Mixed emotions as school year begins

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By Elio Gugliotti and Andreas Yilma, Staff

Naugatuck, Region 16 students return to classroom for first time since March

Kailby Schommer, an intern at Prospect Elementary School and student at Sacred Heart University, leads a group of students into the school Sept. 1, which was the first day in Region 16. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

The first day of school can elicit a range of emotions in a normal year. Throw COVID-19 into the mix, and the first day of the 2020-21 school year in Naugatuck and Region 16 was uncharted waters.

“It’s obviously mixed emotions because you want all the kids to be safe but you also keep in mind about the faculty and their safety, as well,” said Naugatuck resident Jason Bashaw as he and his wife, Ileana Bashaw, dropped off their daughter, Avery, for her first day of second grade at Salem Elementary School Sept. 2. “It’s basically making sure everyone is safe and they’re OK. That’s the biggest concern.”

For the first time since schools closed in March, Naugatuck and Region 16 students were physically back in classrooms this week. Naugatuck kicked off the school year Sept. 2, a day after Region 16 students returned to school in Beacon Falls and Prospect.

“I’m very excited about returning to school with the teachers and with the students,” said Prospect Elementary School Principal Rima McGeehan as she waited the arrival of students Sept. 1. “I think that everybody’s been waiting for months to reconnect.”

Salem Elementary School Principal Kristine Murphy-Salvucci shared McGeehan’s enthusiasm.

“I’m really excited just to get kids back into the building or virtually,” Murphy-Salvucci said. “We’ve got a lot of great teachers ready to go virtually today (Sept. 2) and the staff here.”

Justin and Katelin Decapua of Prospect were feeling excited as well as a bit anxious after they dropped their son, Gryphon, off at Prospect Elementary for his first day of kindergarten.

Elizabeth Zuraitis of Naugatuck drops off her daughter, Mabel Kalosky, at Salem Elementary School in Naugatuck for her first day of first grade Sept. 2, which was the first day of school in Naugatuck. –ANDREAS YILMA

“A little nervous, obviously because of COVID, but the school seems to be really organized, and taking precautions and making everybody feel a little more at ease,” Katelin Decapua said.

“I think it’s going to be great, with a little luck we’ll get over it and we’ll get back to normal,” Justin Decapua said.

THE NEW NORMAL — at least for the time being — in Naugatuck and Region 16 is a hybrid model of education that blends in-person instruction and remote virtual learning for students.

Naugatuck and Region 16 are following similar models. High school and middle school students are divided into two groups. Students are attending school in-person two days a week and distance learning at the home the other days.

Naugatuck students in grades K-6 are going to school Monday through Friday, while elementary school students in Region 16 are distance learning on Wednesdays and in the classroom the other weekdays.

Last week was all half-days for Region 16 and Naugatuck students. Through Oct. 2, the plan is for Naugatuck students to attend school in person following an early-dismissal schedule and remote learn in the afternoons.

“I think with everything, we have to go with the flow. We have to see how things work out. I’m really not as comfortable with it, but we just need to see how this works,” said Angela Bennett, whose son, Reign, is in kindergarten at Salem Elementary.

Marta Czekaj of Prospect drops off her daughter, Liliana, for her first day of second grade at Prospect Elementary School Sept. 1. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

FAMILIES HAVE THE OPTION to keep their children home and do distance learning full time.

Naugatuck Superintendent of Schools Christopher Montini said 1,297 students, about 30% of the district’s 4,262 students, opted for full remote learning. Thirty-three teachers asked for a distance-learning accommodation, Montini said. The Board of Education was able to accommodate 21 of the requests for virtual teaching, he said.

In Region 16, 170 students, about 8% of the roughly 2,100 students enrolled, opted to stay home, Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said. He said two teachers had asked for accommodations as of last week. One is exempt from duties, he said, and officials were in conversations still last week with the second teacher.

