‘A long, distant memory’ — Milford superintendent looks back at 2020-21 school year

MILFORD — Last summer, as the school system planned to restart the 2020-21 school year, Superintendent Anna Cutaia said there was real concern if it was going to be safe.

“It’s almost a long distant memory. There was a lot of fear and trepidation around are we were going to be safe enough to open our school buildings,” said Cutaia during the superintendent’s year in review to the Milford Board of Education July 12. “It’s almost like we forgot that was a question mark. Can we open safely? I’m happy that we did.”

To open safely, a total of 485 classrooms and more than a million square feet of school space needed to be cleaned and sanitized by the start of school on Sept. 8, 2020.

“From about July 1 to Sept. 8, we were able to get 1.1 million square feet of space ready for the opening to have students and staff,” she said.

Cutaia said as students started coming back to school, they assured parents their students would be safe and communicated with staff that it would be safe for everyone. While making sure everyone was safe, Cutaia said the academics and learning still progressed.

“We prioritize relationships, but we had teaching and learning to focus on,” said Cutaia. “While it (is) most certainly is not ideal when we are on rows and desks six feet apart and in masks, we can’t deny the resiliency of our young people and staff. There was a lot of learning going on this year, we didn’t just attend school. Our young people and staff members really stepped up to ensure we had a meaningful learning experience this year.”

Board member Betsy Ratner, D-1, said she was “delighted and proud” that the school system had been able to pull off a safe school year.

“Milford Public Schools system has accomplished something that, in light of such remarkable challenges, its a feat beyond words. So congratulations to all of us,” she said.

Cutaia said a big part of the 2020-21 school year was monitoring and communicating with parents, staff and students.

“The amount of contract tracing, the phone calls to the Health Department with our nurses and families really added an element to our administrator’s jobs that I don’t think any 092 Prep Program got them ready for,” she said. “So we all got an education in contact tracing.”

When the buildings opened for the school year, Cutaia said officials weren’t sure if they would be able to open safely, so they took precautions and decided to go with a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday in-person schedule, with distance learning for everyone on Wednesdays. As the daily cases started to increase, school officials decided to go full distance learning.

“In November, we started with high school with full distance learning, and we onboarded middle school to full distance learning,” said Cutaia. “We were able to keep our elementary students in school because we redeployed staff from middle and high school. At this point, we were running out of human resources to keep our middle and high school open.”

After the holiday break, Cutaia said the schools kept everyone home to reduce the time people were together in the buildings as the state cautioned against holiday travel and the potential increase in COVID-19 cases.

Cutaia said health officials were predicting a little bit of a COVID resurgence in March, but by April she was able to add Wednesdays to in-person learning while keeping the shortened days.

“We kept the shortened days because of our own difficulties of not having human resources to cover lunches,” she said. “Finally, at the end of the year, from May to June, we were able to open full time all days back to school.”

Throughout the year, the Food Service Department team served 729,017 free meals to students and families free of charge, and the board reviewed and revised 31 policies during 2020-21. Some of the policies include civil/legal rights of transgender youth, student grievance procedure, homeschooling, non-discrimination, dress/grooming policy and a student survey.

“We successfully reviewed and approved and had our town approve a 2021-22 budget, and the incredible leadership you took on in the state as being one of the first boards of education to adopt a resolution on race, equity and social justice,” said Cutaia. “From February to June, we took on the work of adopting new commitments and goals for the next five years which, will guide us in the development of our improvement plan.”

The schools also formed a race, justice and inclusion student advisory group, which will meet monthly with administrators and present its work to the board in December.

“Our young people came to us last June and said we want to work on race, equity and social justice, and we want your attention, Dr. Cutaia, we want face-to-face time with you,” said Cutaia. “And I will tell you our young people are not shy. They have a lot of heart and passion around this, and I’m so grateful for their self-advocacy and look forward to responding to their needs.”

A big proponent that made the 2020-21 school year successful was outreach and partnerships, said Cutaia.

“I want to highlight the partnership of all our parents and families,” she said. “Throughout the past 17 months, we couldn’t have done it without our moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas and other family members, our PTAs, our PTOs, our PTA Council, our community members, our business leaders, elected officials. It really has been a community-wide effort.”

Despite it being a tough school year, school officials were able to move things forward, Cutaia said. Some of those things included keeping a close eye on the various revenue streams available to the district, revising the middle school schedule for the 2021-22 school year, extending the school day for high school students to give extra time to close learning gaps that might have happened because of COVID, and expanding the second grade language curriculum.

Even though it was a tough year, Cutaia said there was good news as well. Students were able to participate in sports, the schools dedicated Danni Kemp Memorial Field, proms were celebrated in person and the seniors were able to experience in-person graduations.

Board member Una Petroske, D-3, said she was proud and “quite frankly amazed” at how well the administrators, teachers, students, staff and famileis came together.

“Everybody pulled together, and I believe our success this past year is an indicator of how well we will do next year,” she said.