'No easy answers:' Trumbull plans increased school reopening

Students file out of Frenchtown Elementary School in Trumbull on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. Students up to second grade will return to school four days a week beginning Oct. 19.

Students file out of Frenchtown Elementary School in Trumbull on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. Students up to second grade will return to school four days a week beginning Oct. 19.

File photo

TRUMBULL — New Superintendent of Schools Martin Semmel receives the emails every day from parents. Most of them are friendly and polite, he said. But the writers quickly get down to business.

“Generally, they are very nice,” he said. “Welcome to the district. Now when are we going to get to reopening?”

Semmel delivered some good news for many of those parents Tuesday, telling the Board of Education at its meeting that the district’s youngest children will double their in-person instructional time effective Oct. 19.

“Obviously this is a hot topic,” he told board members. “There are no easy answers and they all come with additional questions. But in the end, our responsibility is to provide the best possible education and do so in a safe manner.”

Semmel said he was committed to following the state health data and the state guidelines currently say that schools can reopen. Toward that end, the schools formed a committee to discuss potential challenges to full reopening.

Currently all schools operate on a hybrid model, with students divided into two cohorts, each attending school two days a week and taking classes remotely the other three days.

Teachers, who are in school five days a week, teach students in person and remotely. Semmel acknowledged the staff had concerns about increasing the number of students in the building.

“Teachers weren’t jumping up and down about reopening,” he said. “There is plenty of anxiety. Still, we need to keep in mind this is a health issue.”

With the health data supporting reopening, Semmel said students up to second grade would begin attending school in person on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

Parents will retain the option to keep their children in remote learning, he added.

Making the change to four-day in-person learning required some changes, Semmel said. Some furniture had been removed from classrooms to give more space to maintain minimum distancing, he said.

Despite eliminating the split cohorts in the lowest grades, maintaining distance does not figure to be a problem since class sizes in these grades is lower than in the older grades, and the parents who have had their children remote learning five days a week likely will continue to do so, Semmel said.

“Parents choose remote learning for various reasons,” he said. “I don’t imagine going back for four days would have them change their mind.”

The combination of small class sizes and students opted into remote learning means that a class with 20 students enrolled would still only have about 12-15 students physically in the classroom, he said.

Also principals are reviewing lunch policies to determine the best way to keep students socially distanced while they eat.

In response to a question from board member Michael Ward, Semmel said the decision to have the students eat lunch in the cafeteria or the classroom would rest with individual principals.

“Based on design of school, it may be better to keep them in classrooms,” he said.

Appropriate spacing was especially important at lunch time, he said, because students remove their masks to have lunch.

Future expansion

Presuming the expanded in-person learning goes smoothly, Semmel said the administration would begin preparing to bring back more students. Grades 3-5 would be the next to return, and then it would be time to start planning the middle school and high school return.

“We will continue with (COVID-19) practices and procedures with more kids in the building,” he said. “If all is going well, we should be preparing to bring back more students.”

Trumbull High School, with its 2,100-student enrollment and student population that attends different classes all over the building in varied groups, would be especially challenging, he said. But the challenge could be overcome with planning.

Semmel concluded his presentation saying he believes there is a path toward a return to a full five day instructional week. And the first step, he said, was getting the youngest students back into the same room as their teachers.

“It really is important that we bring our youngest students back as soon as possible,” he said. “I’m excited about it. I know there will be some anxiety, but I’m confident we can bring back our K-2 students.”