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COVID-19 forces Stonington high and middle schools to switch to all remote learning

Stonington — Superintendent of Schools Van Riley announced Wednesday afternoon that, due to rising cases of COVID-19 and quarantine requirements, Stonington High School and Stonington Middle School will move to full distance learning beginning Thursday.

The town’s two elementary schools will remain on a hybrid schedule until Nov. 25. All schools will be on full distance learning through Dec. 4. Hybrid learning is slated to resume Monday, Dec. 7.

The announcement came one day after Riley outlined the COVID-19-related challenges now facing the school system as the number of Stonington High School students in quarantine have skyrocketed in recent days.

In a report to the Board of Education, Riley said that so far the school system has seen 15 students or staff members test positive for the virus in three of its four schools. But because of exposures to infected persons, primarily through sports and players on other teams, the number of people having to quarantine for 14 days is increasing drastically.

Riley said that as of Tuesday night, 62 students and one staff member from the high school were in quarantine. The school’s boys' soccer team had its final game with Ledyard canceled this past Saturday due to a positive test related to the team.

In addition, Riley said 18 students and 6 staff members from Stonington Middle, Deans Mill and West Vine Street schools also are quarantining.

Since the start of the academic year, the school system had employed a hybrid model of learning in which students divided into two groups attend in-person class two days a week and participate in remote learning the other three. Unlike other area school districts, Stonington has not until now had to move to all remote learning.

Before Wednesday’s announcement, Riley had planned to have all students participate in remote learning on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 and 2 (already a remote learning day) with in-person learning resuming on Dec. 3. He said the change was designed to provide the best opportunity to continue to remain open in the hybrid model.

Riley told the school board that while the district has had a relatively low number of positive COVID-19 cases, the increased number of quarantining students and staff has caused concern among staff and parents.

He said 13 high school students have now switched to full remote learning due to those concerns.

“We’ve done an amazing job controlling this but I want the board to realize where we are heading with this,” he said.

Riley also pointed out that with Thanksgiving coming up, people likely will be leaving town or having large numbers of visitors, triggering quarantine requirements.

He also reported that up until now, the Ledge Light Health District has been conducting contact tracing for the schools but that responsibility is now up to the schools, as the health district focuses on vaccine distribution.

He said a team of coaches, nurses and administrators are all conducting contact tracing, with nurses keeping detailed records.

“We’re making sure we’re managing it and doing it the right way,” he said, congratulating staff on their efforts. He added, “I don’t want to say it’s overwhelming but it’s a big issue for us.”

Riley said quarantines also are placing a strain on finding an adequate number of substitute teachers for staff who have to stay home. On Monday and Tuesday, he said approximately 40 staff members who were out of work each day had requested substitutes, but the school system was able to fill less than half of those requests. A total of 14 of the unfilled positions were teachers.

“That’s a lot and that could increase," Riley said, pointing out other school districts have had to shift to all remote learning because they can’t find substitutes.

“We’re not there yet but I wanted to alert you,” he said.

He said paraprofessionals, counselors and administrators are trying to cover in-person classes while the teacher instructs from home.

“Right now it’s a real juggling act,” he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com 

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