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Amid COVID-19, schools can opt for hybrid return in fall

After school districts were required to submit detailed reopening plans to the state last week, Gov. Ned Lamont has told districts that instead of full in-person learning models, they can opt for a hybrid model this fall.

Lamont and state Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona announced the change at a news conference Monday while answering questions from reporters after announcing results from recent surveys about back-to-school expectations.

The news took some local school officials by surprise, they told The Day on Tuesday, as districts had been told to plan for a full reopening, as well as planning for the ability to quickly pivot between a hybrid learning model — or a combination of in-person and virtual learning — and out-of-school virtual learning, depending on how COVID-19 transmission rates fluctuate.

Though Lamont and Cardona still encourage districts to pursue in-person models this fall, arguing that out-of-school virtual learning could negatively impact students, both also acknowledged every district is confronting its own unique challenges and each could autonomously determine how to best reopen.

“I and Miguel (Cardona) and most of the folks we talk to obviously saw the advantages of classroom learning. ... But with that said, You know every town, every city’s got very different metrics,” Lamont said. “So, in the majority of the cases — the vast majority — we will be able to have in-classroom, especially in the lower grades. But some situations will be unique and we have to give them that flexibility.”

Regardless of what school districts decide come September, Cardona said Monday that Connecticut parents also will have the option to keep their children home at any point.

Districts across the state had been instructed by the governor in June to plan for a full in-person return to school this fall and were required to submit plans to the state detailing how each district would do so by last Friday. Lamont said Monday, however, the idea that schools must return to in-person learning was a “misimpression.”

The Connecticut Mirror reported Monday that Lamont's change of heart came after Connecticut teachers' unions increasingly voiced concerns about plans for a full return to school, with the Connecticut Education Association releasing a "Safe Learning Plan" on July 21 and orchestrating car caravan rallies across the state this Thursday demanding safe re-entry plans. Greenwich schools recently told parents that high school students would not be able to return to school full time because there are too many students enrolled to socially distance. The move contradicted Lamont's instructions for schools to offer every student the option to return full time.

As part of the required plans submitted to the state, districts also have been instructed to outline how hybrid learning and all-virtual learning models would be implemented and quickly pivoted between, should COVID-19 transmission rates within schools or a community spike.

Schools across the region have told The Day that they've created task forces or committees to complete their plans by the July 24 deadline, and followed both state guidance and a hybrid learning model provided by LEARN Regional Education Service to ensure safety standards would be met.

Though most of the region's school districts said Tuesday they had not yet made any final decisions about their reopening plans, Groton Public Schools and Norwich Free Academy said they already were planning to begin the school year with their own hybrid models.

NFA made its decision at a board meeting Tuesday, while Groton Public Schools Superintendent Michael Graner said by phone Tuesday he is recommending the district pursue a hybrid model in which each week students would attend school in person for two days and have distance learning for three days. The Groton Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the matter this upcoming Monday.

The district would have the ability to shift to in-person learning or to virtual learning, depending on transmission rates, but Graner said the hybrid model would allow better opportunities for social distancing, since it would mean fewer kids in the classroom and on buses at any one time. If all students attended school in person, it would be impossible to spread a class of 20 students 6 feet apart from one another, he said.

Graner said while there is a “lot of interest” in the hybrid model, he said the district acknowledges that having students at home three days a week for distance learning could be problematic for parents and children, but also argued the hybrid model balances health and safety concerns with education quality while giving the district the best chance of sustaining its educational program. 

Schools districts with smaller student populations, such as Region 18, which encompasses Lyme and Old Lyme, and The Diocese of Norwich, which oversees three private Catholic schools in the region, told The Day they plan to fully open their schools this fall. 

Region 18 Superintendent Ian Neviaser said his district sought to pursue an in-person learning model this fall, unless transmission numbers for COVID-19 dramatically change in coming weeks. He said due to the district’s smaller student population and the ability to reconfigure schools to allow for proper social distancing, he felt confident Region 18 could keep its plans to safely reconvene in person this fall.

Diocese of Norwich spokesman Wayne Gignac said, “Our Catholic schools (which include Saint Bernard’s High School, Sacred Heart School of Groton and St. Joseph’s School of New London) are uniquely able to implement the recommendations of the Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention) due to smaller populations in comparison to most public school systems.”

Other districts, including New London, Norwich, East Lyme, Ledyard, North Stonington and LEARN, said Tuesday that plans to fully return in person this fall, as outlined in their submitted plans to the state, currently remain unchanged. School officials said they would soon consider the possibility of kicking off the school year with a hybrid learning model, stating that conversations still were needed between other regional superintendents, local school boards, school administrators and the state’s departments of Education and Public Health before coming to a decision.

North Stonington Superintendent Peter Nero said, “We are still looking at this and we still have four weeks left to make that decision. All superintendents and board chairs are having discussions throughout the region about this and we are considering what the effect will be economically between a full opening versus a hybrid versus virtual.”

“We realize kids, for the most part, are pretty safe, but a certain percentage of our teaching population are 50 years and older and some employees have family members that they live with that could be impacted by (COVID-19),” Nero said, stating such concerns would be considered. “We are doing our due diligence.”

Preston Public School posted on its website Tuesday that “More information will follow as soon as possible,” while the Stonington school district wrote in a July 24 letter to parents it plans to survey families the first week of August, asking them “to pick Plan A (in person model) or Plan C (remote model) to begin school on September 8th.”

Connecticut Technical Education and Career Systems said it will release its plan for all of the state’s technical high schools at the end of the week.

Waterford and Montville school districts did not immediately respond to requests detailing considerations for hybrid learning this fall, but both outlined a full in-person return to school in the plans they had submitted to the state.

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Greg Smith, Kimberly Drelich, Amanda Hutchinson and Sten Spinella contributed to this report.

m.biekert@theday.com

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