Almost normal. One system’s efforts to keep students in school.
Superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme Public schools, Ian Neviaser, is proud that all the students in his district have been able to come back to school, full time in-person since Sept. 1.
"When we shut down last March, it was really hard on the kids and the teachers. So we sat down and started planning back in April and into the summer on what we were going to do. Hybrid is a nightmare and not an effective model for our teachers, so it really came down to two choices: we were either all in or all out. We decided to go all in and put all our effort into making that happen safely."
Lyme Old-Lyme Public Schools has five public school buildings within its district — a high school, middle school, two kindergarten through fifth grade elementary schools, and one Pre-K center — that collectively teach approximately 1,300 students.
Neviaser explains that by following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing, Lyme-Old Lyme schools were able to welcome their students back into their classrooms. It took a task force coming together to make a plan to re-open.
"As more information came out, we put a task force together which included doctors, teachers, aides, custodians, Board of Education members, parents and administrators. They felt confident in our mitigation measures and we all felt like we could make it work safely. The kids are so good at wearing their masks because they recognize without them the school might have to shut down, and they don't want to be stuck at home and miss their friends."
Wearing a mask is what Neviaser credits with being the number one mitigation strategy. He also explains that his school spread the lunch periods out to create socially distanced cafeteria experiences.
But it's not only the safety measures employed by the public school of Lyme-Old Lyme that has made them shine so brightly, it's also their focus on two main themes, says Naviaser.
"Be Flexible and be normal. Usually, our kids put on a fall play but we couldn't have everyone gather in the auditorium. So the kids and their teachers decided to make a movie. That same kind of flexibility was used for our winter concert. This year we held an outdoor concert at night on the soccer field so everyone could attend. We've tried to make life as close to normal for our kids, parents and teachers as possible."
Neviaser explains the school board has been incredibly supportive of the public-school re-opening. "They made sure we had all the proper PPE and technology and took part in the summer planning committee."
He also says his teachers wanted to come back.
"We didn't have a single teacher go on leave because of COVID," Naviaser explains. "The CEA (Connecticut Education Association) just came out with a statement that said all public schools should go remote and our teachers are furious about it. They want to be in school. They missed being in school last year and they are confident in the mitigations we have put in place."
When asked about why some teachers may be too afraid to teach in person, Naviaser describes something a parent told him.
“The parent was describing another public district that was closed and said to me, 'There is a crisis of courage.'" He paused for a second before continuing. "And I understand that people are afraid. No one wants anyone to get sick. But with the support of our local health department, community, staff and parents, we felt that opening was the best choice."
The ability of Superintendent Neviaser and the team within the Lyme Old-Lyme public-school district to employ safety mitigations wisely, and use proactive problem solving to bring their children back into the school buildings is remarkable. But just as exceptional is their understanding that within safety there is also a wish for normalcy and fun.
I can imagine the winter concert on the large soccer field with the cold air on my face, the drums beating and students singing — a happy moment.
But the truest joy might come from a deeper understanding that aside from being with their friends every day and building relationships with their teachers that will last a lifetime, these pupils are experiencing the fruits of a community that came together in tough times and made fact-based, common-sense decisions in their best interests.
The light from Lyme-Old Lyme public schools doesn't glow just from their windows, it blazes like a star out of all the hearts and minds of their students.
Lindsay Joslyn is a freelance writer, mother to three school-aged boys, and the lead educator of Hartford Healthcare's Neurodiagnostic Department. She lives in Plainfield.
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