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East Lyme school board asks high school to open senior prom to remote learners

East Lyme — East Lyme Board of Education members this week asked district leadership to reconsider banning remote learners from the senior prom, but stopped short of taking a vote to force the change.

Instead, the school board left it in the hands of the administration. Superintendent of Schools Jeff Newton said Wednesday that Principal Deb Roselli Kelly and her team will discuss the issue next week.

The prom will be held June 12 at the Branford House on the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus. Currently, Virtual Vikings — the district's name for those who have opted to learn remotely during the coronavirus pandemic instead of going in person to the schools — are not allowed to attend. Seniors are not allowed to bring guests.

The topic was brought up by Board of Education member Candice Carlson on Wednesday at the school board's first meeting held since East Lyme High School senior Makayla Desrosier started a change.org petition to allow guests and Virtual Vikings to attend the prom. The petition had amassed 201 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.

Carlson asked Newton and the high school administration to revisit its ban on Virtual Vikings.

"I think in these situations where prom is taken away, it's usually — and correct me if I'm wrong — a punishment," she said.

She asked "what's the harm" in reconsidering the decision.

"I think it's fair for someone in this position — one of us or 10 of us — to at least acknowledge there is a group of students who cannot go and they are feeling as though they're being punished," Carlson said.

The Virtual Viking program provides a third-party, online curriculum for families that aren't comfortable with in-person instruction in COVID-19 times. Newton has said its been the district's protocol all year to not allow Virtual Vikings to participate in sports or attend other activities.

"If they can go to prom, why can't they come to school, I guess is the question," he said in response to Carlson.

Newton said the remote learners can return to in-person instruction at any time.

Assistant Superintendent Amy Drowne told school board members that, during the time she'd been sitting in the two-hour meeting, she'd been notified three more seniors would be coming back to school. That left 20 seniors in the Virtual Viking program as of Monday.

Several other school board members, including Chairman Timothy Hagen, spoke in favor of letting Virtual Vikings attend prom.

"I just don't see why not," he said, citing evolving pandemic guidance and low rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the state.

The lone school board member to express reservations was Jaime Barr Shelburn, who wondered if parents whose children are in the Virtual Viking program would want to risk sending them to prom.

"Would you want your Virtual Viking to have spent this whole time safe at your house and then have them come to prom and get COVID?" she said.

The prom will include food trucks, according to Newton. Principal Kelly said there will be a tent on the lawn of the Branford House for food and "any dancing that happens."

Masks will be required, Newton said.

Hagen noted the school board has the power to take a vote on the issue. But he said it must be posted on the agenda so the public is aware the discussion will be taking place.

The next school board meeting is June 7.

e.regan@theday.com

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