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UPDATED: Region's schools announce closures

School districts across the region have announced they will be closing for a minimum of two weeks, as school officials took the step "to prevent the spread of illness among our students, staff, and our communities."

The districts include Bozrah, Clinton, Colchester, East Haddam, East Hampton, East Lyme, Griswold, Groton, Guilford, Ledyard, Madison, Montville, New London, North Stonington, Norwich, Old Saybrook, Preston, Salem, Stonington, Voluntown, Waterford, Westbrook and Lyme-Old Lyme, as well as the Region 4, Region 13 and Region 17 districts, according to the announcement from LEARN, an educational organization that runs regional districts.

The list also includes schools run by LEARN and Norwich Free Academy, Norwich Technical High School, and Ella T. Grasso Technical High School in Groton. Franklin Elementary School also closed "until further notice."

The Diocese of Norwich announced Friday that all of its schools also will be closed for “at least two weeks,” including Saint Bernard School in Montville.

"On the advice of our local health departments, the school superintendents in southeastern Connecticut and along the shoreline have come together to make a decision to put the health of our community (both the school community and the community at large) at the center of our decision to close schools," Waterford Superintendent Thomas W. Giard III wrote in a letter to families and community members.

Superintendents met Friday morning and made the decision, as they sought to "limit the spread of COVID-19," according to a news release from LEARN. The school officials will meet weekly to discuss as more information becomes available.

School districts sent letters to parents and the school communities throughout the day Friday.

East Lyme Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said in his letter that the earliest his schools will reopen is March 30. "It would be our hope to have schools closed for a two-week period only. The reality is that we very well could be closed for a much longer duration," he wrote, adding that he will provide an update to parents on March 23.

In her letter to parents and staff, Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow wrote: "We have been advised by local health authorities that the implementation of social distancing measures is a proven science-based intervention that has been shown to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with communicable disease outbreaks."

"In the past, communities in which schools closed were able to positively impact and reduce the spread of disease," she added. "We felt compelled to make this decision to prevent the spread of illness among our students, staff, and our communities."

Norwich Free Academy canceled activities for this weekend, according to NFA's website.

"We're supportive of closing the schools at this point in time," Ledge Light Health District Director Stephen Mansfield said. "It's not premature just because we don't have cases."

Food distribution areas

Districts are making accommodations for those families whose students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

The New London Public Schools’ Child Nutrition Program will provide an opportunity for families to pick up lunch and breakfast in a grab-and-go fashion for children 18 and under. The service will start Monday with food distribution sites at four schools Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Pickup sites are New London High School, Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School; Bennie Dover Jackson Multi-Magnet Middle School and Harbor Elementary School.

Groton Superintendent Michael Graner and Food Services Director Ernie Koschmieder said the Food Services Department will distribute packages of breakfast and lunch from 9 to 9:30 a.m. Monday through Friday at West Side STEM Magnet Middle School, Mary Morrisson Elementary School and Groton Public Library. The program is available to all children, 18 or younger, in the Groton community.

Because Stonington schools also will be closed, children under 18 will able to get breakfast and lunch at a distribution site in the Human Services parking lot. The Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center's food pantry also will remain open.

Norwich School Business Administrator Athena Nagel said her district is making provisions for low-income students who receive free school breakfast and lunch. The district will host breakfast and lunch pickup points — one distribution of both per day — at several school sites to be determined. The district also will be serving breakfast and lunch, also together, in several community spots with times and locations to be announced.

On-site child care programs at Norwich schools also are canceled, Nagel said.

Ledyard Superintendent Jason S. Hartling wrote that the district will make an announcement by Monday, March 16, "related to emergency food assistance for those students currently receiving free or reduced lunch." He said families can apply through the district's website, www.ledyard.net, or by calling the district, (860) 464-9255.

Learning activities

School officials said they would continue to communicate with parents as more information becomes available and advised parents to check for communications from the districts and their websites. For example, the New London school district will publish weekly updates on Fridays that will be shared at www.newlondon.org and on various social media sites.

Gov. Ned Lamont had announced earlier this week that he was lifting requirements, so school districts can finish the academic year by June 30, even if they don't reach the 180 school days normally required.

The school districts said in their letters that the state Department of Education has discouraged the implementation of formal distance learning, "due to concerns over instructional consistency," equity and the "disruption of special education services." But the districts said they will "seek ways to provide supplemental education" to students.

School officials said that they will contact the school community and families if they are able to use a "distance learning model."

In New London, schools will be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday to allow parents and guardians to pick up student learning packets in the main office of each school. While they are not required, Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said her hope is families will choose to keep their students engaged in learning during the closure.

The schools also will be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. to allow parents and guardians to pick up students’ medications from the nurses’ offices.

Additionally, the district will offer a drive-through service in the parking lot of Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday to allow parents and guardians to pick up the packets. Students and their families will not have access to school facilities after Monday.

Graner said Groton schools will provide supplemental learning to keep students engaged and will post links to learning resources on the district's website.

Groton Schools will be open from 8 a.m. to noon Monday if students need to pick up medications, books or materials, he said in the letter.

Hartling, the Ledyard superintendent, anticipates posting supplemental learning materials at www.ledyard.net or they will be made available by calling the district after Tuesday.

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Erica Moser, Greg Smith and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

k.drelich@theday.com

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