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Stonington announces return-to-school plan

Stonington — Superintendent of Schools Van Riley announced a plan Thursday night to return kindergartners along with first, sixth and ninth graders to four-day-a-week, in-person instruction beginning March 15.

On Wednesdays all students would learn remotely, which will offer maintenance staff an opportunity to clean the schools and teachers a chance to do much-needed planning for remote and in-person leaning.

All other students will continue with the hybrid learning that has been in place since September. Any family who wants their children to continue with full distance learning — there are currently 478 students doing so now — will be able to do so.

Riley said on April 1, school officials will evaluate the return and make decisions on returning other students based on a number of factors. These include the success of the return of the four grades, vaccine distribution to teachers and staff, updates to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, staffing needs, capabilities of schools to safely handle the students and the number of students continuing with full distance learning.

Riley urged the community to continue to follow safety protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing outside of school, which he said will improve the chances of bringing more students back full time.  

His recommendations come as the Ledge Light Health District released a report Thursday that shows there have been 56 cases among 1,820 tests done of Stonington residents over the past two weeks, for a 3.9% positivity rate. Since the pandemic began last February, the town has had 946 COVID-19 cases and 28 related deaths, according to Ledge Light statistics.

Gov. Ned Lamont announced Monday that teachers and school employees can get vaccines beginning next week. Riley said that while the school system cannot require its employees to get vaccinated, he would encourage all staff to do so. 

"This is a big step forward, getting K-1 back," school board member Gordon Lord said. "But I think we need to do more and do more faster." 

Riley stressed that there would be 6-foot social distancing in all classrooms for the returning students as recommended by the CDC. Some classes in the returning grades may have to move to larger spaces in their schools.

Like they did at a meeting two weeks ago, parents again pressed the school board Thursday to allow students to return to full in-person classes instead of the hybrid mode that has been used since September.

Before Riley announced his proposal, they told the board the current instruction mode — in which students go to school in person two days a week and learn remotely three days a week — has led to students not being engaged in learning, being left behind academically and having their mental health impacted. They pointed out that research shows schools have low transmission rates of the coronavirus and also questioned why other area districts had announced plans to return and Stonington had not.

Riley's proposal Thursday came after Board of Education Chairman Frank Todisco announced that new surveys were sent out to parents Thursday afternoon to gauge their feelings about wanting their children to return to full in-person learning after there was concerns about the "integrity" of the data in the first survey sent out last week.

Riley was expected Thursday night to reveal the results of a survey done over the past week of how families and teachers felt about returning to full in-person learning. The board was then expected to review the survey results.

That review will be delayed until a special meeting next Tuesday or Wednesday, when the  board will discuss Riley's plan and the survey results. Parents are being asked to return their surveys by the end of the day Friday and Riley will compile the data on Monday.

"I truly believe this is the right decision to ensure the data is truly representative of the parents," said Todisco, who did not elaborate on the problem with the data.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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