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Lamont closes schools for rest of academic year

As COVID-19 hospitalizations increased after a 12-day streak of declines, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Tuesday that all K-12 public schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year.

Students will continue distance learning, and districts will keep providing meals for students under the school lunch and breakfast programs, according to the announcement.

At a news conference, Lamont said that while he had wanted to reopen schools even for a few weeks to allow students to finish the school year, it was not safe. “We see a continuing increase in infections in many regions of the state, and this was no time to take that risk,” he said.

State data released Tuesday showed 30,621 COVID-19 cases, an increase of 648 cases, and 2,633 deaths, an increase of 77; 1,500 people are hospitalized with the disease, 36 more than the day before.

New London County has 681 cases and 45 deaths, according to the state data. On Tuesday, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital reported having 27 COVID-19 patients, while Westerly Hospital had one. Backus Hospital had six.

Lamont urged people to continue to practice social distancing and wear masks.

“While this decision to cancel is not welcome by students, parents or educators, we know that we have to continue to look at this as a safety issue,” State Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said.

Going virtual for graduation

For graduating seniors, Lamont said a virtual ceremony is likely the best option for June. However, “we’re still looking at what happens later and seeing if you can have an outside graduation with the appropriate social distancing, and I think a determination on that’ll be made at a later time,” he said.

School districts across the region said they were working on their end-of-year plans, weighing options and forming committees to see how to safely celebrate the seniors' accomplishments.

“The graduation ceremony is one of the most important senior year traditions and it’s important we recognize the seniors' hard work,” said Ella T. Grasso Technical High School Principal Patricia Feeney, who is looking at multiple options and awaiting guidance from the State Department of Education.

Groton Public Schools plan to hold some kind of graduation ceremony for seniors on June 19, but perhaps modified to be remote, Superintendent Michael Graner said.

New London Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said her district has established a graduation committee for seniors and promotion committees for lower grades. Committees in each school "are collaborating on multiple ways we will celebrate students at the end of the year,” she said, adding that plans will be publicized in the coming weeks.

In Stonington, Board of Education Chairwoman Alexa Garvey said graduation, if possible, still will be held June 19. She said school officials are looking at different scenarios depending on social distancing requirements, and the annual academic awards banquet will become part of the graduation celebration. Parents are working on different options for the graduation night party.

Waterford Superintendent Thomas W. Giard III said the high school has formed a committee and still is planning graduation and recognition activities.

“Graduation possibilities will be dictated by public health conditions, the governor’s executive orders regarding crowds and gatherings, and by what’s practical with safety and health being our top priorities,” he said.

East Lyme Superintendent Jeff Newton said graduation tentatively is scheduled for June 19. "The high school's administration is working with the senior class to develop an end of year graduation ceremony of some sort,” he said. “What that will look like, we’re not sure yet. We will get guidance from the health department on what's possible, but seniors are hoping to have some sort of graduation ceremony of sorts — something that is similar to what normally we do every year. We are trying to work off the idea of a typical graduation, but make sure that it is safe and has the approval of the health department."

Norwich Free Academy spokesman Michael O’Farrell said NFA is committed to providing traditional end-of-year awards nights and graduation ceremonies for the approximately 600 seniors set to graduate this year, except that all events will be held remotely and broadcast online and on public access TV. The ceremonies will follow the regular schedule: June 8 for visual and performing arts awards, June 9 for athletics awards, June 10 for senior class night and awards night and graduation at 4 p.m. June 11.

The 50-year reunion of the Class of 1970 is canceled, O’Farrell said. NFA has a tradition of inviting the reunion class to walk with the current graduates and have a guest speaker from the reunion class address graduates.

Ledyard Superintendent Jay Hartling said it would be unfair to seniors to make a decision now on graduation, given how much things could change in a month; currently graduation is scheduled for June 19. The district will make the call closer to the end of May in order to have the most up-to-date information. He said he will continue to fight for a ceremony that will bring the kids together.

Kate Ericson, executive director of LEARN, which operates several independent magnet schools in the region, said the principals of each of LEARN's schools are soliciting feedback from students, staff and families on what they see as a safe and viable alternative celebration to traditional end-of-year ceremonies. LEARN hopes to finalize plans in the next few weeks.

