Newtown school board votes down 3 mask rules for full in-person class before finding common ground

Newtown schools Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue.

Newtown schools Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue.

Carol Kaliff / Hearst Connecticut Media

NEWTOWN - It took the Board of Education four tries to decide on an adult mask policy during an otherwise agreeable reception to plans to return to fulltime in-person class in the fall.

The short version of the mask debate is the board agreed to require masks for unvaccinated adults who work with students, and to ask unvaccinated volunteers to wear a mask when working with kids.

Newtown, like school districts across Connecticut, are required by the state to come up with post-pandemic plans for the 2021-2022 school year that meet the challenges of the new normal in a flexible way, allowing for public participation and regular review.

“The staff and leadership at Newtown Public Schools have learned many lessons from the challenges faced throughout the pandemic,” Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue said in the introduction to the plan. “While we are prepared to address learning gaps, we remain equally inspired to transform our practices so they continue to provide high-quality, innovative learning experiences for all our students.”

The Return to School plan, which was unanimously adopted by the school board, goes to the state education department for review. Highlights of the plan include:

No more early dismissal for Newtown High School and Newtown Middle School.

No more early dismissal on Wednesdays for Reed Intermediate and elementary schools.

Desk shields will be taken down, social distancing will be encouraged according to health department directives.

Digital and blended learning “will remain an integral part of instruction, when appropriate.”

All lunches will be served in the cafeteria, subject to adjustments by the state; free cafeteria meals will be provided through June 2022.

One of the biggest unknowns as the board anticipates a new school year is the toll the coronavirus crisis has taken on students.

“[W]e don’t feel we have fully assessed the degree of learning loss yet,” said Anne Uberti, assistant superintendent, during the June 21 meeting. “We are working with principals about creative ways to provide support before and after school.”

One strategy the district is employing is a new real-time assessment system called eduClimber that allows staff to track student achievement and make adjustments on the move.

The district is also counting on help from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund “to develop bold, high-impact plans to address substantial disruption to student learning, interpersonal interactions, and social and emotional well-being.”

Students can look forward to a return of extracurriculars, according to the plan.

Music and art programs will be conducted according to guidelines, with sharing permitted of instruments and art supplies.

Sports in middle school and high school will follow CIAC guidelines.

Clubs and activities will resume.

Transportation will resume at full capacity, with an optional mask policy for kids.

The crux of the mask debate at the June 21 meeting was why volunteers working with students should be required to wear a mask when school staff had no such requirement.

Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue explained “[W]e typically do the same thing as we do with students and will make it optional with the staff…We felt it should be optional for all, but not for volunteers.”

That set off three separate motions - all of which were voted down - to achieve consistency for people working with kids who are not vaccinated.

“If we ask volunteers (to mask), it’s important enough to ask staff who work with students,” said school board member Rebekah Harriman-Stites. “If not, we shouldn’t ask volunteers.”

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342