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East Lyme plans phased-in classroom return for middle school students starting in March

On Monday evening, two weeks after presenting the East Lyme Board of Education with the phased-in plan for returning elementary students to the classroom, Superintendent Jeffrey Newton presented the board with the phased-in plan for middle school students.

East Lyme Middle School currently operates under a hybrid model, but the plan has students returning four days a week — every day but Wednesday — on March 15 for fifth and sixth graders, and March 29 for seventh and eighth graders.

On Monday, he said that starting on May 3, all four grades would be scheduled to be in school five days a week. However, on Tuesday he said the date for all elementary and middle school students to return to in-person classes five days a week would change but the new date hadn't been set yet.

In announcing the elementary plan two weeks ago, Newton said he tried to wrap the timeframe around March because that's hopefully when teachers will start to get vaccinated. And this Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced teachers will get dedicated vaccine clinics next month.

Newton said that now knowing more about the vaccine rollout for educators, the timing of the Wednesday return could change, but he's not committing to anything yet.

As trends that support reopening, Newton pointed to mental health concerns among children and a large number of parent requests for students to be in school four days a week.

He also noted that the COVID-19 test positivity rate and cases have been declining across southeastern Connecticut, and that Ledge Light Health District Director Steve Mansfield continues to support moving to full in-person learning through a phased-in approach. But he also said the district will continue to monitor COVID-19 variant strains in the community.

One challenge for the classroom return has been physical distancing in the cafeteria.

Middle school Principal Jason Bitgood explained that a moveable door is mostly closed to segment the cafeteria in two sections, each containing 28 tables, with two students allowed at either end of each table and plexiglass in between.

Space across the hall also is being used for the third lunch period, but once the return to in-person learning begins, it will be utilized for all four lunch periods.

Newton said conversations are ongoing about how to return high school students to the classroom, but this is a "different animal" because whereas cohorting is possible at the elementary and middle levels, high school students "are intermixed across all classes."

He said the high school cafeteria commons can accommodate only 185 students in each lunch wave with physical distancing, whereas more students that will be in each lunch once students return to the classroom. Therefore, the district is looking at options such as using the gym for lunch or going outside when it's warm enough.

Newton and board member Jaime Barr Shelburn pushed back on comparisons they've heard to Lyme-Old Lyme Public Schools, which has been fully in-person all school year. Newton said East Lyme Middle School enrollment is 734, with 123 students fully virtual and 611 doing hybrid now.

"Old Lyme Middle school currently has 247 students on-site full-in. We're talking 611, so you're talking apples to oranges in many ways," the superintendent said.

Reiterating comments made two weeks ago, board members Candice Carlson and Timothy Hagen said they'd like to see the phase-in move faster, though Carlson stressed she supports the superintendent and isn't criticizing him or the district.

"I think that you're seeing frustration from people because they simply want their children back to school, and at times, some can only see that tunnel vision; they can't see all of the different logistics that go into making the decision," Carlson said.

e.moser@theday.com

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