Even in red alert, Norwalk students thriving in classroom

Superintendent Dr. Alexandra Estrella discusses how maintaining a focus on the future is driving successful outcomes at the Connecticut district during the pandemic.
By: | December 1, 2020
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Even with much of his state shifting to a red alert status – 15 or more cases of coronavirus per 100,000 residents – Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has urged schools to remain open as long as they can during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That sentiment and that mission has been shared by Dr. Alexandra Estrella since she took over as superintendent at Norwalk Public Schools on July 1.

Bringing her wide-ranging education experience and successes both as a former teacher and superintendent in the Bronx and East Harlem, N.Y., Estrella has managed to keep schools there open during this uncertain period while also keeping an eye on the future. With a new strategic plan being forged early next year, Norwalk needs it to thrive post-pandemic.

Despite its location in the highly affluent Fairfield County near New York City, many of Norwalk’s families face financial hardships. Of the 11,000-plus students that are in the district, more than half are eligible for free-and-reduced lunch. Ranked the third most diverse district in the state according to U.S. Department of Education statistics, it also has had to overcome gaps this year related to the digital divide.

As pressing as those challenges might be, Estrella and her team have been driven to execute on its strategic plan and deliver on goals of advancement.

“There’s an urgency in making sure that everything we are doing is positively impacting not only the academic component, but also social-emotional development of children and putting safety at the forefront of everything we do,” she says.

To gain more insight into how Norwalk is progressing through the pandemic, District Administration had a conversation with Estrella about the district’s strategies, challenges and positive moments during this important time in education:

The majority of the state is now under red alert status, which calls for the scaling back of restaurant capacity and limiting public events. Can you talk about how your district has been able to keep schools open?

Dr. Alexandra Estrella

We’ve established a great relationship with our city and particularly our health department. We are in constant conversation about the cases, the trends, and what they mean for our schools? What’s happening in the community has an impact on the schools, but is closing down the right solution? When we contact trace, most of the cases are a result of what’s happening in the community, not because transmission is happening within the schools. Mitigating measures to ensure kids’ safety are working.

Over an abundance of caution, even though the metrics of the CDC say 6 feet from that person, we don’t take that risk [if there is a case]. We quarantine the whole class or anyone associated with the person. So that has caused us to have a large number of individuals in quarantine. But we prefer to do that than to put anybody at risk. As a result, it’s very hard to cover. So, in some cases, we’ve been in a predicament where it’s not safe to open up the building, because we don’t have enough personnel. So, we decide to quarantine the building and transition the building into remote learning because of staffing.

What has been the response of others in trying to stay open?

I think the community, especially the parents, have been appreciative that we haven’t closed down our schools despite being red alert. They still have to work. The kids still have to learn. When you have a community as diverse as Norwalk, you have to think about everyone and the impact that has on all children. Leaving a young child that’s in kindergarten, first, second or third grade alone to learn is not possible. That’s why we’ve had our elementary schools full time in person. As long as there’s no internal spread, we can continue to keep our schools open.

How has your experience in New York driven some of the decisions you’ve been able to make in Norwalk?

I was a superintendent in New York when the pandemic started. We created rec centers, and my district had two of them that were open. I learned a lot from those experiences that helped me have a better understanding of the work I needed to do in Norwalk in reopening summer school and what reopening could look like in September.

Although we are red, we set our reopening with measures that were in place in the midst of the pandemic. We looked at guidance from the state and the CDC. HEPA filters were suggested. We have HEPA filters in every single classroom. Merv-13 filters were recommended. We have Merv-13 filters in every single building. If it’s a suggestion, if it’s better, then we’re going to do it. I think has helped us mitigate spread within our schools, as well as keeping children safe.

Has there been a disparity among students affected by the pandemic?

We noticed children that were well-resourced were able to create personal pods at home. They had the opportunity to continue their learning regardless of what was happening in our schools. We wanted to make sure that students who were under-resourced or parents that had difficulties getting childcare during the hybrid days, had a safe place to be, that gave them adequate connectivity and had an adult in the room that could support them in their learning.

We partnered with the city, particularly the libraries, to create learning pods. We started opening up these pods to provide a place for our students to go during the non in-person days to continue their learning. Where some of our students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, we wanted to make sure we had pods within walking distance from their homes. We’re basically just utilizing their facility and their internet, but having that alone for our kids during the off days is priceless.

