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Ledyard votes to move forward with return to in-person learning

Ledyard — The Board of Education voted 6-3 Wednesday to instruct Superintendent Jay Hartling to implement a plan to return students to school full-time.

The motion to move forward with in-person learning, which requires regular updates on the district website and at least one week's notice to parents once the final plan is approved, was followed by about 90 minutes of board discussion.

Board members Whit Irwin, Steve Munger, Rob Russak, Mike Brawner, Anthony Favry and Brandon Graber voted in favor of the motion, citing the need to get students back in school and the ability to do so safely based on local and federal health guidelines. Members Joanne Kelley, Naomi Rodriguez and Kate DiPalma-Herb voted no, with concerns including the new variants, the still-high case rate, and the lack of an updated plan to vote on.

In the fall, when the board was initially reviewing whether to stay in the hybrid education model or return to full in-person instruction, members voted to direct Hartling to develop a phased-in approach for the eventual return.

That plan begins with level II which reintroduces high-needs students for in-person instruction four days a week. That is followed by level III which brings back students in grades K-2 and then level IV which returns students in grades K-5. The district is currently in level II, in which 312 students in all grades have returned for full in-person instruction based on their academic, social and emotional needs.

Hartling noted that at each level, the administration and staff will evaluate factors such as class sizes, social distancing and other mitigation strategies to make sure the return is feasible and safe.

Hartling also said Wednesday that the school system needs to overhaul the virtual learning setup at the elementary level, as teachers currently have to instruct students who are in class, learning remotely and those who opted for all-remote learning, all at the same time.

Other concerns with a return to in-person learning include how to arrange classrooms while maintaining social distancing and how to change classes safely at the middle and high school.

The district will soon send out surveys to parents to determine their opinion on returning to class full time.

Of particular interest to school officials are the results from the families of the 503 students in full-remote learning and the 105 students being homeschooled to determine whether a return to full in-person learning would bring them back.

Speaking Thursday morning, Hartling said that while it's too early to determine a specific timeline for a return, he anticipates the school system could implement level 3 in early March.

The board also voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the proposed 2021-22 budget of $33.6 million, which shows a 1.45% increase over the current year. The budget is unchanged from the one presented at the public hearing on Feb. 3. The budget will be presented to both the mayor and the Town Council next week.

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