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We are over a month into the 2020-21 academic year in Connecticut and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes this school year has been routine, normal, or stress-free.
While we acknowledge the very real pandemic-related challenges education systems across the country are facing, the headlines and public dialogue would suggest that there is nothing going right as schools reopen.
However, based on the successes I have seen in these first several weeks of classes resuming, I want to push back on that narrative because it is now clear: Good planning since last spring has led to great results this fall.
The majority of Connecticut’s over half a million students have returned to the classroom after a six-month absence and we are glad to have them back. A tribute to everyone stepping up in remarkable ways to make that happen.
Our teachers, administrators, school staff, and boards of education are working extremely hard and adapting to deliver instruction in a way that is equitable, meaningful and, above all, safe.
Parents as well have been true partners through all of this change, modifying routines and work schedules to provide for hybrid learning and becoming teachers to their children at home.
To date, our collective efforts have been incredibly effective in minimizing the spread of COVID-19, with less than 1 percent of all students and staff, more than 550,000 people, testing positive for the novel coronavirus. We have all looked out for one another, and it shows.
Back in March, when COVID-19 started to spread in our state, we worked in close consultation with Gov. Ned Lamont and his administration to make the very difficult, but necessary, decision to cancel in-school classes for the year in order to protect the health and safety of our students, educators and staff.
While our work has long been focused on closing gaps in opportunities, access, and outcomes, this pandemic presented us with an educational emergency with disruptions to schooling in Connecticut and our country that we have not experienced in over a century.
In the wake of this public health emergency demanding an entirely remote learning environment, the sense of urgency around closing gaps today is unparalleled.
With schools closed last spring, we saw close to 140,000 students never or just minimally log on for any digital instruction. To put that devastating figure into context: that represents one quarter of all students in Connecticut, roughly the population of Connecticut’s Capital City — Hartford.
Yet, the COVID-19 crisis also presented an opportunity to learn and grow together to reimagine PK-12 and study lessons learned to ensure we are better prepared this fall to advance equity in education anytime, anywhere.
Our present and future normal requires a greater focus on addressing the digital divide and equalizing the playing field for all children, no matter their home situation or education and language needs.
Thanks to the collaboration of many, Gov. Lamont and my department have worked to make tangible progress toward ensuring all students are connected and have the devices and technology to access high-quality learning content and their school’s social-emotional support system.
As a result, our state has cemented itself as a recognized national leader in providing technology, internet, and supports to boost attendance for students who would otherwise be disconnected.
Working with our educational partners and Dalio Philanthropies from the early days of the pandemic, Connecticut has purchased more than 142,000 laptops and internet connectivity for more than 60,000 students to get these crucial resources into the hands of our children and families who need them most.
The governor’s commitment of $266 million to closing the digital divide and aiding our schools in delivering equitable, meaningful education amounts to one of the largest state funding plans per-student in the region and country. In comparison to neighboring states, Connecticut’s dedication of Coronavirus Relief Funds solely for education is 8 percent higher than both Rhode Island and Vermont, and 3 percent higher than Massachusetts.
We have also implemented more robust weekly and monthly data collection and reporting systems to promote transparency and inform decisions to support stronger student engagement, attendance, and participation this school year.
What have these actions produced? Far fewer total students are disconnected now than in the spring of 2020 with roughly 97 percent of students statewide having logged on during this school year.
While there has never been an exercise in education that has been so complex, we cannot stop this momentum.
Maintaining a spirit of cooperation and accepting each of our individual responsibilities for being part of the best possible solution is how we will move forward and recover together.
Miguel Cardona is the commissioner of the state Department of Education.