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School districts look to shift to more in-person learning

Several school districts in the region have announced plans to expand in-person learning, while others are continuing to consider how and when to safely bring back students for more classroom instruction.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released guidelines for school districts on the reopening of schools.

Local school officials planning to gradually shift from a hybrid learning model to more in-person learning said mitigation strategies, such as mask-wearing and hand-washing, have worked this year, and they have developed plans to gradually bring back students. However, they said they will continue to monitor the health data and remain flexible about shifting to a different learning model should COVID-19 cases climb and virus variants become predominant in the region.

Most school districts in the region this year have been following a hybrid learning model in which one cohort of students learn in-person on Monday and Tuesday, all students learn remotely on Wednesday, and the second cohort of students go to school on Thursday and Friday. The Lyme-Old Lyme school district has been operating under full in-person learning since the beginning of the school year.

Norwich, New London, East Lyme, Ledyard, Waterford, Preston and North Stonington are among the school districts that recently announced plans for more in-person learning, while LEARN, Groton, and Montville are working to develop plans. Some districts, however, are weighing the costs of bringing students back full-time and the need for larger classroom space.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Education Association is advocating for the vaccination of teachers.

CDC guidelines

About 56.3% of public school districts in Connecticut are fully in-person, 37.6% are hybrid and 6.1% are fully remote, according to state data. Parents will continue to have the option to choose remote learning for their child, even if the school district is fully in-person, said state Department of Education Spokesman Peter Yazbak.

The CDC's new guidelines emphasize the importance of mitigation strategies in schools, including mask-wearing and keeping at least six feet of social distance. They prioritize reopening or keeping schools open "over nonessential businesses and activities." They outline a "phased" approach for learning, based on transmission in the community and testing protocols. For example, in areas with low transmission, schools, without expanded testing, are open for in-person learning with mitigation strategies. In areas with high transmission, the elementary schools follow hybrid instruction with mitigation strategies, while middle and high schools would be recommended to follow virtual learning, "unless they can strictly implement all mitigation strategies, and have few cases."

The CDC also notes that students who are at risk of severe illness, or who live with someone who is, should have the option to learn remotely.

The state Department of Education is in the process of reviewing the guidelines with the state Department of Public Health, said Yazbak.

The House of Representatives is negotiating a COVID-19 relief bill that would provide eastern Connecticut schools with a projected $128 million that they could use toward implementing recommendations from the CDC, U.S. Rep Joe Courtney, 2nd-District announced.

Ledge Light Health District Director Stephen Mansfield wrote a letter to superintendents in the area in which he noted a decline of COVID-19 cases in the community and that many school districts are considering or are moving toward gradual full in-person learning. He referenced that the CDC guidelines, which call for continuing strict mitigation measures in schools, state that: "It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible, and remain open, to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services."

He said that "anecdotal evidence suggests that there are no glaring differences in COVID rates" between schools fully in-person and schools in hybrid learning, though specific data from the state is not available.

He said by phone that he is cautiously optimistic that schools in the area will continue to see minimal in-school transmission of COVID-19, but it's uncertain how new, more transmissible virus variants, if they become the predominant strain in the region, will affect that.

He told the school districts in the letter that while Ledge Light generally supports the development of plans for more in-person learning, they should consider several factors, including that an increase in COVID-19 transmissions in school or the community could mean shifting back to less in-person learning, that the school facilities of each district and their ability to accommodate social distancing and adequate ventilation should be considered, and that school districts should also consider the "likelihood of an increased administrative burden due to increases in isolation and quarantine requirements" under an in-person model.

He also noted that CDC guidelines call for prioritizing in-person learning over extracurricular and sports activities, where Ledge Light's contact tracers and school districts have found many cases.

Uncas Health District Director Patrick McCormack said he thinks the schools are a model for the rest of the community in terms of how students have been adhering to mitigation factors, such as mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing. He said people are aware of the importance of staying home when they are not feeling well, even with the mildest symptoms, and to inform the schools so they can begin contact tracing and, if needed, quarantining.

He said while he hopes COVID-19 cases continue to decline in the region, he said it's important that if cases go up, as has happened before, that schools respond by keeping the door open to shift to more remote learning.

Vaccination

The CDC guidelines recommended vaccinating educators "as soon as supply allows" but stopped short of stipulating them as a requirement for schools to reopen.

The Connecticut Education Association is circulating a petition and calling for educators to get vaccinated right away. CEA President Jeff Leake said in a news release that vaccination is key because when schools have to close, most often it's due to staff shortages when educators have to quarantine.

