BETHEL, CT — When Gov. Ned Lamont held out Bethel’s example as the gold standard for how to reopen schools during a global pandemic, Superintendent Christine Carver was flattered, but not all that surprised. She had begun work on the schools’ reopening strategy before they had even closed in the spring.
Bethel’s “pandemic planning” for the fall school year began in the spring, right around the time the schools sent students home for online-only classes. Laura Vasile, the town’s public health director, made a point of including Carver on those early calls with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and as a result the superintendent developed an early appreciation for what she could be up against during the fall reopening.
Carver says she didn’t wait for the guidelines from the state on how to reopen which were first issued at the very end of June, she began making plans immediately. It helped that she is also on the Executive Board of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, which provided her additional insight.
“What we wanted to do was ensure we’d have a plan ready to go out to parents that aligned with the state guidance, so that they could do their own planning and make decisions on a personal basis,” and so she aimed early on to get that info intp parents’ hands by July.
Caver said she also started promptly to acquire personal protective equipment, as well as sanitation and disinfection gear.
The big score, however, came in the form of laptops. Knowing back in June that distance learning was a strong possibility, Carver’s team set about acquiring all the tech they might need. That included Chromebooks, which at this point have become as difficult to find as El Dorado, but Carver was able to acquire all the district needed in the early summer.
“We really felt confident we were able to implement all the mitigation strategies within the plan so that our students and staff can be safe,” she told Patch.
Bethel also ran a successful summer program with about 50 kids, in addition to athletic and music programs. That enabled the public schools to bring students back into the flow slowly and re-acclimate them to the schools’ mitigation strategies.
Schools opened the last week of August with a hybrid attendance model designed to last for a very limited time before moving over to full attendance, “just to get everyone acclimated,” Carver said. The plan calls for a two-week period in the elementary schools, and three weeks of hybrid learning in middle school.
It’s much harder to “do all the cohorting and social distancing” in high schools, due to their nature, “so we want to give them a little more time,” Carver said. She projects the Bethel High School will switch over to a completely in-school learning model some time in October.
Bethel’s reopening strategy “is guided by the science,” Carver said, but knowing that still didn’t stop many parents from projecting the fears, woes and COVID-fails of other parts of the country onto their hometown.
“Frankly, I think people need to stop watching the news,” Carver said. “It creates an unnecessary level of anxiety for people who live in Connecticut. As I have said to parents, quite bluntly, ‘We are not Texas. We are not Arizona. We are not Florida.'”
Carver says that the restrictions in one state — or even one’s neighboring community — shouldn’t automatically be used as a template. She cited Danbury’s reopening plan, and its recent decision to delay full-in-person school attendance, as a function of the crowding in its schools, a characteristic not shared by the Bethel system.
Happily, there hasn’t been much pushback from parents regarding the mandatory wearing of masks, the superintendent said. She has had “maybe 1 or 2 people apply for a medical exemption.”
“The CDC and the Dept of Public Health have said that masks are one of the strongest mitigation strategies (to deal with) COVID, and there should be no exceptions to it. And if you’re really that uncomfortable with it, you have the option for distance learning,” she said.
“On the other hand, I think parents are happy that we are being so strict with all out mitigation strategies.”
Connecticut’s teachers had their own well-documented fears about returning to the classroom in the fall of 2020, but Carver believes she’s put on a lid on those, as well.
“We have been in ongoing conversations with the teachers. They are wonderful,” she said. “They have expressed concerns to make sure we have certain safety factors in place, and we have assured them that we will. I would never put anyone in an unsafe situation.”
The safety factors of most concern to the teachers were the enforcement of the mask-wearing protocols, and the proper adjustments to school ventilation systems, according to Carver.
Along with regular inspection, the new ventilation system protocols call for frequent replacement of the air filters, and increasing the air exchange. Previous controls, designed to be more energy efficient, would only function a half hour before people arrive in the mornings and then an hour after they left. Pure air matters much more than low utility bills in the Age of COVID, so the systems in Bethel schools have been reprogrammed to allow for more frequent periods of ventilation, creating a greater exchange of air.
As for the students?
“I think children are much more resilient than adults,” Carver said, drawing upon what she saw during the summer program. “They adapted beautifully. I had preschoolers who wore masks all day, and did not have any issues with it… I think they’re going to be okay.”
This article originally appeared on the Bethel Patch