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New London district unveils school reopening plans, costs

New London — Planning for the return of students to school in New London is underway and it’s expected to be an expensive endeavor.

The district has so far estimated a nearly $2.5 million cost for the ideas under consideration to accommodate students and the various safety protocols that will be in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Those costs range from $200,000 to purchase masks for students and staff to $520,000 to pay school bus monitors and possibly another $800,000 for 10 extra teachers for newly created classrooms to allow for smaller class sizes and more student separation. Money also will be spent on cleaning supplies, extra janitorial staff, training, technology and plastic shields under consideration for use as dividers between students.

The costs are preliminary and could increase or decrease depending on a countless number of unknowns, such as whether the district will need a $100,000 air mover to ensure clean air in the high school cafeteria or if the district sees a drop in magnet school revenues from students deciding to remain in their own districts.

Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie hosted a workshop with the Board of Education last week to discuss the ways she said the district is innovating and formulating a plan, not only for a full return to classes but also for a mix of in-person and distance learning and, in the event the state sees a spike in COVID-19 cases, a full return to distance learning.

The district, as are others across the state, is following state Department of Education guidelines released on June 29, called “Adapt, Advance, Achieve: Connecticut’s Plan to Learn and Grow Together.”

“The expectation is that we invite all students and all staff back to campus and be prepared to serve them on site,” Ritchie told school board members at a special meeting on Thursday.

That plan will be in place while COVID-19 cases and hospitalization numbers are low.

“If those numbers change, the school plan may change,” Ritchie said. “For an example, if there is an outbreak or an increase, students may not be with us for a full day, every single day. We may have to separate groups or rotate groups to separate them. If the (COVID-19) data gets to the red where we’re really in a health crisis ... schools will be closed again and we will have distance learning implemented.”

The district intends to cohort students into groups, mostly with 15 students per teacher. Cohorts of students would stay with one another for much of the school day.

The district is gauging the mood of families with a survey this week asking how comfortable they are sending their children back, whether students will use the bus and expectations about what they want to see in school.

School board member Bryan Doughty said the district is doing the best it can to adapt to the changes and is making a strong effort to communicate with New London families. The survey results, he said, will help guide the final plan for the district.

“Every family is thinking about this right now,” Doughty said. “I anticipate a lot of kids will be staying home, but the district has to be open to bringing those kids back in. It makes it more complicated.”

To account for smaller class sizes, Kate McCoy, the district’s executive director of strategic planning, said recently that the district is looking at reorganizing spaces in the schools and utilizing spaces that might not otherwise be a normal classroom.

“That might mean an art room becomes a general education classroom and art becomes someone moving around (with) a cart,” McCoy said.

The district is looking at the possibility of repurposing Harbor Elementary School into a staffed distance learning hub and community resource center, shifting the students there into other elementary schools. Ritchie said that will become possible if 25% of students opt for distance learning over a return to school. The building also would house social services, food services, health care and counseling services. Ritchie said improvements to the distance learning experience are planned that could include a dedicated team to allow each instructor a face-to-face connection daily with students.

The school district on Monday issued preliminary planning information to families via email. The information also is available on the district website, NewLondon.org.

Face coverings or masks will be required by staff and students at all times. Classrooms will be set up to maximize space between students. The schools will have illness tracking protocols in place that include separate space for anyone not feeling well. In collaboration with the Ledge Light Health District, the school district also will provide guidance to families about when a student should stay home or someone has been in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. All students and staff will again have access to technological devices.

The district, which was already working to close what school Finance Director Rob Funk said was a $480,000 budget gap, is counting on a large portion of the $1.9 million in CARES Act funding to help offset costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. A small portion of the money is to be shared with nonpublic schools, St. Joseph and The Williams School, if requested.

Ritchie is holding a series of virtual meetings for conversations with families with updates on the school website. The district intends to submit a plan by July 24 to the state Department of Education.

Ritchie, in Monday’s notice to the community, said the social-emotional well-being of students remains a priority.

“It is important that all students feel a strong sense of belonging to school as we enter the new school year, new groupings and new ways of teaching and learning,” she said. “Support staff will be available for each cohort of students in each school.”

g.smith@theday.com

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