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Stonington education board calls for plan to send all students back to school 4 days a week

Stonington — Facing pressure from increasingly impatient parents, the Board of Education instructed Superintendent of Schools Van Riley on Wednesday to prepare a plan to return all students to four days a week of in-person instruction.

He is scheduled to present that plan to the board on March 11.

"The community has spoken. They want to go back to school," board member Gordon Lord said. "We as a board need to make that happen as safe and expeditiously as possible."

"If we don't try to do it now, when are we going do it?" he added.    

Riley said he can do this by having a plan in which students maintain 3 feet of distance, rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline of 6 feet that has been in place since the beginning of the school year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Riley originally had recommended that schools remain in the hybrid mode until the end of the school year so staff could get vaccinated. Then last week he unveiled a plan to bring back students in kindergarten and grades 1, 6 and 9 return to four-day a week in-school instruction beginning March 15. Other grades would have remained in the hybrid or remote learning modes.

On Wednesday, he tweaked that plan saying high school sophomores could return March 29 and juniors and seniors on April 19. He said this can be done because 40% of high school students are learning remotely and not engaged in hybrid learning.

He said other grades cannot be brought back if the school board wants to maintain CDC guideline of 6-foot social distance. This is because of lack of space.

Board member Jack Morehouse said students need to get back to school as soon as possible. He suggested Riley create a plan that creates the least amount of anxiety for staff but brings back students, with a priority on younger children.

A recent survey shows that while 60% of families here want their children to return to more in-person instruction, more than 85% of teachers want to remain in the current hybrid mode for the remainder of the school year.

Since the beginning of school last September, students here have attended school in person two days a week and learned remotely three days a week.

Also on Wednesday, Director of Special Services Allison Van Etten said an estimated 20% of school staff members still need to book their first vaccine appointment. She said 325 of 371 staff members who responded to a survey said they will get the vaccine. A total of 43 school employees already have received the vaccine due to being part of a previously eligible group. She said 425 staff members are eligible to receive a vaccine.

During the public comment section of Wednesday's meeting, school staff and parents debated the return to in-school instruction. 

Stonington High School teacher and parent Melissa Kwan said no educator disputes that in-person learning is best practice and teachers are working harder than ever juggling instructing students in class and online. But she said having students in class 3 feet apart before they have an opportunity to be vaccinated is terrifying to most teachers.

She said bringing students back to full in-person learning now "makes me wonder how much we are valued by the community." She urged the board to wait a few months until all teachers have an opportunity to be vaccinated, as crowding in the schools will lead to spread of COVID-19 into homes.

Paraprofessionals at the high and middle schools also asked the board to delay making changes to the current hybrid mode of instruction until all staff can be vaccinated.

Paraprofessional and parent Dan Kelley urged the board to hold off on a return until May 1 so staff can get vaccinated, and at that point windows can be opened and students can go outside. 

Lily Haghpassand, the high school student representative to the board, recommended the school system stay with hybrid learning through the rest of the year, saying that moving to full in-person learning was not worth the risk of having to shift to all remote learning if there were an outbreak. She urged the board to evaluate the schools individually due to their unique concerns and characteristics.       

Parents pointed out other school districts are increasing in-person instruction, and some districts have maintained in-person learning this year, and that 3 feet instead of 6 feet of social distancing is allowed, and virus transmission rates are much lower in schools than in the wider community. They pointed out that parents wanted full in-person learning last summer but still no move has been made in that direction despite the availability of testing and now vaccines. They again said remote and hybrid learning have led to students to being left behind academically, feeling socially isolated and not being engaged in learning.

Dr. Kate Wagner, a parent, said the national call for a return to schools is coming from the medical community that is evaluating an abundance of data. She said the theory from last summer that kids would spread the novel coronavirus was wrong. She said it's time to do what's best for children.

As of Feb. 19, there had been 47 COVID-19 cases among students and 19 among staff.

Two parents suggested that if the school system can't bring students back, it should give parents vouchers so they can pay to send their children to private schools. 

j.wojtas@theday.com

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