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How, and why, Old Lyme schools stayed open throughout pandemic

When faced with the decision of how to operate schools during the COVID-19 pandemic last fall, Superintendent Ian Neviaser said that the Region 18 Lyme-Old Lyme district considered the common option of a hybrid learning model — part-time virtual, part-time in-person, but quickly decided against it.

"Our philosophy was we were either going to be all in or all out," he said.

And they chose all in.

With the exception of vacations and mandatory closures last spring, the Lyme-Old Lyme schools have remained fully open for in-person learning for all but four days since last March, when many local schools closed up their classrooms and pivoted to at least partial online learning.

In Lyme and Old Lyme, students have had the option to participate in online learning, but coming into the classroom on a daily basis has always been an option. According to the Ledge Light Health District, they were the only school district in the region to offer full-time in-person learning all year. All other schools offered either all virtual learning for part of the year, or turned to a hybrid model of virtual and in-person.

But in Lyme and Old Lyme, the school community felt it was vital for students' development and education to always have the option to be physically present in school. As of February, 92% of the school district was attending school in-person.

"Ultimately I hope at some point that we will all be back in school because there is no replacement for full in-person learning," said Neviaser. He said the district spent a lot of time trying to come up with a hybrid learning model, but could not develop a plan that was as effective for students as full in-person learning.

"To be able to have the kids in person in schools was our top priority, that was our goal if we could reach it," said Diane Linderman, chair of the Board of Education.

So, over summer break, a committee of staff, faculty, Board of Education members and parents gathered to figure out how they could get students back to school safely. They discussed everything from a new curriculum to make up for lost time in the spring, when all area schools were closed due to COVID-19, to how to allow kids to safely play at recess.

"It felt like we essentially rebuilt an entire school system in two months, because we talked about everything from how the cafeteria works to how the buses work to how recess would work, all the things that year in and year out you kind of take for granted because you've been doing the same thing for so long, but we could obviously no longer do that," said Neviaser.

Ultimately, they decided they could do it. But they recognize that they were fortunate to be able to make it work.

The district attributed their ability to quickly move back to full in-person learning to a few factors: small class sizes, large spaces where students could remain distant, and funding for additional cleaning, PPE and substitute teachers.

Linderman said that from a budget perspective, the district was in a good place to take on such additional expenses this year and were helped a great deal by state and federal grants for coronavirus relief. They've been able to afford extra costs that have come with operating during a pandemic, including extra sanitization of surfaces in all the schools, providing PPE to nurses, and making sure extra masks are on hand for anyone who needs one.

The school also made the decision this year to hire a full-time staff of substitute teachers, so that substitutes are always available if a teacher becomes ill or has to quarantine.

"They come in every day, someone is out or not," said Neviaser. "They're kind of there just as our safety valve, if you will, and that has been absolutely well worth the expense."

Linderman said she is grateful the district was in a place where they could fund such initiatives to maximize health and safety.

"I feel very fortunate, and I realize that in a lot of other districts it hasn't worked out as well," said Linderman, whose children graduated from the school district.

While students were always allowed to come into school, the option for virtual learning has always been available, too.

"I understand that certain families just aren't able to take the risk of having their child or a family member contract COVID," said Neviaser.

Thanks to previous initiatives to make technology available to every student, they already had the infrastructure in place to make remote learning work. Having a one-to-one ratio for students and devices is a goal the district set about five years ago, and achieved in the last two years, Neviaser said.

When the district was forced to close its schools in the spring, Neviaser said, "it wasn't a huge leap for us to go from in-person learning to remote learning in terms of technology, because we were well prepared to do that."

"I think we were very fortunate in that respect because I think not everybody had that luxury," he said.

Throughout the pandemic, the school's priority has of course been the health and safety of the school community, and school officials think they've achieved their goal of keeping everyone safe.

Since March, they have only had 47 cases of COVID-19 within the school community. When they have a positive, school nurses are able to complete contact tracing in less than a half-hour, said Linderman.

"We know where everyone is at all times within the schools," said Linderman.

Rick Goulding, a Board of Education member, parent of three children in the district, and an emergency pediatric physician, said that according to the research he has reviewed, schools are one of the safest places kids can be during the pandemic, and being in school in person may be safer than virtual learning for high school students.

Older students, who might be left home alone while their parents are working, would likely be safer under the supervision of teachers and school staff, said Goulding, who has one son who is a high school senior, a daughter who is a freshman and a son who is in seventh grade.

Another important component, said Goulding, is students' mental health.

Goulding, who works at Backus Hospital in Norwich, said that for youth across the nation, the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult and has resulted in an increase in depression and anxiety.

Goulding said that as they became more knowledgeable about the virus, "it became clear that there was a safe way to bring kids back into the classroom," and that being kept out of schools was harming them.

"From the pediatric literature, across the country and around the world, we knew that when kids are isolated it's a bad thing. So if we could get kids back into a safe environment, that's what our push was," he said.

Goulding said that as a parent and a healthcare professional, he recognized how important it was for students' mental health that they return to school. The pediatrician said that just on the Connecticut shoreline he learned of an increase of teen suicides and suicide attempts and knew the isolation wasn't good.

"There's no doubt that that uptick was due to being isolated," said Goulding. "We're social creatures, and we depend on our relationships and our bonds with others to make us comfortable, and to take that away from kids in their development stage is absolutely horrible."

Goulding also said that the Board of Education recognized that some classes had fallen behind — some are still a week or two behind, he said — because some subjects, like certain topics in science and math, are especially challenging to teach virtually. The impact on education also encouraged them to push toward a return to the classroom.

He thinks the efforts have been appreciated by the community, and knows his family has been happy for the slight, safe return to normalcy.

"As a parent and as a board member, the most striking thing about Region 18 for us was that you just get so many people who are so incredibly grateful for the fact that our kids are back in school," said Goulding. "They're just so happy that their kids can be in school and be with their friends and be in a safe environment and be on track with their curriculum."

The high school has closed only twice due to COVID-19 — for two days around Thanksgiving and two days in mid-January — but all other schools have remained open throughout the entire pandemic.

One closure was caused by an inability to effectively contact trace and the other was the result of being short staffed when many staff members were in quarantine, said Neviaser.

The superintendent said he was proud of the low number of cases in the district and the fact that they've been able to stay open.

"I think it's an incredibly low number of cases we've had, and I attribute that to people's commitment to making sure that we remain open," he said. "I know our staff, our students and our families feel strongly about remaining open in-person, and they recognize that in order to do that we all need to adhere to our mitigation strategies, specifically mask wearing, and I think makes a huge difference."

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