East Lyme students ease in to new school year among unfolding renovations

East Lyme — Elementary school gyms typically see kids playing games of kickball, red-light-green-light or crab soccer, but in the gym of Flanders Elementary School, students recently sat under basketball hoops studying art and reading books.

Divided in two, what was once a play area now hosts an art classroom and library — necessary logistical changes as Flanders undergoes sweeping renovations this school year.

Two other district elementary schools, Lillie B. Haynes School and Niantic Center School, also are undergoing their own restorations as a $37.5 million project to upgrade and restore the three schools is carried out over the next school year.

After breaking ground in June, officials expect renovations to take place through August 2019, finishing up just in time for the 2019-20 school year. As part of that, students and teachers have had to flexibly navigate changes being made to their schools over the last month.

Coming back to school at the end of August, students discovered concrete classrooms and hallways that had been gutted over the summer to remove asbestos. Larger rooms, such as cafeterias and gyms, became multi-use areas, hosting music class or custodial closets, among other needs.

At Flanders School, six classrooms were moved into Central Office, the public schools' administrative building next door, to accommodate for lost space while rooms are blocked off for renovation in the main building. An outdoor covered pathway currently connects the two buildings.

Those six classes will remain in Central Office for the remainder of the year to minimize movement, Principal Linda Anania said, while classrooms in the main school building will shift around throughout the year as different parts of the school undergo construction in a four-phase plan. Presently, all three elementary schools are in phase 1, where just one wing or section of each school is undergoing renovations.

Despite all this, students and teachers at Flanders seem to be just fine, still moving in between classrooms in single file, smiling and saying hello along the way.

“They see it as a kind of fun adventure,” Anania said while walking through a hallway narrowed by a floor-to-ceiling plaster wall dividing school from construction zone. “All they want is a space to learn and they are happy, and they are getting that.”

“It really just took getting everyone back in here and back on schedule to know that everything would be all right,” she said, explaining that teachers received only three days before the start of school to pack up, move and organize their classrooms.

For Superintendent Jeffrey Newton, the renovations are both a bump in the road and a necessary evil — especially considering that Flanders Elementary and Niantic Center School haven’t seen renovations in a half-century. Since it was built in 1957, Lillie B. Haynes received only minor updates 16 years ago.

To lessen the overall disruption, however, Newton said that he and the schools have worked closely with O&G Industries, the contracted construction company, to work out an accelerated 14-month renovation plan.

Besides obvious cost savings, the plan also will minimize the impact of the many changes felt by students.

“We want to get in and get it done and have our building back to full capacity as soon as possible,” he said.

Additionally, he said construction is running ahead of schedule.

As part of the renovation plan, which was approved at referendum in March 2017, improvements to air quality, handicapped accessibility, security, interior building finishes and electrical, lighting and other technology are in the works, as well as the replacement of the roof at Flanders Elementary School; reconfigured drop-off areas and the re-establishment of the second gym at Lillie B. Haynes; and upgrades to the gym and exterior masonry at Niantic Center School.

Speaking about reconfiguring the school’s daily schedule, Anania said, “It’s really been about being organized, planning ahead and staying in contact with parents. ... I think parents might have had more worries over the summer, but now that they can see that their children are safe, and that things are under control, I haven’t received any complaints.”

Anania said one parent was concerned about her daughter’s comfort while traversing the outdoor covered walkway connecting Central Office to the Flanders school. However, that will be closed at the end of November, once a permanent hallway between the two buildings is reopened.

“We’ve made sure that anything that could be a concern to parents is being addressed,” Anania said. “Anyone can tell me their concern and we’ll see that it’s fixed.”

Parents picking up their children Tuesday at Flanders agreed that despite concerns over the summer, their worries have since dissipated after seeing the school and communicating with teachers.

“The children are resilient and they are fine, so it hasn’t been a big deal,” said Sarah Selke, whose daughter Sophia is in third grade and son Sam is in first. “I had concerns before the school year started, but now that I’ve been in the school, I have no concerns.”

For Erin Haas, whose daughter Aoife is in third grade, seeing the school once the year started also helped ease her worries.

“I needed to come here and see it to make sure that my daughter was comfortable with everything. Despite seeing everything being torn up, it’s been about consistency and seeing familiar faces. As long as she has that, she is fine,” Haas said.

For Flanders teacher Isabel Georgian, whose fourth-grade classroom was moved into the second floor of Central Office, coping with renovations has been as much about making her students feel comfortable and safe as it has been about paying attention to little details.

“I think we were all slightly more concerned over the summer because we weren’t sure what was happening,” she said as her students quietly worked at their desks. “It was a little tough to prepare because we couldn’t get in and work on (the classroom) throughout the summer.”

“But it’s been about figuring out how to set up the new room in a way that works. I had to think about where to put my desk and their desks. Where the resources are, and how they are labeled. Where am I going to put their mail boxes? So that all took a lot of time,” Georgian said. “But it’s been a great way to rethink how to run things and how to change the dynamics of the classroom. I think the students have actually seen it as a fun challenge that we’re all in together.”



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