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As school year nears, no normal in sight

It is painfully clear that public education will not remotely return to anything resembling normal until a reliable vaccine has been developed, made widely available and is broadly used to suppress the COVID-19 virus.

It is difficult to calculate the damage that is being done to long-term learning for the students deprived since March of a traditional classroom education. For many it will be profound. And it is the students in the lowest-performing districts who are being hurt the most, the achievement gap between them and their counterparts in the adjoining suburbs growing.

This explains the desperate attempts by Gov. Ned Lamont and Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona to try to bring as many as children as possible back to school this fall. It was a lofty aspiration we shared.

“We want districts to plan for all students returning in the fall,” said Cardona back on June 25. “Districts should plan to operate as close to capacity, with heightened safety protocols.”

But on Friday, school districts across Connecticut submitted their plans to state education officials, as required, and the formidable challenges became clear. Unions representing teachers have expressed deep concerns about exposure to the virus, which has killed or contributed to the deaths of 148,000 Americans.

On Monday, Lamont changed his demeanor, no longer stressing returning as many students as possible but instead a willingness to give school districts flexibility to mix in-school instruction and online classes as they see necessary to balance safety and education.

Parents will have the option to keep their children home, whatever a district decides. The governor has been consistent on that point.

Flexibility is the only reasonable choice. A strongarm attempt to force children back into schools, being seen in other states, could be disastrous if the pandemic again spikes. Evidence suggests younger children are less vulnerable than their older counterparts, which could factor into the policy decisions about who goes back, who doesn’t, and how often.

Whether it is in schools — with children masked all day (talk about challenges), the focus of teachers distracted from education to maintaining epidemic protocols, and all manner of routines disrupted — or it is at home — with parents balancing work demands and trying to keep their kids focused — few students will be learning as well as they would in normal times.

While it is unclear how many students will be expected to continue to learn remotely, school districts have to do a better job of it than was the case last school year, when plans had to be developed on the fly to deal with an unprecedented long-term shutdown.

A state survey of local school districts found 137,000 children participated only minimally in remote learning, at times going more than a week without contact, or did not take part at all. That is about one in four students.

Students in the 10 lowest-performing districts, which includes New London and Norwich, were more than five times less likely to have a device, or adequate device, to learn remotely; three times less likely to have internet access; and 2.5 times more likely to have obstacles at home making remote learning difficult, such as no quiet place to study. 

In these struggling, economically and fiscally disadvantaged urban districts, about 48% of students regularly took part in distance learning, while about 1 in 10 did not participate at all, the state review found.

In the suburbs, the participation rate was 84%, with only 1 in 50 not taking part at all.

Indicative of the gap were some local remote learning participation rates — New London 56% and Norwich, which worked aggressively to provide students with necessary technology, 67%; while Waterford saw participation of 95% and East Lyme 90%.

Tuesday afternoon Lamont announced the "Everybody Learns" initiative: a $43.5 million investment in remote learning to close the digital divide. That's welcomed news and we look foward to evaluating the details.

Educating during a pandemic is expensive, with school systems telling the state they collectively expect to spend $420 million more for protective equipment, cleaning supplies, protective barriers, technology upgrades, and increased staffing to provide both distance and in-school learning.

Norwich expects spending $11.2 million more; New London, $3 million; Groton, $3.6 million; Stonington, $4.1 million; Waterford, $3 million; and Montville, $2.25 million.

For now, the struggle must focus on getting through this, minimizing the educational damage and reaching those students who are falling further behind. Post-pandemic, educators will have to recognize that many students will not be ready to just pick up and move on. They will have to catch up. In other words, the educational sickness caused by the pandemic will continue long after it subsides.

This editorial was updated to reflect breaking news from the governor's office.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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