By Andreas Yilma and Elio Gugliotti, Staff
Naugatuck and Region 16 schools welcomed students back to classrooms this week for what officials hope will be the first full year of in-person learning since the 2018-19 school year.
“I think we’re going to have an excellent year. We’re excited,” said Naugatuck Superintendent of Schools Christopher Montini as he welcomed students for the first day Sept. 1 at Salem Elementary School. “While it’s not a full return to normal, we’re getting there, and hopefully the (COVID) numbers will decrease and we’ll continue to move toward a more normal year.”
Montini said students do much better in person as opposed to virtual learning, and the staff is thrilled to welcome them back.
“We exist for students and when the students come we’re made whole again,” Montini said. “We worked hard all summer preparing.”
All schools in the state closed and switched to full virtual learning at home in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Connecticut. Most schools, including in Naugatuck and Region 16, followed a hybrid model that had some students in school while others distance learned at home last school year. Naugatuck and Region 16, like most districts, also offered an option for families to choose distance learning for the entire year.
Distance learning is not an option for families this school year. Officials are focused on keeping all students in class full time, while following health protocols and state mandates and guidelines.
“I feel like we are entirely prepared in regards to the guidelines we are following, as reasonably as we possibly can,” said Prospect Elementary School principal Rima McGeehan on Aug. 30, the first day of school in Region 16.
“A lot of the things that we have in place are things that have been improved because we learned a lot things through the pandemic last year, and we are excited. We’re ready,” McGeehan added.
McGeehan pointed to tremendous growth students and teachers have made using technology. She said the district is much more prepared for virtual learning, if schools need to use it this year.
Under state mandate, all students and staff have to wear face masks in schools and on school buses through at least Sept. 30, unless they have an exemption. Extracurricular activities, like sports and clubs, are good to go. Students that participate in indoor activities, including indoor sports, are required to wear masks. Masks don’t have to be worn outside.
While distance learning is not an option, Naugatuck and Region 16 are prepared to offer some virtual learning for students who are forced to quarantine and make the switch to full remote learning if the state closes schools.
In Naugatuck, the district is also offering a voluntary COVID-19 testing program for asymptomatic K-6 students. Parents will need to consent to the weekly tests.
The first day of school elicited mixed emotions for some parents.
Prospect residents Bill Sparano and Jackie McGuire were at Prospect Elementary on Aug. 30 to capture the moment their daughter, Irelyn, got off the bus for her first day of kindergarten.
“Excited and nervous at the same time,” Sparano said about his emotions “We followed the bus to make sure she got off OK. Very excited to have her spread her little wings and start her life.”
Sparano said Irelyn was a bit nervous when she first got on the bus, but was more relaxed when she got off and marched right into the school.
“She’s definitely excited to get started. She talked about it all week,” he said.
Sparano said it’s unfortunate the kids have to wear masks and can’t see each other’s faces. McGuire noted the kids brought in photos of themselves to show their smiling faces. They said they’ll do what they have to do until the state gets through the pandemic.
Many parents walked their children to Salem Elementary for their first day Sept. 1 as light rain fell.
Karinne Varroso said her daughter, Eliza, distance learned all last year at Maloney Elementary School in Waterbury. While Varroso was a little anxious about her daughter returning to a classroom for second grade at Salem Elementary, she said Eliza was excited and it’s been a long time since she was able to be around friends all the time.
Varroso said her daughter doesn’t mind wearing a mask.
“She likes to wear the mask. It’s not something that is really a hard thing to do,” Varroso said. “It’s just to get used to. I don’t think it will be a big thing.”
Jason Bashaw, who brought his daughter, Avery, to Salem Elementary for her first day of third grade, said the first day is a nervous and exciting one for children.
“I think it’s going to be great as it usually is for most of the kids,” he said.
Bashaw said he thinks there needs to be more freedom for students when it comes to mask wearing because children need to feel more normal.
“By forcing kids to wear masks, it’s not making them feel normal,” Bashaw said. “It’s making them feel like something is desperately wrong when that’s not the idea you want to put in little kids’ minds. You want them to live normal lives and act like kids.”