Continuing distance learning

With the governor’s decision, several superintendents said they now have a clear direction for the rest of the year and were starting to focus on plans for next year.

“I support the governor's decision, and I am happy that we have a firm decision so that we can continue to support our students and teachers through distance learning through June while planning for our re-opening,” Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said in an email Tuesday.

She said Norwich is working on reopening plans with safety precautions based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s five themes: pre-screening efforts, regular monitoring, wearing a mask, social distancing and disinfecting/cleaning high-touch surfaces.

In a message sent to parents, faculty and staff Tuesday, NFA Head of School David Klein said remote classes will continue through the scheduled end of the school's year: June 11 for seniors and June 15 for other grades.

Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger also said he was pleased to have “a firm decision” so his two-school district can make concrete plans for the end of the school year and summer. “Several districts have already begun planning for a school restart, and the implications for safety with a built-in social distancing strategy present many huge logistical challenges among many other issues,” he said.

Ericson said that while she was not surprised by the announcement, she still was processing the reality of not returning to school this year. All of LEARN’s schools will continue to operate under its current distance learning plan through the remainder of the school year.

Newton, East Lyme's superintendent, also said Lamont’s announcement was not a major surprise, given that most states already made the decision to close schools for the rest of the year.

"Obviously, it is sad, we want to see our kids again, we want them in the building, we want our staff in the building, but it's just not going to happen," he added. "We need to focus on September and we have to be prepared to support our students' return to the school after a very long absence."

The East Lyme Board of Education already has been having discussions about what that return might look like and planning for the transition.

Ritchie said distance learning would continue in New London, along with outreach to student and parents. “We are working differently and we are missing our students, families and each other,” she said in the statement thanking staff for their hard work. She said administrators will continue to work alongside teachers and support staff to review and respond to each student’s engagement and task completion data. Interventions will be in place for those students and families who need additional support.

Garvey said Stonington families will be provided with grading parameters and modifications made due to the impact of virtual learning. In addition, stipends will not be paid to spring sports coaches due to the cancellation of the season by the CIAC.

Graner said Groton schools will continue distance learning until June 11 and then focus on putting together a re-entry plan. “We’re going to try to put together a good comprehensive assessment program so that when the kids do return, we’ll be able to figure out where they are in terms of their academic skills,” he said.

He anticipates the first quarter of next year will be focused on determining gaps in students’ learning and addressing those needs before moving on the regular curriculum. The district also is forming committees to address all aspects of reopening, from technology to how to make facilities as safe possible.

Grasso Tech “will continue with our distance learning plan and instructing our students to the best of our abilities,” Feeney said. Any planning taking place for reopening is now being done with August in mind.

Hartling said Lamont’s decision gives the Ledyard school district a chance to shift from running various scenarios on what will happen this year to thinking about what might happen in the fall.

The district’s continuity of learning plan has evolved over the last two months to meet changing needs, and teachers are continuing to adapt their lessons.

“What we’re looking at now is how to provide more synchronous opportunities for students and how to continue to enhance engagement for our students,” he said. “Our children have been participating at really high rates, but we want to keep them engaged, and so we continue to provide additional resources to our teachers, ideas, curriculum items to keep it fresh.”

Giard said Waterford schools will continue distance learning through the academic school year. “The focus of our reopening efforts of our physical school buildings will now shift towards the fall," he said.

Cardona said that further guidance on summer school will be provided later this month, with an emphasis on students who may have additional learning needs.

State Office of Early Childhood Education Commissioner Beth Bye said camps can begin opening on June 29, but must follow additional protective measure to reduce the likelihood of exposure to the virus. That guidance will be released on May 15.

Cardona said the Reopen Connecticut Education Team’s work includes following guidance from health officials to make sure facilities are safe for students and staff when school districts reopen. For example, the team is looking at ideas, such as how to creatively use spaces like media centers to split up students to provide opportunities for them to learn while maintaining social distance.

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Mary Biekert, Brian Hallenbeck, Amanda Hutchinson, Greg Smith, Sten Spinella and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

k.drelich@theday.com





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