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With revamped classrooms and instruction methods, East Lyme teachers get ready for school

East Lyme — Flanders Elementary School teacher Caryn Novick’s classroom featured all the typical aspects of a kindergarten classroom, with a sign that welcomed students, shelves of books, and letters of the alphabet posted on the wall.

But she had made several changes for the start of the year, including spacing seats 6 feet apart, preparing two sets of blocks for each cohort she will teach, and creating two “Helping Hands” charts for classroom tasks.

“Pretty much every aspect I’ve had to rethink,” Novick said Friday in her classroom.

Teachers at Flanders Elementary School have been preparing for the start of the school year, as the East Lyme school district will reopen Monday under a hybrid model and with new protocols for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the hybrid model, a cohort of students will attend school on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other cohort does distance learning. The first cohort will then have remote learning on Thursdays and Fridays, while the second cohort goes to school. All students will learn remotely on Wednesdays.

Teachers on Friday were arranging bulletin boards and working collaboratively, after spending time this week on professional development, reviewing safety procedures and protocols, and preparing.

Novick had an opportunity to meet her new students and parents for kindergarten orientation on Friday. Students and parents participated in a scavenger hunt to find classroom items and places, and one by one the students boarded a bus set up outside the school for them to try out.

During the orientation, Novick told parents how the school would be communicating with them. She also explained that sometimes kids act differently at home than with their teacher, so if there is any time when the child is overwhelmed or anxious, or if the parents feels that way, to reach out and she would help. She said it was a message of “we got this.”

"Hard work and patience got us here, and hard work and patience will get us through," Novick added.

Danielle Schoman, the new principal of Flanders Elementary School, said the school implemented safety measures, with custodians working hard this summer, and teachers and staff joining the effort, to ready the building.

Tables in the cafeteria featured quadrant dividers, with a clear material in the middle so students can still see one another as they eat. Students will sit with their classmates and get lunch delivered to them at their table, Schoman said.

Smiley faces were placed 6 feet apart on the bottom of hallway walls so students know where to stand when lining up. Signs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, posted around the school, encourage students to be a “germ buster” and instruct them how to wash their hands.

The school’s outdoor space has been separated by zones so a class can play in a space separate from other classes. One field area has markings so students can stand 12 feet apart while in music class.

Schoman said the school has developed protocols, such as hand washing and placing books into quarantine, so students can still do activities, such as checking out books from the library.

“We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible while still maintaining safety,” she said. “All decisions have been made with safety at the forefront.”

Schoman said parents, staff members and administrators participated in committees this summer to work on different aspects of the reopening plan, from logistics to communication.

In another wing of the building on Friday, a team of third grade teachers worked on back-to-school activities. They were focusing in the late morning on creating activities for the students starting the week at home, so those students would feel engaged and have an opportunity to introduce themselves to their teachers.

Third grade teacher Patrick Daily said the big shift for teachers this year is thinking about how they are addressing the needs of students in the classroom while also addressing the needs of those at home. That includes making sure the classroom meets all the health and safety requirements, while also working on ways to include students at home so it feels like one class.

The teachers also are focusing on the social-emotional component of the return to school and community building.

“That’s really what the first few weeks of the school year are about, and they’re going to be so vitally important this year, having not been here since March,” Daily said.

He said the teachers are developing modifications for their typical activities. For example, instead of meeting together in a small circle, class members could stand, spaced apart, around the classroom.

Daily said a huge part of him is thrilled about the idea of seeing kids face to face — or mask to mask — while another part of him feels a little uncertain and nervous.

“I think there are still so many unanswered questions about this pandemic that we’re all going through, and I think it’s difficult because our country is divided in a lot of ways, and I think we just have to honor where everybody is, try to be respectful and thoughtful,” he said.

Lisa Vaudreuil, another third-grade teacher, said the teachers are preparing supply kits so students will each have their own supplies. She said the preparation means teachers can spend their time in class focusing on helping students learn.

She said everyone in the district has worked really hard to prepare for the reopening.

“It’s been quite an experience and an undertaking, but I think we’re ready to move on and embrace this challenge and do what we always do best in East Lyme, which is focusing on our students and moving them forward,” Vaudreuil said.


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