'Hold onto hope': Milford rethinks timeline on full in-person school

MILFORD -Returning to full-time in-person learning in the near future remains the goal, but Superintendent Anna Cutaia has a contingency plan in place, too, in case the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic interferes.

Cutaia had hoped to increase in-person learning in late February/early March but has pushed back the timeline.

“As I shared with you in numerous communications, there are five factors that I consider when determining our instructional model in response to COVID-19,” Cutaia wrote in a letter to parents Feb. 16.

The factors are: health metrics, social and emotional needs, academic priorities, resource availability and human resources, dictated that the timeline be pushed back by several weeks, Cutaia said.

“After monitoring these factors very closely over the last month, and in consultation with the Milford Health Department and the medical advisor for the Board of Education, we have determined to delay those plans to mid/late March at which time we hope to add Wednesdays as an in-person learning day,” she said.

Health metrics are trending downward with lower infection rates, Cutaia stated, but a possible surge caused by the variant strains of COVID-19 has tempered thoughts of returning full-time to the classroom.

“With an abundance of caution for the health and safety of our students and staff and with an eye on availability of human resources, we plan to revisit in-person learning decisions in the month of March,” she wrote. “It is important to note that the rates remain higher than they were when school began in the fall.”

Cutaia pointed out that Milford’s current infection rates are higher than the state Department of Public Health recommendations to transition to more in-person learning. Moreover, the department has confirmed cases of the B117 variant of COVID-19, commonly known as the U.K. Variant, in New Haven County.

“Based on public health data, our best tools to prevent this variant from becoming the dominant strain and to continue to drive infection rates down are to adhere stringently to COVID-19 control measures and for the vaccination administration effort to continue to move forward swiftly,” she wrote.

While other school systems are moving ahead with plans to return to full in-person learning, Cutaia explained that each system determined its own learning models.

“Milford Public Schools opened its doors to all students four days a week since the first day of school when many other districts were only bringing half their student population in for half the week and only recently increasing in-person learning,” she wrote.

Milford students also have spent more time in class and less time distance learning than many other communities, even though they currently are in school five hours per day, she said.

“With the exception of our need to go to distance learning around the Thanksgiving and winter breaks (as did many other districts), we have consistently maintained a schedule that emulates something closer to full-time, which is more than most others,” she wrote.

Cutaia said COVID-19 protocols are affecting the return to full-time in-person learning in a number of ways. For example, the social distancing requirements in some cases mean that a building that normally includes two classrooms in a grade level might now require a third classroom for the same number of students.

Staffing and lunch periods are also a challenge, she said. Since students cannot be in the cafeterias, they are eating lunch in their classrooms and are being supervised by teachers since there is currently a significant shortage of lunch aides.

The teachers, in turn, are foregoing their lunch and prep periods while students are in the building and making up that time after students leave at the end of the 5-hour school day, Cutaia said.

“Providing teachers with lunch and preparatory periods is our responsibility and obligation — especially as they make daily instructional plans to teach students both in-person and virtually, simultaneously, and place a constant effort toward adopting and integrating an accelerated curriculum,” she wrote.

Cutaia understands that pandemic fatigue is setting in.

“I can relate professionally and personally,” she wrote. “While we may be feeling this way currently, I encourage us to hold onto hope and faith that we are getting closer to better days which includes the health and safety of all and more in-person learning for Milford Public Schools.”

william.bloxsom@hearstmediact.com Twitter: @blox354