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East Lyme schools to pursue hybrid learning model

East Lyme — In a letter to parents Friday, Superintendent Jeffrey Newton announced the district will pursue a hybrid learning model at the start of this school year after the Board of Education voted on the decision at a special meeting Thursday night.

The first day of school is scheduled for Aug. 31.

“The Hybrid Blended Learning Model of opening our school's mirrors how other surrounding districts are opening their schools as we have focused on a regional approach for the safety of all students and staff,” Newton wrote in his letter.

He also wrote that a hybrid learning model will allow for a more thorough training, review and practice of new procedures with reduced density in the school building, while also allowing the schools to more thoroughly implement interactive distance-learning methods.

“This is especially important if we move to a full remote model of instruction due to changing virus transmission rates in our community,” Newton wrote.

“Having half the school population in a given building at one time allows us to build confidence in implementing safety measures, practicing social distancing and usage of (personal protective equipment),” he also wrote, explaining that a “hybrid approach reduces anxiety amongst staff, students and families.”

The plan follows a regional model for the southeastern Connecticut school districts in the LEARN regional educational service center. The plan has students with last names starting with letters in the first half of the alphabet attending in person Monday and Tuesday, with students with last names in the second half doing remote learning. The positions are reversed for Thursdays and Fridays, and all students will be in remote learning Wednesdays. There will be no classes on scheduled school off days.

The decision comes about a week after Gov. Ned Lamont said districts could decide for themselves whether to conduct full in-person or hybrid learning models at the start of school this year and after East Lyme teachers protested by way of a car caravan last week. Teachers who spoke with The Day before the caravan said they did not yet feel it was safe to return to school and wanted more specific plans for return.

Lamont and health experts have said COVID infection and transmission rates are low enough in the state to allow students to safely return to school with proper social distancing and safety protocols in place, but teachers’ unions, such as the Connecticut Education Association, have continued to advocate that more exacting safety measures, as well as additional state funding, need to be in place to appropriately protect teachers and students.

All school districts had been told by the governor in June to plan for a full reopening, as well as planning for the ability to quickly pivot between a hybrid learning model — or a combination of in-person and virtual learning — and out-of-school virtual learning, depending on how COVID-19 transmission rates fluctuate. Districts were required to submit those plans to the state July 24.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious diseases expert who’s been the face of the U.S. scientific community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Monday that Connecticut is in “a good place” as it faces the prospect of reopening schools.

Newton said by phone Friday that school bus routes would remain unchanged but he was not entirely sure about how much the district may need in additional funding and whether it would need to request that money from the town.

He said the district is expecting to receive about $171,000 in federal pandemic relief money in September or October, which will be applied to reopening expenses, but also will need to weigh out revenue losses from the schools' pool and fitness facility, as well as its food services program.

The district already has spent tens of thousands of dollars on additional protective equipment, Newton said, such as masks, face shields and plastic guards that will be installed in various locations around the schools.

The town also approved in May a plan to allow the district to bond approximately $1 million to purchase every student a mobile learning device by this fall, to better pivot between in-person and distance learning throughout the year.

Newton wrote the district is planning to a reassess its learning model at the beginning of October to determine whether it will be safe at that point to move to a full in-person learning model or not.

Newton has requested that parents notify the schools by 4 p.m. Tuesday through a survey whether their children will enroll in school for the fall or not. Building principals also soon will send parents information about how to participate in “town hall style” Zoom calls. There will be separate elementary, middle school and high school meetings run by the building principals.

During these meetings, the hybrid blended learning model will be overviewed with parents.

Tentative dates/times are as follows for these meetings:

  • Flanders, Lillie B. Haynes, and Niantic Center School: Aug. 13, from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
  • East Lyme Middle School: Aug. 13, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
  • East Lyme High School: Aug. 11 from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

“We recognize that the start of school is not far away, and we are doing everything we can to make decisions and communicate them to you as quickly as possible,” Newton wrote. He added that plans may change and evolve “as we receive ongoing guidance from the state and our local health department.”

Parents and students can learn more about what school will look like come fall by watching a YouTube video or reading page 23 of the reopening plan. Both have been posted on the district's website, eastlymeschools.org.

m.biekert@theday.com

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