For parents who spoke with the Citizen’s News last week, the decision to send their children back to school came down to a couple reasons — the desire for their children to socialize with their peers and the ability to juggle work and the role of teacher.

“They still need to interact with other kids. Being home all the time, it’s not good for them,” Ileana Bashaw said.

Jason Bashaw agreed.

“They have to have some form of social interaction to feel normal and kids need that more than anybody,” he said. “Kids go more stir-crazy than adults do when they’re sitting at home. They definitely need it.”

Salem Elementary School Principal Kristine Murphy-Salvucci greets students as they get off a school bus at the school in Naugatuck Sept. 2. –ANDREAS YILMA

Katelin Decapua said it’s important for Gryphon to see his friends.

“The whole thing for kindergarten is to be able to be with your peers, in a safe manner,” Katelin Decapua said.

Bennett said she works full time.

“Unfortunately, I work 40 hours a week. No one is going to be there with him. He has to go to school,” Bennett said. “I miss him having the experience socializing with friends and teachers and different things like that. He doesn’t get that experience at home. Here is better for him.”

Naugatuck resident Elizabeth Zuraitis said it was a little nerve-racking as she dropped off her daughter, Mabel Kalosky, for her first day of first grade at Salem Elementary last week. But, she said, she’s basically raised her alone and really had no other options.

“I think she’ll do better here with a teacher because I really don’t have time to teach her at home,” Zuraitis said.

SCHOOLS ARE FOLLOWING GUIDELINES meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including wearing face masks, keeping students in cohorts as much as possible, and practicing social distance.

McGeehan said the priority for the first day was safety and going over the new guidelines.

“The big thing for today (Sept. 1) is that students leave here safe and happy and comfortable, and that teachers do, too,” she said.

McGeehan, who is a member of the region’s reopening committee, said she’s confident in the plan officials have put in place.

Ginny Ligi walks with her son, Liam, 7, right, a second-grader at Prospect Elementary School, and daughter, Brooklyn, 3, at the school Sept. 1, which was the first day in Region 16. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Region 16 Board of Education Vice Chairman Robert Hiscox said he’s optimistic about the school year. He said staff did an excellent job putting together and implementing the reopening plan.

“The staff really needs to be commended for stepping up,” he said.

Hiscox added there is always a concern that a student or staff member may become infected with COVID-19.

“We’re hoping that we don’t have to close down any classrooms or any buildings and it runs smoothly,” he said. “It is what it is sometimes, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. We’ve got our fingers crossed.”

Region 16’s plan instilled confidence in Prospect resident Ginny Ligi, whose son, Liam, started second grade last week at Prospect Elementary.

“I feel like the district did a real good job of preparing all the parents and the students, so I think it’s going to be fine. I’m not really too concerned,” she said.

Naugatuck Board of Education Chair Jeff Litke expressed confidence in the borough’s plan and excitement to have children back in school.

“The plan was developed with input from various stakeholders and is aimed at providing the best education possible while keeping our students, faculty, staff and community safe and healthy,” Litke said.

Salem Elementary School Principal Kristine Murphy-Salvucci, left, and paraeducators Christine Winslow, back, and Kelly Guimaraes, right, help students off a school bus into the school in Naugatuck Sept. 2. –ANDREAS YILMA

IN A SEPT. 2 LETTER TO PARENTS AND STAFF, Yamin said there hadn’t been an identified COVID case through the first two days. He said two students were asked to stay home before the first day and had to be tested before coming to school.

Yamin said in the letter the number of parents picking up and dropping off their children was causing traffic issues.

“My feeling is if this is at the highlight of our concerns we are doing just fine under the circumstances,” he wrote.

Montini said the first two days of school went great and there weren’t any major issues, except for dismissals taking longer than usual.

“It was so good to see our students, teachers and staff back in our buildings ready for a new year,” Montini said. “After what was a long break from in-person learning for students, feelings of anxiousness and nervousness quickly gave way to the excitement and joy of getting back to school.”