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Stonington schools offer choice of hybrid plan or remote learning

Stonington — The Board of Education approved a plan Thursday night in which there are two options to return to school next month amid the COVID-19 pandemic: having students attend in-person instruction two days a week and using remote learning the other three days, or all remote learning.

The decision follows similar ones by other school systems across the region that have decided to implement the so-called hybrid model of instruction as a way to deal with the COVID-19 virus.

The hybrid model calls for half of the students to attend in-person instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays while the other half are in school on Thursdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, schools are closed for cleaning. School begins Sept. 8.

Last month, the Board of Education had supported three options: a return to in-person instruction with 3 feet of social distancing, as well as the hybrid model or all remote learning.

The reopening plan approved Thursday calls for the school board to review the two options in mid-October “with the hope to provide full in-school instruction as soon as we can in a safe manner.”

School officials said the decision to offer the hybrid model was made after hours of deliberation with input from health experts, employees and families. The teachers’ union also supported the hybrid model.

Students will be seated a minimum of 6 feet apart and teachers and students will be required to wear masks except when teachers are providing direct instruction or when there are mask breaks. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade will remain in the same small groups except for special education instruction, bus transportation and survey classes such as art and music. Each school will have two 800-square-foot tents and use of outdoor spaces will be encouraged. There will be one student per seat on buses and students cannot change the buses they ride once they are set at the beginning of school.   

Surveys of staff have shown 90% of employees say they will return to in-person learning “conditionally on safety protocols” while 20% of families prefer all remote learning. A final survey now will be sent to families and staff to gauge the needs of both groups. 

At the high school, seniors may only take courses required to complete their graduation requirements. If a student completes those requirements by the end of the first semester, they cannot take classes in the spring but could participate in graduation in June.

Each school has developed a detailed plan based on the overall school system plan, and each is available on the district's website and the website of each individual school. Superintendent of Schools Van Riley told the school board that the plan meets guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as much as possible.

If a student of staff member tests positive for the novel coronavirus, Riley said it will be up to Ledge Light Health District to make decisions on quarantining, testing and tracing — not the school system.    

Riley also told the board that remote learning this fall will be more structured than this past spring, with more live sessions with teachers. He also outlined the extensive safety measures being taken to protect staff and students.

Riley told the school board that changes occur every day and he pledged to keep the board informed of any changes.

Board member Heidi Simmons recommended all elementary school students return to five days a week of in-person learning due to what she said are minimal risk factors for that age group. She also questioned what metrics the school system will use to decide when to return to in-person learning.

Riley said there is "no silver bullet to say if this happens, we can come back." He said the school system's health director and nursing staff felt the hybrid model was the best plan and starts the process of bringing students back into the schools.     

The report estimates it will cost $775,621 to start the school year by implementing the hybrid and virtual learning programs. That money is not in the 2020-21 budget and will have to either be allocated by the Board of Finance. Riley said more money could be needed to get though the school year.  

Riley said the school system has between $200,000 and $225,000 in federal CARE money to deal with virus-related expenses. In addition, the finance board cut the school budget by an additional $500,000 this past spring and created a type of insurance fund.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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