(WTNH) — They are the questions of many parents and educators in Connecticut: How do we send our kids back to school, and how do we do so safely for everyone involved?

News 8 hosted “Educating in a Pandemic,” a town hall discussion where Ann Nyberg spoke with education experts from the state, local and national levels to try and answer those questions and more. Parents and educators also voiced concerns about the state’s ability to reopen schools.

“Parents, teachers and students all have questions and concerns about the upcoming academic year,” said Rich Graziano, Vice President and General Manager of WTNH/WCTX. “This town hall is just another part of News 8’s continuing mission to help families prepare safely for the school year, and provide them with the latest information from local leaders.”

Among the topics of discussion for the evening was that each school district will use the latest health metrics to determine what’s best for them with a reopening plan.

Josh Geballe, Chief Operating Officer for the state of Connecticut, and Fran Rabinowitz, Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, spoke about the importance of those metrics and how educators can use them.

RELATED VIDEO: Gov. Lamont, state officials talk about using health metrics for reopening schools

U.S. Representative Jahana Hayes, who represents Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District, said the state needs to focus on two main things moving forward: the digital divide (how certain students have more tools to access online learning) and adjusting the way we fund schools.

“I absolutely think we need to change the way we fund our schools,” she said. “I know nothing is guaranteed right now and no one can guarantee the safety of students and teachers going back; however, I recognized months ago…that schools could not open safely without federal support and intervention. There should be a national OSHA standard so that superintendents are not juggling with the data and the information to figure out what guidelines they have to follow, and they should be supported.”

While the digital divide is of concern, parents of special needs students said they’re worried about the support their kids will receive if returning to the classroom this fall.

Christine Faressa said her 9-year-old son, Domenic, has issues with distance learning and said in-person classes would be tricky but more beneficial.

“What I’m mostly worried about is school closing again,” she said. “Domenic needs to be in school. He needs to get that social, emotional piece of it. I am a bit concerned about how social distancing will play out in the new rules for him…If we go to a hybrid model and we have any part of remote learning in there with having to use Google Classroom, it will be very much a challenge for him, and I don’t see him really learning.

Another major — and anticipated — topic was the future of fall sports. Glenn Lungarini, CAS-CIAC Executive Director, said the organization’s plan is to bring them back.

“Right now, our plan is to bring back fall sports,” he said. “The one thing we know is that everything needs to remain fluid. Change has been a constant through this process. We have approved fall sports to come back.”

Lungarini said a plan has been sent to superintendents and is scheduled to be released Friday at noon.

After the discussion, each guest was asked to give students “words of encouragement” for heading into the upcoming school year. Those final thoughts ran the gamut:

See a list of panelists below:

One of the local leaders is U.S. Representative Jahana Hayes, who represents Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District. Representative Hayes brings more than legislative experience to this town hall. She was named National Teacher of the Year in 2016, after earning the honor for the Nutmeg state. Congresswoman Hayes sits on the full House Committee of Education and Labor. Back in May of this year, she joined several other Representatives in calling for a $100-billion investment in the child care sector following the COVID-19 pandemic. And, back in November 2019, Hayes played a dynamic role in the creation of the College Affordability Act. A firm believer in education in general, she has been quoted as saying that “education saved her life” and is a fierce advocate for ensuring that equitable access to educational opportunities exists for all students and families.

Shortly after the state released its plan for reopening schools, Representative Hayes voiced questions about that plan, saying it caused panic, and calling it unrealistic. At the time, Hayes raised her concerns for inner-city schools with high minority populations.

Related content: State Dept. of Education releases guidelines for 2020-2021 school year

Josh Geballe is the Chief Operating Officer for the state of Connecticut, a post he has held since February 27. Prior to replacing Paul Mounds in the role of COO, Geballe served as the Commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services beginning in January of 2019. Prior to joining state government, Geballe worked for 18 years in the technology industry as a business executive, investor, advisor, and teacher.

Born and raised in Branford, Geballe has higher education ties to New Haven, having earned both his Bachelor of Arts and his MBA from Yale.

As COO, Geballe has been at Governor Lamont’s side for the vast number of his regular news conferences during the pandemic, including announcements on schools – from cancelations in March to the most updated announcement on fall plans on Thursday.

Superintendent of one of the state’s largest public schools systems, Dr. Ilene Tracey has been tasked with leading New Haven Public Schools through this extremely difficult time. Dr. Tracey became interim Superintendent back in November 2019 and was unanimously elected to the official superintendent position on June 9 of this year. At the time of Dr. Tracey’s election, New Haven mayor Justin Elicker said, “I’m very, very enthusiastic to support this motion. I’ve seen Dr. Tracey’s leadership albeit only for five months, but it’s been five tumultuous months.”  Dr. Tracey leads a district that deals with many of the challenges of distance learning that showed themselves during the pandemic – including the technology divide experienced by districts with high minority populations like the Elm City.

