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Lyme, Old Lyme to use COVID funds to build outdoor classrooms, update playgrounds

Old Lyme — A series of outdoor projects included in the Region 18 school district's five-year facilities plan are now being fast tracked thanks to an infusion of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Ron Turner, Lyme-Old Lyme director of facilities and technology, told members of the Region Board of Education last week that construction of three outdoor classrooms and upgrades to the district's three primary school playgrounds have been "accelerated" now that the district is in receipt of money to help schools succeed amid the pandemic.

Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser said the district received $41,197 in the first round of COVID relief funding for schools and $298,922 in the second round. A third round is expected to deliver about $798,000 to the district.

Federal funding guidelines specify the money may be spent over several years.

Outdoor classrooms in the form of open-air pavilions will be constructed at Mile Creek School, Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School and Lyme Consolidated School starting at the end of this school year, Neviaser said.

The pandemic gave a sense of urgency to a fresh-air philosophy that was already in place at the schools, according to the superintendent.

"Even prior to COVID, we tried to get kids outside, get them fresh air, sunshine," he said. "A different location, an opportunity to engage with nature. I think all those factors allow kids to enjoy school a little bit more, to be a little bit more relaxed, and it's a little bit of an adventure for a young kid to go to a new setting for their class and learn outside."

He said the Mile Creek project, which is not to exceed $30,000, will be constructed by students at Vinal Technical High School.

The Vinal partnership is part of the state Student Workforce program through the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System.

Brent McCartney, associate education consultant for the state program, said the main benefit for the Vinal students is the "real world experience" they get on the job. Classes averaging 18 students spend their mornings studying the theory behind the work and then head out for about four hours of work in the field.

"With their instructor, they're evaluating the job to see if it's a good fit and troubleshooting what needs to be done," he said. "Then they perform all the work throughout the job."

The benefit to Lyme-Old Lyme schools is the cost, according to McCartney.

"We are cheaper. Significantly," he said. "We're roughly about a fifth of the cost of a general contractor."

The district is responsible for the cost of labor, he said. It must also provide all the materials.

Student Workforce crews throughout the state have built everything from pavilions to sheds to house additions, he said. Students from Oliver Wolcott Technical High School in Torrington built a 3,500 square foot ranch, while classes from E.C. Goodwin Technical High School built a Cape Cod-style house.

There are 18 participating schools covering 64 trades, according to McCartney.

Neviaser said the Vinal students will begin work at the end of this school year, take a break for the summer, and resume with the new school year.

The planned outdoor classroom at the middle school will be installed in the courtyard by a contractor due to the specialized nature of the work, according to the superintendent.

The school board last week authorized the district to hire JM Carpentry to build the middle school pavilion for $49,729.

Construction of an outdoor classroom at Lyme Consolidated School is tentatively scheduled for the fall, Neviaser said.

Turner told members of the Board of Education that the playground renovations, which will include the replacement of certain outdated pieces of equipment, will happen at Mill Creek School, Lyme Consolidated School and Center School.

The school board last week gave the $304,119 go-ahead for Massachusetts-based outdoor recreation firm O'Brien & Sons to make the improvements this summer. The cost includes removing the outdated elements, construction of the new equipment and mulch installation.

Neviaser emphasized the district will not be replacing the "relatively newer" pieces of equipment in the existing playgrounds. But some older pieces that have been around for 15 to 20 years "are just not what we're looking to have out there for students anymore," he said.

No specific dates have been set for construction, but Neviaser said the district hopes to do the work this summer. The playgrounds will be shut down temporarily during construction.

Turner told school board members that spending the federal funding on the outdoor projects will allow the district to budget for other elements of its five-year plan sooner than expected.

Neviaser said one high priority will be fixing the concrete steps along the front of Lyme Consolidated School.

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