New Britain superintendent says coronavirus pandemic puts spotlight on inequities of urban, suburban students

Published on Wednesday, 25 March 2020 17:41
Written by Catherine Shen


NEW BRITAIN – The coronavirus pandemic is putting a spotlight on the inequities between urban and suburban students and the school’s abilities to educate them, said Nancy Sarra, superintendent of the Consolidated School District of New Britain.

“I’ll keep saying this again and again, but this outbreak has really shown that imbalance and I can only hope that one of the good things that will come out of this is closing that gap in the future,” she said. Sarra is specifically referencing to the dire need for additional computer devices and Internet access for students in need in order to participate in remote learning during the school’s shutdown.

Governor Ned Lamont announced earlier this week schools will not reopen until April 20 at the earliest, with the potential for schools to remain closed even longer. The district is prepared to go beyond that date and continues to urge everyone to stay up to date with the latest information.

Through a survey sent out to all 10,500 district students to gauge technological needs, 9,550 have responded. Out of that number, 1,200 families reported they do not have Internet and 3,000 students reported they do not have a device. Out of that total of 3,000, 653 are New Britain High School students without devices. There are still about 1,000 students the district has not heard back from but will continue to reach out to, so the numbers could become higher.

Based on the information, Sarra said while the district can provide devices to some students, if a family has no Internet connection, then there’s no point in having the device.

“We’ve been talking to different Internet providers to see what we can do to help. But it’s a multilayered problem, explained Sarra. “The next issue is, if a family has no Internet, how long will it take to get wiring in? Are there hotspots available? All these things prolong the students to connect with their learning.”

The district has reached out to the state Department of Education for funding support. Following Lamont’s announcement that laptops and other academic support supplies have been donated by private and public donators, Sarra said it’s too soon to know if the district will directly benefit from it.

“But the state has been very good with their communication lines,” she said. “They’ve been very responsive to our concerns so I’m sure we’ll hear from them soon.”

With just under 2,000 district employees now working remotely, the superintendent said they’ve been having Google Classroom training, learning to use new technology and working hard to engage with students. Additional cell phones were purchased so staff can work from home and family school liaisons can continue to communicate with families.

“Go slow with the new, that’s what I’ve been telling my staff,” Sarra said. “We’re all learning together and figuring out what the new normal looks like. Everyone’s helping each other. There’s a lot of organic training in the spirit of collaboration and support.”

But just because the schools are physically closed doesn’t mean work isn’t being done there. Custodians, maintenance workers and security guards all had last week off and they have now retuned to the buildings, following a deep cleanse. The reason for their return is due to an extensive backlog of work order requests, said Sarra, who explained the union, Local 1186, and the district have been working together to complete the work order list the best they can, starting with the more serious needs.

One of the biggest priorities is getting the classrooms painted, she said.

“We’ve had only one painter for several years due to budget cuts and we don’t paint when the students are in the building. This is the perfect time to get that done,” she said.

All the workers are practicing social distancing. There are no more than three to four people in the buildings at a time and they’re always working separately.

Sarra said the district has been working very closely with the union and everyone is very collaborative.

“We’ve been having weekly phone calls and everyone’s listening to each other,” she said. “We’re all trying to keep each other as comfortable as we can during these uncertain times.”

Virginia Brown, school secretary and vice president of Local 1186, said the most important thing right now is for everyone to work together to keep things functioning.

“The coronavirus pandemic has created tremendous uncertainty for the entire New Britain school system, from students and teachers to families and staff. We thank superintendent Sarra and the Board of Education for working with our union to make sure that we continue to provide important services to our schools and our community. We are all working together to get through this unprecedented challenge,” she said.

Posted in New Britain Herald, New Britain on Wednesday, 25 March 2020 17:41. Updated: Wednesday, 25 March 2020 17:43.