Plan to reopen Stamford high schools draws mixed reactions

Photo of Ignacio Laguarda
Students enter the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering (AITE) in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Students enter the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering (AITE) in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — Elementary and middle school students didn’t have much of a voice in the decision to return to full-time in-person learning, but those in high school are speaking up about the plan to reopen, and the response so far is mixed.

Those who favor a return say they want to regain a sense of normalcy, as well as bolster their education, which they say has been lacking in the every-other-day model. Students who are hesitant to return to the pre-COVID model say the current system is working and increasing student attendance will only increase health risks.

There are even dueling online petitions — one calling for a return to full in-person, with about 170 or so signatures by Monday morning, and another claiming a return would be unsafe, which had about 1,150 signatures.

During a virtual forum organized last week for high school students, many of those who spoke criticized the plan to increase occupancy in the high school buildings. Students raised health and safety concerns as a reason to hold off on a full-time return since they would have to be closer to fellow students than the 6 feet of space recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If you’re not able to properly space out, then what is the rush to go back so quickly?” Veda Bhalla, a senior at Westhill High School, said in a telephone interview.

Claire Cody, a junior at Stamford High School, said the reopening feels rushed.

“I would rather take this year to just continue what we’re doing and figure out over the summer the best plan to open up safely,” she said.

Chuanmai Husu, another junior at Stamford High, agreed that returning to full-time in-person instruction would be premature.

“People are excited vaccines are coming out, but not many people are vaccinated yet,” Husu said.

Health and safety is one of her biggest concerns since both her parents are over the age of 60 and high risk, she said.

“I don’t want to pass it to them,” she said.

While she prefers in-person instruction to remote learning, Husu said doubling the number of students at Stamford High would mean she’d be in close contact with more people. For instance, she said she already can’t walk down the hallways at times without touching someone else because of crowding. And not everyone is wearing a mask properly, or at all, she said.

“And that’s going to be even worse,” she said.

On the other side, many students are ready to ditch the at-home learning days.

Chris Butler is a senior at Stamford High School and he said he’d like to get back into classrooms full-time to make up for lost instruction time this year.

“Learning-wise, I haven’t gotten the full experience,” he said.

Butler said the at-home days are not engaging. With the exception of one mandatory Zoom meeting, those days are essentially wide open.

“I don’t do anything,” he said. “I just check in and that’s it.”

Sophia DuPree, a senior at Stamford High, said she really wants to go back.

“I understand that it might be harder to get back, but I think it’s really important that we get back to normal,” she said. “Students going to school to learn want to go back full-time.”

Anais Rivera, another Stamford High junior, said returning to class would bring a sense of normalcy for students, but she’d have to take extra health precautions. She lives with two grandparents and she said she’d wear multiple masks to help reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“For me personally, I think it would be a great opportunity to go back to normal,” she said, adding that such a move would help her and others improve their grades.

The option to return to school buildings five days a week would only be available to those in the hybrid model — in which students go to class in-person every other day. Students in the fully remote distance learning academy — roughly 25 percent of the district — will remain at home.

Under a preliminary plan, the city’s high schools could return to in-person learning five days a week starting April 19.

During another forum with high school staff last week, Superintendent Tamu Lucero said getting high schools ready to reopen is “a lot more complicated” than setting up elementary and middle schools.

One of the biggest challenges is accommodating more students during lunchtime. The plan that has gained the most traction among district administrators is eliminating lunch entirely and running a reduced school day, moving dismissal to around 12:45 p.m. and reducing class times to 40 to 43 minutes.

Students who are struggling and not on track to graduate would be allowed to stay for an extra period, and an additional bus service would be provided once those students are dismissed, Lucero said.

Sharon Beadle, spokeswoman for the district, said each of the high schools would hold sessions in the coming weeks to gauge student feelings on reopening.

Elementary schools in Stamford allowed students to return to full-time in-person instruction last Wednesday. Middle schools are scheduled to do the same this Wednesday.

Calvin Stone, a senior at Stamford High School, and the creator of the petition in favor of returning, said he would be excited to be back in school five days a week. However, he’s not a fan of the shortened day proposal.

“There’s no reason the schools can’t use the gymnasiums as lunchrooms and other classrooms as well,” he said. “We students wanted a full education, not a half-day schedule everyday.”

Adena Russel, a senior at the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering, was one of two students behind the petition asking for the reopening plan to be reevaluated.

Russel is against reopening, but said the goal of the petition is to get the district to listen to students.

“I still feel they don’t truly understand how students feel about this,” Russel said. “They’re making major decisions so close to the end of the school year without any input from students.”

ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com