“We can just quarantine the class and not the whole school if a case is found,” he said.

Districts are also required to come up with a plan to restrict interactions between groups of students and contact trace within the school in the event there is an infection identified.

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Gym, art, sports and extracurriculars

Districts must also plan for physical education classses tailored to social distancing. The state suggested focusing on activities that are teacher lead, but completed independently like tai chi, taekwondo`1, step aerobics, yoga, dance and others.

Water fountains won’t be sanitary to use within schools so students should bring their own water bottles to class and not share with classmates, the guidance said.

When using the playgrounds during recess or gym, the state is requiring that districts come up with a plan for sanitizing equipment or requiring students to wash their hands before and after using the equipment.

As for art classes, the state recommends that students have their own art supplies instead of sharing.

Music classes present a bigger challenge and schools are being asked to split students into smaller groups throughout the day for instruction. Students will be asked to maintain 12 feet of distance when singing or playing wind instruments — two activities for which transmission of the virus is more risky.

“Maintain proper spacing of at least 12 feet when students are singing or performing wind instruments by scheduling large ensembles in auditoriums, outdoors, cafeterias, gyms or other large spaces,” the guidance said. “Focus on maximizing distancing for instruments that require blowing or for singing, compared with string and percussion instruments. Schedule large ensembles into smaller groups throughout the day. Shift curriculum focus to solo and small ensemble work. Shift from a concert format to a recital format. Create virtual performance experiences and assessments.”

In the rest of the building

The plan asks schools to install traffic patterns to keep hallways safe for travel just as grocery stores have designated one way aisles to minimize contact between shoppers. The guidance also suggests that cohorts use the same entrance and exit every day.

Schools will also need designated a health room and an isolation room in case any students or staff begin to show symptoms at school. According to the plan, if a student develops COVID-19 like symptoms they will be placed in the isolation room until a parent or guardian is able to pick them up.

The reopening plan also stipulates that all buildings be inspected to make sure they are properly ventilated. The installation of no touch trash cans, doors and bathroom fixtures is also encouraged. The state recommends that if that is not possible, doors should be propped open when safe and trash can lids should be removed.

The guidance encourages class to be held outside as often as possible and for school windows to be opened to increase ventilation.

On the school bus

All students will be required to wear a mask on the bus and buses will be loaded from back to front to prevent unnecessary interactions between students.

“Buses will need to operate up to full capacity,” the guidance says.

Districts should determine how many students will be using buses and how many parents will be transporting them to school independently. Depending on the need, the state advises that schools stagger arrival and drop off times.

Kathleen McWilliams can be reached at kmcwilliams@courant.com.

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