Gov. Ned Lamont has given an estimated timeline of mid-March for teacher vaccinations, according to Yazbak.

"The time is now to vaccinate teachers and school staff, getting our educators where they want to be — safely in school with their students, where they can focus on the social and emotional learning needs of their students — without jeopardizing their health," Leake said in the release.

A public awareness campaign features a video ad with teachers of the year stating: "We want to be with our students. But in-person teaching must be safe — for everyone. We must do the right thing in Connecticut. Vaccinate educators now."

Plans locally for in-person learning

The number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff range from 266 in Norwich public schools, 175 in East Lyme and 119 in Ledyard, to 34 each at Norwich Tech and Grasso Tech, and 29 in Preston. Those numbers include in-person and remote learners as well as staff, and superintendents said it's difficult to determine how many were the result of in-school transmission.

Districts, which say their mitigation strategies of mask-wearing and social distancing are working well, are developing plans for gradual in-person learning, but most noted the need to be flexible and revise plans or protocols if cases rise among new variants. Many said the CDC guidelines did not have a direct impact on their plans, as they have already been following protocols set in place by the state.

Waterford Superintendent Thomas Giard III said the district will begin to phase in full in-person learning for prekindergarten through eighth grade students beginning the week of March 15 and will continue to build on the plan. East Lyme Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said the district will take a phased-in approach to returning elementary students to full-time in-person learning starting March 1, with a goal of having kindergarten through grade four in school five days a week beginning May 3.

On Monday, Preston and Norwich will start in-person school four days a week for grades preschool through eight. North Stonington will start four days of in-person school for all grades on Monday and then move to five days of in-person instruction starting March 29.

"We've lost a lot of instructional time," said North Stonington Superintendent Peter Nero, adding that schools also provide social-emotional support and opportunities for children to socialize with their peers.

The New London school district recently notified families of its plan to offer four days of in-class instruction. New London Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said in this so-called Cohort AB, students will come to school for in-person instruction Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. 

So far, about 200 families have submitted a request for more in-person school days, and Ritchie said those students will start attending over the next few weeks. 

“Our class sizes will continue to remain below average due to a good percentage of families continuing to choose full-time distance learning programming,” Ritchie said.

Ledyard Public Schools have been operating in a hybrid mode, but the Board of Education voted Wednesday to move toward a return to full in-person instruction.

In the Stonington school district, which is following a hybrid model, school officials sent a survey Friday to families and staff about their thoughts about returning to full in-person learning after a group of parents pressed the school board to bring students back full-time. The results, their implications and costs are scheduled to be discussed by the school board on Thursday.

Earlier this month, Stonington Superintendent of Schools Van Riley recommended the schools continue in a hybrid learning mode through the end of the school year due to the difficulty and cost of meeting public health guidelines that would come with the change. He has said the best course is to proceed with the current model until vaccines become available for staff and students.

Groton Superintendent Susan Austin said Groton, which is following a hybrid learning model, is looking at a phased-in plan to provide more in-person learning that would be rolled out with the promise of a vaccine in sight. She said she is working with a committee on developing the plan, with the goal of returning students to school sometime in the spring, though some students will likely opt for remote learning.

The Montville School district, where teachers have six feet from their presentation area to students, is currently working on a plan to bring students back to in-person learning, said Superintendent Laurie Pallin. That will require shifts in some staff assignments, modifications to meal service, refurnishing classrooms, and other changes, including potentially hiring new staff. She said students will be distanced as much as possible, but not six feet apart.

Three Rivers Middle College Magnet High School recently shifted to four days a week of in-person learning, and ideally LEARN Executive Director Kate Ericson hopes to move by the first week of April to four days of in-person learning for LEARN's other magnet schools in southeastern Connecticut.

The state's technical schools, including Ella T. Grasso Technical High School in Groton and Norwich Technical High School, have been following a hybrid model of learning, though discussions have begun about a different instructional model, as well as potential models for next school year, said CTECS Superintendent of Schools Jeff Wihbey.

"It is a priority of ours to bring all students back into the building at some point this year as long as it can be done safely, and we are going to work really hard to make that happen," Wihbey said. "It is important for students to have some normalcy during this school year. However, this will be largely dependent on a successful vaccination program and what the local data trends are showing for COVID infections rates."

Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Amanda Hutchinson, Erica Moser, Greg Smith, Sten Spinella and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

k.drelich@theday.com






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