Fairfield parents spar with school board on reopening
FAIRFIELD — Parents and students turned to the school board this week looking for answers where, in some cases, there were none.
Wednesday’s virtual town hall had more than 70 people in attendance and was contentious at some points throughout the three hours.
Parents, students and the board discussed everything from ventilation in the school buildings to what school would look like after the pandemic, to whether a policy mandating students keep their cameras on at all times during virtual class violated their privacy.
But one of the main questions at the forefront of parents’ minds is one that has been a standard of the discourse surrounding schools for months: when can students return to full-time, in person classes?
“What is the actual plan?” said Chris Benedetto, a parent. “What do we need to do in order to get the ball rolling towards full-time?”
Benedetto said it was not about going back immediately, but wanting to know there is a clear plan and set date to return to school. He said the hybrid system is not working for his son.
“My son is a (special education) student,” he said. “I can tell you right now that he comes home, checks off all the boxes he possibly can and he taps out. He’s on YouTube. My wife and I both work. We can’t be all over him every second of the day.”
Benedetto said he doesn’t blame his son’s teachers for that, but is worried his son isn’t learning.
He pointed out the pandemic has been going on since March and questioned how surrounding districts, such as Norwalk, have been fully in person, but Fairfield is not.
“We are known for our education system,” he said. “To me, this is the biggest embarrassment I have ever experienced as a resident of Fairfield — that we’re so unprepared. We should be in school. This is destroying our children — not only academically, but also emotionally and mentally.”
Board member Jennifer Jaconsen said while a lot of members of the community feel there has not been a plan, that is not the case.
“There is a reopening plan,” she said, adding the reopening committee has been updating the original plan.
Jacobsen said the most recent iteration of that plan has been posted online, laying out the technological, logistical, safety and training needs the district needs to acquire or do in order to reopen. She said the supplies have been ordered and the majority of it has been delivered, with some things on back order.
A solid date for reopening is not as simple though because of other factors, she said.
Chairwoman Christine Vitale said each district is different, and health and safety needs to be a priority. She said the school system knows more now than it did at the beginning of the semester.
“Cases have popped up here and there, but we have not seen the virus transmitting in the classroom,” Vitale said, adding that other districts have had to close schools when a student or staff member tests positive. “That is very good news. That is why we are still in hybrid right now, and not talking about going full remote — and still discussing ways of bringing kids back into school more.”
If the number of cases were lower, Vitale said, schools could have opened on Nov. 9.
Parents challenged that the schools should have opened in September when there were fewer cases.
“I’d like to understand or, at least, learn from what happened when we could have gone back to school in September,” said Amy Ruggiero, one of the organizers of a recent rally to reopen schools. “How do we keep from making that mistake again when the numbers go down?”
A single mom, Ruggiero said the plan to send elementary school students back to full-time, in-person on Nov. 9 and 12 was “taken from us.” She said the uncertainty surrounding plans for school has been stressful and the division among the community and school officials on whether to return fully in person has been frustrating.
“I feel like we’re falling behind other towns and private schools,” Ruggiero said. “At this point, if there’s no findings, or you can’t give us any color on when we’re returning, then just tell us so that I can consider moving or putting my son in private school or making other sacrifices.”
School board member Jeff Peterson said he would have preferred to go back to school in September, but understood the administration’s desire to take measured steps toward going full-time. He said the board and administration are watching the health data very carefully to decide when to reopen and they’re continually learning more about how coronavirus spreads.
“We don’t know where the health data will go,” he said. “The health data has to be the bottom line driver of a lot of our decisions.”
Not all who spoke were critical of the board and district.
Dr. Henry Yoon, who serves as the chair of the Fairfield Board of Health as well as the school medical adviser for Stamford public schools and department of health, explained their decision making by comparing it to calling a school snow day.
Deciding whether to close schools, he said, is not a simple decision — a district’s administration has to consider many factors.
“Now I’m going to ask everyone to think about trying to make that decision if you’ve never seen snow or if you never knew what snow was or it was the first time you’ve ever experienced it,” Yoon said. “And you don’t know how long it’s going to snow. You don’t know how much it’s going to snow.”
Colleen Sousa, a teacher with a child attending Holland Hill Elementary School, said there is a large number of parents for whom hybrid learning is working at the elementary level.
“I just don’t feel like we hear that enough. There’s a lot of loud voices complaining,” she said, going on to thank the board for keeping the health and safety of students and staff in mind.
Board member Bonnie Rotelli, who has been open during meetings about her desire to get students back to school, said it is not just a small group of loud parents complaining about wanting to go back to school.
“There are a large group of parents who are asking for help, and sometimes begging for help,” she said.