How has your district has been able to focus on the future even during the pandemic?

We have to be strategic and have a clear plan of how we’re planning for subsequent years. If we don’t, we’re going to extend the learning gap from those unintended consequences of the pandemic. As I think about the new strategic plan, I’m thinking about facilities and academics. How do we enrich it? How do we engage in thinking about accelerated learning post-pandemic.

We’ve already invested through Title I funding for additional literacy directors to broaden the support for schools. We became 1:1 device schools, and that requires a different frame of thinking as we move forward in terms of personnel and facilities. We added five digital learning coaches for the district. Despite it being a bad thing, the pandemic gave us opportunities to rethink how we were doing learning and engaging students. We have to work with that and take advantage of it.

What steps has your district taken to try to close the digital divide?

One of our partners was providing us with devices. I was like, that’s great, but the kids we’re giving these devices to don’t have connectivity. We had hotspots, but they could only do so much. In some areas it was very spotty. The best solution was to provide wired connectivity at home. So, they came up with the idea through our internet company to provide free Wi Fi to every child in the district that needed it, and we did this in partnership with the city. We worked with our families to ensure they had adequate accessibility. We calculated that we had approximately 1,000 families that needed that kind of service. Dalio Education alongside other partners made it possible for us to have this available to our children.

How long are those solutions continuing?

They’re going to provide it as long as families need it. We haven’t set a time of expiration. This year, they budgeted approximately $758,000 for this initiative. We’re in conversation with our philanthropists and making sure that we continue to provide the resources to our families because this is going to be the new normal for children to continue work beyond school.

If your schools had to go completely remote tomorrow, could they do it?

I tell all my principals, every day, you and your teachers need to leave the building as if we were going to be in full remote tomorrow. You need to take your device every day because anything is possible. If we had to go into full remote, we could because we’re prepared to do so. Do we want to? No, because I know what the potential disadvantage would be for our children.

I think the most important thing is that we’re not reactive, that we’re really thoughtful about the choices that we’re making – how that might impact the well-being and the quality of life a child. The more the opportunity gap widens, the harder it becomes to close, and the more detrimental that will be in the long run. If we put children at the forefront of the conversation, the answer to the problem becomes easier.

What are some of the other initiatives related to learning that Norwalk Schools is supporting over the next 6-12 months?

We are creating time during the week for teachers to engage in professional learning experiences. Our kids are digital natives. Our teachers mostly are not. So on Mondays, we’ve blocked approximately two hours to provide training for our staff to build their capacity to utilize different digital devices in the classroom in a way that’s productive. A lot of the work we’re looking at moving forward is to rethink and reimagine what the classroom is going to consistently look like as we integrate different tools, software and hardware. So, thinking about snow days and if a child is sick, how can we provide them with opportunities to have access to the learning if they’re at home? It opens the window to a lot of different ways of thinking about how to be able to connect to the classroom.

How is the hybrid model working there for students and teachers?

The biggest challenge for teachers is getting accustomed to this new modality of learning, and having to learn how to engage with the children that are remote and those that are in person. We try to get them to understand that it’s the same as when you’re doing a workshop model and you have breakouts – you have kids working on different projects, and you focus on a particular group. You’re using a different medium, but you can continue to engage in the same approach of learning.

It’s not easy. People are still trying to figure it out. That’s why those Mondays are critical because it gives them an opportunity to share with one another best practices and speak about the frustrations associated with this learning model. People that have been teaching for 20-25 years feel like it’s their first year of teaching. I think it’s harder for someone with experience than somebody that’s new because they know what was and what was comfortable.

As a former teacher yourself, can you talk about the extraordinary efforts and sacrifices they have made during the pandemic?

People talk about health care providers being the heroes of America, but our teachers are too. I think a lot of times they’re not given credit for the amazing work they do. They put themselves at the forefront day in, day out to do what’s best for our kids. They’re placed under enormous pressure to rethink how they can engage children through learning and how to do it successfully. Every day I go to a school and observe what teachers are doing, I feel like they’ve done a phenomenal job in a small amount of time to transition to a completely different modality of learning and thinking.

What is one of the biggest takeaways from this experience?

It enlightened a lot of our leaders to realize the realities of our children, the things that they need that go beyond the school. It forced them to think about schools, that they are more than just a hub for learning. They’re a place of community as a base of bringing people together. It’s amazing how we as people, especially in the hardest time, are coming together to do what’s right for children.