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East Lyme to phase in classroom return for elementary students

East Lyme is phasing in a return to full-time in-person learning for its elementary students beginning March 1.

According to a letter Superintendent Jeffrey Newton sent to parents and guardians on Wednesday, different grades will start going four days a week at different times, with a goal of shifting all elementary grades to in-person classes five days a week on May 3.

The Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday schedule will begin March 1 for kindergarteners and first graders, March 15 for second graders, and March 29 for third and fourth graders.

There won't be an option to remain in the current hybrid model, but students can remain in or join the Virtual Viking Program, which is fully remote. Newton said there are currently 122 elementary students who are fully virtual, about 14% of the population.

The district sent a survey to parents Wednesday asking if they will have their kids attend in person or go fully virtual. Newton said this is so the district can figure out class sizes and busing.

The superintendent said the district is developing the rollout for middle school students, with more information coming next week or the week after, and is looking at high school options.

Newton explained that it was necessary to see three weeks of declining COVID-19 case numbers "to entertain a safe return of children," and that cases have declined each week since Jan. 16. In the East Lyme Board of Education meeting Monday, Newton said the director of Ledge Light Health District is in full support of a phased-in approach to returning elementary students.

Newton gave multiple reasons for a phased-in reopening instead of an immediate one. He said if coronavirus variants cause case numbers to skyrocket, the district could pause the plan and wait for the numbers to come back down. He said it's important to provide staff advanced notice so they can plan.

The superintendent also said he tried to wrap the timeframe around March because that's hopefully when teachers will start to get vaccinated. Scott Mahon, president of the teachers' union, stressed the importance of getting teachers vaccinated.

"There's no question that our teachers understand how important it is to get children back in school," he told The Day, "and create as normal a learning environment as we can, and it has to be done safely, and alignment with teacher vaccinations is probably the most logical and safest step to create that environment."

Mahon said there are different attitudes about reopening, and not all teachers are on one side.

Board members wanted shorter phase-in

The Board of Education listened to the superintendent's presentation and provided input but didn't vote on the plan. Newton noted that at the beginning of the school year, state Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said decisions on school closings and openings should be made between the superintendent and local health district.

The elementary timeline changed between Monday and Wednesday: It was originally more drawn-out, with first and second graders starting two weeks later, and third and fourth graders starting three weeks later.

Several board members expressed a desire to see a quicker return. Newton said the change was not due to these comments, but to better coincide with the middle school phase-in dates that are being worked out.

"What I don't want to see is that we're waiting until the end of the year to bring back our students," board member Candice Carlson said.

"I wish this was moving a little quicker, but at the same time, we're in an impossible situation that nobody's ever managed before," member John Kleinhans said. "But I wish that there was more guidance when it came from the top, when there's so many executive orders coming down from the top."

Newton began his presentation Monday by saying "there's no right answer in this," and some board members expressed similar views.

"I am terrified of both sending everyone back and of keeping it the way it (is)," Jaime Barr Shelburn said. "I'm terrified of both. Whatever we do, it scares me to death. But the kids are struggling, the parents are struggling and teachers are struggling."

Parents, doctors and other community members voice support for return to classroom

Ahead of Monday's meeting, the board received 11 letters in favor of returning to fully in-person learning — including at least four from medical doctors — and three opposed. Several of those in favor cited supporting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and talked about the mental health impacts of the pandemic.

Rosa Carrasco said children can't wait for slow transitions and urged immediate action to have all schools fully open. "After almost a year of socially isolating our children and depriving them from adequate education, from a school experience, and of overwhelming them with screens, it is now time to help them heal," she wrote.

Fred Santoro, an East Lyme resident and pediatrician, noted an increase in anxiety, depression and behavioral issues, and said the lack of full-time schooling contributes to delays in learning and emotional development. He said uncertainty around COVID-19 transmission made it reasonable in the spring to begin remote learning but epidemiological studies have now made it clear schools can safely reopen.

Emily Perkins, whose son attends Niantic Center School, said as a health care worker, she would "argue that schools and hospitals are among the safest places during this pandemic." She also said students have shown "impeccable compliance" when it comes to wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands.

"We are exhausted, overwhelmed and overworked," wrote Ashley Manwaring, the mother of three children attending Niantic Center and the middle school. "I feel that it is in all of our best interest to find a way to return to in person learning as soon as possible."

But parent Jennifer Wells implored the district not to resume full in-person learning until all teachers and staff have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. She questioned, "Why not set a public example of what it means to treat your teachers and staff like the valuable assets to the community they are?"

e.moser@theday.com

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