MILFORD, CT — Milford Superintendent of Schools Anna Cutaia was beaming as she spoke about being reunited with students after nearly six months apart due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Cutaia addressed the beginning of the school year while at Pumpkin Delight Elementary School and despite the heavy downpours and gloomy weather she was beaming.
"It was an emotional and social reunion of our staff and students," Cutaia said. "It filled our hearts and souls. It is exactly what we needed after six months of not seeing one another."
She added that she and staffers "missed our kiddos." "It was a brilliant reunion of what Milford is all about," Cutaia added.
On Tuesday, Sept. 8, 82 percent of the district's approximately 5,500 pupils returned to the classroom after being kept home since mid March due to the coronavirus pandemic. That means 18 percent of the district's students have opted for distance learning.
So how has it gone?
Cutaia said her team of administrators spent months preparing for the start of school and doing everything they can to ensure everyone's safety. They installed Plexiglass, secured PPE and striped hallways for students.
She said so far so good concerning the start of the new and unusual school year. She said there have been long car lines as staffers ensure the student drop-offs and pickups are being conducted according to social-distancing standards. She thanked parents for their patience and conceded there have been some delays.
Ridership on buses is around 55 to 60 percent capacity as more parents are driving their children to school.
Class size at the elementary and middle school level is now down to 16 to 18 pupils per classroom and at the high school level it is 25 to 30 students. All of this is done to ensure social-distancing standards are met, Cutaia said.
Students wear masks and there is Plexiglas surrounding the teacher's desk. Teachers also travel to students now. Cutaia said the goal is to keep students in the same cohort so if there is a positive test it will make contact tracing easier.
Lunch is also different during a pandemic. Students don't eat in big groups in the cafeteria. Instead, they eat at their desks.
Despite all the necessary changes, Cutaia said the culture and climate of the classrooms is so inviting.
"I didn't know we could even get more welcoming," Cutaia said.
She visited 10 schools on Tuesday and the remaining four on Thursday. Wednesdays are a day for distance learning.
What if there is a positive case?
Cutaia said if a student or staff member tests positive then school officials will consult with the Milford Health Department on what action to take. She said a lot goes into what decision will be made.
She said it is possible, depending on the circumstance, that a school could be closed if there is a positive test or a group of students or even a grade could be kept home. She said every situation will present its own unique challenges.
What about the students at home?
Cutaia said if a student has chosen to learn at home they will have access to a live-stream to see lessons and hear from the teacher first-hand.
Are snow days over?
Cutaia said because Connecticut is under an emergency order students can shift to distance learning easily if there is a reason to cancel school. But once the emergency order is lifted the state education department would need to amend its regulations. When Connecticut is not under an emergency order students are mandated to meet the minimum number of school days in-person and distance learning wouldn't count.
Conceivably that could change once the pandemic ends.
"The notion of a snow day will be challenged in the future," Cutaia said.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the need to hire more custodians as schools are disinfected on weekends and nights and more staff is needed due to the small class size. The district is also in need of more substitute teachers, and they are paid $100 a day.