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Stonington school reopening may feature mix of virtual and in-person classes

Stonington — It appears the school system is moving toward a hybrid reopening plan, in which students would return to school two days a week and learn remotely the other three days.

Meanwhile, the school system would be prepared to revert to remote learning in the event that cases of COVID-19 spiked.

These options were among five that Superintendent of Schools Van Riley presented to the school system's Reopening Task Force Wednesday afternoon. The Board of Education is scheduled next week to approve a reopening plan, although conditions could change in the seven to eight weeks before schools reopen.

Riley also reported that schools, which had been slated to reopen Sept. 1, now likely will not reopen until after Labor Day.

Members of the task force met in person at the school's central administration office Wednesday, with the public able to watch the meeting on YouTube and Zoom. Documents provided by Riley to the task force about the details and costs of the various reopening options, as well as the results of surveys of teachers and students' parents were discussed but not made available to the public.

Riley said that parents of 256 students said they do not want their children to return to school and prefer virtual learning. He said virtual learning would be available to all families who wanted it. He said the parent survey showed that about two-thirds of parents would be willing to drive their children to school. He said this would help the school system tremendously, as the town could ensure proper social distancing on its existing buses. If the town had to plan for all students taking the bus, it would cost $3 million to buy 48 new buses.

Riley also said a survey of 225 teachers and other staff members such a guidance counselors showed 43, or about 20 percent, did not want to return to the schools. He said those teachers and staff would be involved in virtual learning and possibly involved with the students staying home.

More surveys will be done before school begins, to get an updated list of staff and students not returning because they or their family members have a medical condition that puts them or family members at a greater risk if they contract the virus or have to care for a dependent.

Riley said the school system also is working on answering the many questions the task force has received about issues such as cleaning, masks, filtration, busing and other issues. He said changes also will have to be made to programs in order to ensure social distancing and keep students in groups that don't mix. He said parents will be asked to provide masks but masks will be available to any student or staff member who needs one. Every school will have a contamination area separate from the nurse's office where students and staff who develop symptoms during the school day can be isolated.

Riley said the Option 1A was to have all students return to school every day while maintaining 6 feet of social distancing per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. He said class sizes would have to be cut in half, requiring 112 additional classrooms at a cost of $20 million, which he said was not feasible.

Option 1B was to have split sessions each day, with some students attending school in the morning and the rest in the afternoon. This would require $5.4 million to hire additional teachers and staff.

Riley said Option 1C, the hybrid model, would work at an additional cost of $1 million and would not require any additional classrooms, teachers or buses while meeting CDC guidelines. He said a lot of school districts are considering implementing this model.

Option 2 would have all students attending school each day and sitting 3 feet apart, which meets American Academy of Pediatric guidelines but not CDC guidelines. This option would cost an additional $543,000. Option 3 was all virtual learning.

All the in-school plans will require $235,000 in funding for personal protective equipment and liaisons at each school and the central office to answer virus-related questions from the public.

Riley said he will be asking the school board to choose option 1A, 1B or 1C with 2 and 3 as backup plans.

Assistant Superintendent Mary Anne Butler cautioned the task force that the school system needs to be ready to pivot to another option, such as virtual learning, depending on developments with the virus and instructions from government officials.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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