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Lyme-Old Lyme has fresh air focus for new school year

Old Lyme — Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School is taking a zen approach to the start of a new school year.

Students from Lyme and Old Lyme converged Thursday at the middle school for the first day of school — as did students at Center School, Mile Creek School, Lyme Consolidated School and Lyme-Old Lyme High school — with a full year's experience in balancing the ups and downs of learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The district was among the few statewide that maintained a full schedule last year instead of opting for a remote or hybrid approach.

The outlook manifested at the middle school in a recently refurbished courtyard to promote peacefulness, calm and a respite from mask wearing. The Eastern-inspired design, which Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser said was laid out at least 15 years ago, includes elements like bamboo screens, stone benches and flowering trees. But brand new this year is a 20-by-40-foot post-and-beam pavilion constructed using COVID-19 relief funds.

"The idea is that kids can come out here and have class outside, get the benefit of not having to wear a mask and enjoy some fresh air," Neviaser said.

District facilities director Ron Turner said bamboo plants used to tower 18 to 20 feet in the air, blocking the sunlight to classrooms along the courtyard perimeter. Now, the plants have been thinned out to emphasize the existing gardens and to make space for the outdoor classroom.

The $49,729 pavilion was installed by JM Carpentry of Hebron. Turner said carpenters cut the beams off-site and carried them through the building into the courtyard for construction.

Another outdoor classroom will be going up at Mile Creek School when students from Vinal Technical High School in Middletown return to school. The partnership with the state's Student Workforce program gives the carpentry students real-world construction experience while delivering the district a lower-cost product than professional general contractors.

The school board in May authorized up to $30,000 to be spent on the outdoor classroom at Mile Creek. The district is planning a third classroom — this one a 15-by-30-foot gazebo — for Lyme Consolidated School sometime this year, according to Neviaser.

Eighth grade language arts teacher Jane Regan said she envisions using the outdoor space as inspiration for writing exercises or as a place for students to relax while she reads aloud.

The 20-year teaching veteran said she reads popular children's novels to the students chapter by chapter every day about characters facing challenges like a physical disability or being bullied. She lamented that reading aloud so often ends during elementary school.

Regan cited the practice as part of her strategy to promote independent reading among a reluctant population. She said she typically gets only "one or two brave hands" when she starts off the school year asking how many of her new eighth graders consider themselves readers; and even though not everyone comes around to raising their hand when she asks the same question again at the end of the year, she said she enjoys the little hints along the way that show her students are gaining an appreciation for books.

Chorus is another class well suited to the new outdoor setup, according to Neviaser. He said the pavilion, which sits right outside the music room, will provide a much-needed outlet for the school's singers.

"Our chorus teacher would love to get the kids outside because there are so many restrictions on singing indoors," he said. "This is a great space to get the kids out here to practice and rehearse."

Guidelines from the Connecticut State Department of Education specify indoor practices should be limited to 30 minutes and should maintain 9 feet between rows, among other measures.

Neviaser said the district is planning to put stamped concrete under the pavilion. In the meantime, students can bring out chairs or sit on the grass.

Another improvement at the middle school took the form of the newly painted and refinished gym floor, which gym teacher and basketball coach Tim Gavin said will be "one of the premier courts in the shoreline league."

The project, which Turner said cost just under $18,000, included removing buildup from previous finishes, painting new lines and updating the school logo and color scheme.

Garvin recalled that, until this year, the appearance of the floor hadn't changed since he was a student at the middle school in 1974.

Not quite 'normal'

No stranger to operating amid pandemic protocols on a full-day, five-day-a-week schedule, Regan said last year's experience revealed students adjusted well to the new precautions.

"Using that as my springboard for this year, I'm more excited than anxious," she said.

Gone this year are some of the mitigation strategies that Neviaser said have been proven to be mostly "feel good" measures, such as one-way hallways, plastic dividers and additional cleaning measures. Increased ventilation will continue, with the HVAC system programmed to flush the air in the buildings more often than before the pandemic.

The district will reassess the mask requirement when the governor's executive order expires.

"Obviously, we want to get back to completely normal as soon as possible, but we're going to do that in the safest manner we can," Neviaser said.

Regan pointed to sanitizer students will continue to be encouraged to use, along with handwashing and 3 feet of social distancing between students.

When it comes to masks, she said the district's focus on installing sound field systems for students with hearing impairments has had the unanticipated benefit of making it easier for everyone to communicate through masks.

The FM systems amplify teachers' voices and distribute them evenly throughout the room. According to Neviaser, there is now a sound field system in every classroom in the district as part of a years-long rollout that started with the renovation of the high school about 10 years ago.

He said the system ensures all students hear at the same decibel level, no matter where they are sitting in the room.

"That definitely helps with masks, but that wasn't why we put it there," he said. "It was just kind of an added benefit that worked out for us."

Regan said the faculty convocation held Wednesday showed her that the other teachers were as excited as she was to return to the relative "normalcy" of the school building.

"There didn't seem to be fear," she said. "Yes, people have apprehensions. That's the world we live in. But I don't sense any more resistance. I sense more excitement."

e.regan@theday.com

Editor's note: Teacher Jane Regan and Day Staff Writer Elizabeth Regan are not related.

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