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New London opts for mix of in-school and remote learning

New London — The New London school district will begin the new academic year with a mix of in-school instruction and distance learning, following the path of other area districts who are taking precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and abiding by the concerns of parents.

Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie, who detailed the plans for the school board on Monday, said the hybrid model will be in place for at least seven weeks as the district continues to monitor COVID-19 rates in the community. While the hybrid model is in place, 50% of students will be in the schools at any given time.

“Throughout that session we will be reevaluating the current health data and making decisions for next steps,” Ritchie said.

The first day of school is Sept. 8 and the district has evolving plans to allow it to pivot to in-school instruction or distance learning as needed.

Despite the push by the state to reopen all schools, early results from a survey sent to families of the more than 3,300 students in the district show most are still hesitant to send their kids back. Of the 1,200 families who answered the survey, about 40% were in favor of full-time distance learning, followed by the hybrid model. The district is still soliciting survey responses.

School board Vice President Jefferey Hart is among parents advocating for the district and state to “put the brakes on” and not risk a rise in COVID-19 levels.

“This is a tremendous plan within the guidelines that the state gave us,” Hart told Ritchie on Monday. “That is a huge caveat. I think an incredible amount of effort has been spent following a set of bad guidelines. I don’t think a sufficient amount of energy or effort or critical thinking has been spent asking whether these are appropriate guidelines to follow and whether we should push back on them.”

Hart said he is in favor of full distance learning and asked that the district commit to one full semester of distance learning or risk a surge in COVID-19 cases, erasing the progress in the state. Hart’s pleas did not appear to gain traction with fellow board members.

In response to Hart, board member Bryan Doughty read off statistics that showed the precipitous drop in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

“Although I share Jeff’s concerns to a degree, we’ve done a fantastic job and we are a bubble. We just have to continue to protect our bubble with face masks, with whatever else we’re going to possibly use," Doughty said. "I cannot really make an argument to not go back into the schools. I think it would be a disservice to our students and our community to not move forward with the hybrid plan.”

New Haven’s school board recently voted to have distance learning for the first 10 weeks but must now seek a waiver from the state Board of Education. Ritchie said districts opting for all distance learning also risk losing state funding. She said all families will have the option to either come back to school or stay home but must inform the school if they decide to change mid-session to allow the school to prepare.

Students who are attending school when it opens will be separated into cohorts, small groups that will stay together throughout most of the day. The cohorts keep class sizes to eight and 10 students per teacher in the elementary and middle schools and about 13 students per teacher at the high school level.

Masks are mandated for students and staff, heightened cleaning protocols will be in place and the district is reconfiguring the schools to maximize social distancing. Another challenge for the district is two school building construction projects underway that have made social distancing more difficult, and some buildings without air conditioning. Plans are underway to provide for air circulation where needed.

There will be no large gatherings, outside groups or even parents allowed in the schools for the time being. The state of athletics in the district remains in flux, with more answers coming in the next few weeks, Ritchie said.

Classroom instruction will occur two days a week for each cohort, with one day midweek left open to allow the district to deep clean the schools. The district figures it will need at least five extra part-time custodians to keep up with the cleaning. It also will need to hire bus monitors and is considering using First Student, its contracted bus service, for at least a portion of those duties.

The total extra costs to the district is still a moving target, school Finance Director Rob Funk said, and may include hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover the cost of substitute teachers should teachers opt to take leave. The district is bracing for the possibility that some teachers will use the federal laws enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic to take time off.

Other complications include food service, which will involve feeding students at school, providing meals for those students who have opted for distance learning and additionally supplying meals for returning students on the days they are at home.

The district has released details of its plans and protocols on its website and additionally is reaching out to families through virtual coffee hours.

g.smith@theday.com

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