School has opened for what is now the third academic year during a pandemic yet this one so far is full-time and in-person.
Last week was the first five-day school week for local students since March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic led to remote learning for the end of the 2019-20 school year. Last year, the most schools managed in-person was four-day weeks with at least one remote learning day in place through the end of the school year.
Classes began Aug. 26 with no remote learning planned for this year and all students and staff required to wear masks indoors, on buses, and even outdoors if they can’t be more than six feet apart.
After just two school days, however, Superintendent Brigid Nease announced the district’s first COVID-19 case in a fifth grader at Crossett Brook Middle School. That was Sunday, Aug. 26, and it led to an entire class — 30 students and staff — staying home last week for testing.
As of press time for the Waterbury Reader this week, no additional cases were announced.
Although the state’s limited guidance regarding COVID-19 mitigation suggests schools can end mask-wearing once 80% of eligible students are vaccinated in a school, the Harwood Unified Union School District will keep mask wearing “until further notice,” Nease explained in her back-to-school memo. So far students aged 12 and up are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine; public health officials say they expect it to become available for younger students later this year.
Unlike last year, the state is discouraging remote learning now, so much so that should an entire school close for in-person learning, days spent home will not be counted towards the needed number of school days for the academic year, Nease said.
“Our plan going forward is work sent home just like any other time a student is out sick on an individual basis,” Nease said, noting that should an entire class go into quarantine, then the teacher may be able to teach remotely.
New year, new name, new principalsThe new school year marked the opening in Waterbury of the primary school with its new name — Brookside Primary School — renamed this spring from Thatcher Brook Primary School. The change came after community members researching its history learned that its namesake, 19th-century Waterbury landowner and surveyor Partridge Thatcher, enslaved people.
Changes have been made to school websites and materials. The school building will soon have a new sign installed. Steve Lotspeich, Waterbury’s Director of Planning and Zoning, said that should be a straightforward step. “The replacement of the existing sign on the primary school building will not require a zoning permit because it will be the same size and location on the building,” he said.
Lotspeich said school officials have suggested installing an informational kiosk in front of the building to announce school events. That item may require a zoning permit and possibly review by the Development Review Board.
Brookside also has opened with new school leaders this year, Co-Principals Sarah Schoolcraft and Chris Neville. Schoolcraft was formerly assistant principal; Neville just joined the staff having moved to Vermont from Colorado this summer.
Working out the bus kinks
The school year also opened with new bus routes across the district, later starting times for middle and high school students, and separate bus runs for older and younger students. It is the first overhaul of the system in 20 years and needless to say, there were glitches. The district used the emergency alert system the first two days of school to let parents know afternoon buses were late.
“We had a rocky start without a doubt with our new bus routes and schedule changes,” Nease said. “We know how frustrating this has been for families, and beg their forgiveness, understanding, and patience until we get it all worked out and fine tuned.”
As of last Friday, most of the issues had been ironed out with the expectation that buses would be running on schedule by this week. Nease said multiple factors led to delays such as families not realizing their buses had changed so students were unsure of what bus to take. Last-minute changes in the online system to track which buses students rode were made and short staffing to monitor boarding buses added to the confusion, she said.
“To amplify this, on the first day all the Waterbury radios stopped working for 20-30 minutes, only the Waterbury area,” Nease said. School officials are working with the communications contractor regarding the radio issue as well.
For Nease, this will be her final school year navigating COVID-19, bus issues and more. She plans to step down next June when her current contract ends. At its meeting on Aug. 24, the Harwood Union School Board agreed to pay Nease for 35 of the 89 days of accrued leave she has.
Given a demanding work schedule since spring 2020, Nease said she has 75 accrued vacation days, 10 holidays and four personal days. She is working on a plan to take the remaining 54 days as leave during this school year. Without an assistant superintendent, however, it will involve some planning to come up with a “substitute” to fill in.
“I am working with our HUUSD admin team to designate and delegate duties and responsibilities,” Nease said. “They will be compensated at their per diem hourly rate for the work they do in addition to their regular responsibilities.”
Bond discussions continue
As the Waterbury Reader went to press this week, the Harwood Union School Board was to meet Wednesday evening to discuss plans for school construction at Harwood Union High School and Crossett Brook Middle School.
The board was to review plans presented by architects that outlined nearly $60 million in school renovations, upgrades and expansion as well as feedback from a recent community survey.
The board meets again at 6 p.m. on Sept. 15 when it would need to finalize details for a bond proposal to be placed on a ballot for voters to consider on Nov. 2. See WaterburyRoundabout.org for coverage of this week’s developments.
School board meetings are held in person at the Harwood Union high school library. People also may watch on the district’s YouTube channel or log in via Zoom video conference. Details are online at HUUSD.org under the Board tab.