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State school reopening plan means plenty of homework for Norwich staff

Norwich — The 50-page guide released Monday by the state Department of Education will mean a busy July for Norwich school officials to prepare buildings, buses, classrooms, staff and students for school to start Aug. 26.

Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said school staff are picking apart the state Department of Education’s Adapt, Advance, Achieve: Connecticut’s Plan to Learn and Grow Together. The plan provides answers to many questions, including classroom and school bus occupancy, required masks and cleaning protocols. But it raises many questions, as well, and allows districts to set policies for issues such as school visitors, volunteers and before- and after-school programs.

School districts also must plan to quickly close and revert to distance learning if public health officials raise an alarm about COVID-19 cases.

“The planning is extraordinary, and the schedule is tight,” Stringfellow said. “I’ve been on Zoom meetings day and night trying to plan. And all the other things that must be done to run a district didn’t go away.”

At the same time, local health districts have been busy on their own online video conferences with one another. Patrick McCormack, director of the Uncas Health District, will convey information to school districts and local private schools.

“All of this is with the understanding we’re here to provide guidance and to support them,” McCormack said of the state reopening plan. “They have to develop their own plans. We’ve provided guidance on graduations, summer school, tutoring, the (school sports) recommendations, the reopening recommendations.”

Stringfellow spent several hours Wednesday in online meetings with the district’s steering committee. She will assign sections of the state report to the three subcommittees working on reopening schools — a wellness group for physical and emotional health measures, a committee on in-person teaching and improving distance learning and a logistics committee on buses, classroom plans, signage and traffic patterns.

Stringfellow will merge the committees' reports into one plan to be submitted to the state by the July 24 deadline. The state will not approve the plans but will keep them to provide technical support to local districts, the report released Monday said.

Among the many first steps is determining how many staff and students are willing to return to school. Stringfellow said Norwich will survey teachers on their desire to return to the classroom.

Based on the state’s information, teachers can either return to the classroom under the state guidelines or access leave time. The state allows for a two-week COVID-19 leave. After that, teachers not wishing to return for medical reasons or concern of exposing family members could use sick time or the Family and Medical Leave Act.

An earlier survey of Norwich parents showed about 50% were willing to send their children to school. A new survey will be sent out after the Fourth of July holiday, Stringfellow said.

The state plan calls for establishing cohorts of students and teachers, keeping each group as segregated from others as much as possible. Roving teachers, such as for art and music, would have to maintain a distance from students when they enter the classroom.

“The music teachers are trying to figure out how to do their craft without multiple students touching an instrument and without singing,” Stringfellow said. “They are an incredibly creative group. I’m comfortable they’ll come up with something, but that is a challenge.”

If 50% of students return, spacing in some of Norwich schools' small classrooms would be eased. But problems could arise if more students return over time.

The district may look to use part of its $1.9 million federal CARES Act coronavirus response grant to hire retired teachers, or rely on specialty teachers, to handle distance learning, which would consist of video lessons, posted assignments and online learning platforms.

The Norwich district also must plan for a rapid shutdown, if necessary. While schools are open, Stringfellow would prefer to keep students’ laptops at school, where they can be cleaned and charged overnight. She will recommend each student have a “to go” bag with laptops, chargers, school supplies and lessons, just in case.

That would avoid the need for parents to return to school to pick up key items, as was done in March with the sudden school closures.

c.bessette@theday.com

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