Naugatuck, Region 16 schools to stay with hybrid models for now

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By Andreas Yilma and Elio Gugliotti, Citizen’s News

Emphasizing the importance of in-person classes for students, Naugatuck and Region 16 school officials plan to stick with their hybrid education models for as long they can as some local districts transitioned to full remote learning through the holiday season.

Schools in Waterbury, Seymour and Region 14, which is composed of Bethlehem and Woodbury, were among the school districts in the state this month to switch to full distance learning at home until Jan. 19 as COVID-19 cases surge. The Jan. 19 target date to return to in-person classes allows more than two weeks after the traditional large holiday gatherings. COVID-19 symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Naugatuck and Region 16, which is composed of Beacon Falls and Prospect, plan to stick with their hybrid models, which blend in-person classes with virtual learning. Though the thought of going full virtual has crossed officials’ minds.

“We consider it every day,” Region 16 Superintendent Michael Yamin said.

Yamin said last week officials felt the cases within the district were manageable, but they review circumstances and health data daily.

In a Nov. 20 letter to the school community, Yamin wrote there have been 19 positive cases among students, including two full distance learners, and 12 cases among staff members. He said over 200 students and 40 staff members have had to quarantine at some point this school year due to contact tracing and other state requirements.

“It appears that students who have been required to quarantine are not coming back positive which in turn reflects the opinion that our schools do not appear to transmitting the spread of COVID,” he wrote.

Yamin said the district would close individual schools first before moving the entire district to distance learning. Since the school year started in September, there have been prolonged closures of Long River Middle School and Prospect Elementary School.

In his letter, Yamin wrote there was “no overwhelming evidence” for Region 16 to switch to full remote learning.

During the Region 16 Board of Education’s Nov. 18 meeting, Yamin said the region should be prepared, though, to go to full remote.

“We do believe in in-person learning and we will continue for as long as we can,” he said. “But with staffing, college kids coming home and the activities during the holidays it may be something that becomes a reality.”

During the Naugatuck Board of Education’s Nov. 12 meeting, Superintendent Christopher Montini said the increased spread of coronavirus wasn’t the only reason some districts chose to transition to full remote learning. He said some switched due to a shortage of teachers and staff for in-person classes.

“What ends up happening with the strict quarantine rules, and I do believe that the quarantining rules work, but in a lot of communities they can’t staff and they can’t find subs and they’re forced, giving the number of people quarantining, to change learning models,” Montini said.

Montini said officials will continually evaluate health metrics to determine if the district needs to change to full remote learning.

“At this time, we are able to offer in-person learning to our students because we have been able to mitigate the spread of the virus within our schools by having good adherence to mask wearing, enforcing social distancing in our schools and keeping our facilities clean,” Naugatuck Board of Education Chairman Jeffrey Litke said. “We continue to closely monitor community COVID-19 data including its impact on human resources and our ability to safely staff our schools. In the event that this changes, we would certainly consider going fully remote. Our priority is always the health and safety of our students, staff and community.”

The district switched Naugatuck High School to all virtual classes Nov. 17 due to positive tests among members of the school community. In-person classes are expected to resume Dec. 1.

If Naugatuck and Region 16 continue with in-person classes through the winter, snow days will be replaced by virtual learning, at least at first.

The state Board of Education ruled that Connecticut schools could choose to conduct online classes in the event schools are canceled due to weather conditions. Schools also were given the option to cancel classes altogether and make the day up later in the school year.

“You can turn snow days into remote learning days, so long as you abide by the guidelines surrounding remote learning days,” Montini said.

Montini said the district will try virtual learning on snow days and determine whether to continue based on how many students participate online.

“If the engagement data tells us that too many kids aren’t accessing the learning, then we go ahead and we would just make it up at the end of the year,” Montini said.

In Region 16, the first five snow days will be virtual learning days, Yamin said.

Yamin said officials will reevaluate it after the first five snow days, if there are that many. He said officials don’t want students to miss too much in-person instruction.

“I think it’s a good start,” he said.

The Republican-American contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Naugatuck Board of Education Chairman Jeffrey Litke.