The New Haven Board of Education recently released its plan for reopening – a plan focused on safety and academic growth. When that plan was released, Michael Pinto, the Chief Operating Officer of NHPS said, “The primary focus, obviously, is to ensure student and staff safety, making sure we provide a clean and safe learning environment and we are looking to be adaptive and we need to be able to adapt in real-time to changing conditions.”

Also on the panel of this special town hall is Fran Rabinowitz, who was named Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents in June 2017. Previously the interim superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools, Rabinowitz has been a classroom teacher, district administrator, Associate Commissioner of Education for the State of Connecticut, and Superintendent of the Hamden Public Schools in the past as well. Rabinowitz has been part of multiple roundtables and news briefings as Governor Lamont has filled the public in on the state’s plan.

Jeff Leake has been the President of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) since July 2018 after serving nearly six years as the organization’s Vice President. A long-time elementary and middle school teacher with special emphasis on curriculum development and implementation in the science and math areas, Leake has also served on the CEA Board of Directors and as CEA treasurer.

The CEA released it’s safe learning plan earlier this month, on the heels of Governor Lamont’s announcement of the state’s plan for reopening. As part of that plan, the CEA said it wants the state to recognize and address all risks to students and staff and understand that moving the economy forward depends on the safety of schools not just reopening them. Leake also released a statement at that time, saying in part:

While we appreciate Governor Lamont’s pledge of “safety first” for our students and schools and his word that he will “have teachers’ backs” when it comes to masks, sanitizing, and social distancing, local districts need assurance that state funding will be provided for virus-related expenses. We can’t allow students living in high-poverty districts, students with special needs, and English learners to be at greater risk and have lesser safety protections. Without adequate state funding, that is likely to occur.

CEA President Jeff Leake, July 16 statement

Reverend Boise Kimber, the social activist, and pastor of First Calvary Baptist Church in New Haven has been very active in discussions on the reopening of schools. Last week, Rev. Kimber and other New Haven clergy spoke out against the city of New Haven’s plan for reopening schools.

“We do want our kids to go to school, but under these conditions, we feel it would be more harmful to them going to school while this virus is not under control,” explained Reverend Kimber as part of that gathering.

Previously Rev. Kimber and other clergy had met with community leaders to call for a detailed plan for opening. At that time, Rev. Kimber stressed the need for access to PPE and testing in underserved communities in order to ensure the safety of children returning to school.

Athletics, and how to let student-athletes compete safely in the age of COVID-19 is still a great unknown. As Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS), Glenn Lungarini is also charged with running the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC). Lungarini was named to his CAS post in 2018 after having served 19 years in public education as a coach, teacher, department chair, athletic director, assistant principal, and principal.  

Back on June 5, the CIAC released its plan to start the process of returning students to athletic competition starting this summer. That plan has obviously hit some bumps in the road as the state has found its way through the process of trying to safely reopen. The return to the field of competition will hinge greatly on the state’s ability to bring students together in general, and an official decision on whether fall sports can start on time is reportedly expected sometime in early August. We will hear not only from Lungarini but also from a coach and a student-athlete from the state in order to get all perspectives on the prospect of sports during a pandemic.

“Educating in a Pandemic” will also touch on the many facets involved in reopening schools safely. One of those areas is the disparity between socioeconomic groups in our state and the impact of those factors on how prepared districts are to deal with the challenges of a possible hybrid learning approach. The technology divide in one district may be vastly different from that of another – a factor we saw during the distance-learning period after the Governor was forced to close physical school buildings in the height of the coronavirus.

Other areas of concern for parents and educators alike include the challenges of servicing special needs students, the safety of school buses, as well as the psychological impact on children which will show itself in both the possibility of returning to schools and in the potential of not being able to return to school.

Related content: CT Dept. of Education hosts virtual Q&A session on reopening plan for fall

All of these areas add up to one giant unknown. How do we deal with that unknown, and eventually overcome it? That is the major question we hope to help answer in this special town hall. If you have a question or concern about reopening our schools, please record a video of that question and send it to us at ReportIt@wtnh.com with the subject “reopening schools.” Whether you submit a question or not, we hope you’ll join us tonight at 7 p.m. and join in the conversation with us on twitter while you watch “Educating in a Pandemic.”