STONINGTON — On the top floor of the West Broad Street School, teacher Amy Babcock’s classroom lies waiting for the return of students.
Desks were set, each set socially distanced by six feet and spaced in a checker pattern, with textbooks ready to welcome back fifth graders to Bacock’s St. Michael School class. It will mark the first time since March, when school operations across the U.S. came to a halt in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, that the children will be allowed back in class — but if not for the lease with the town, officials said the school would unlikely have been able to offer anything more than distance learning for the 2020-21 school year.
“If we were trying to prepare for this year while still at our old location, we’d be having a much different conversation,” Principal Doris Messina said this week. “Space was already an issue, which was part of the reason we sought to lease the school before, and it would have been very difficult to come up with an appropriate plan to allow students to return safely.”
Messina said the school will reopen with a full, five-day schedule with certain safety restrictions in place including requiring use of masks and social distancing protocols. The decision was made only after consulting with parents, who expressed a preference for in-school instruction to distance learning during a survey earlier this year, and those families who do not feel a return is safe will still have the opportunity to learn from home.
Unfortunately for the school, a hybrid return was not an option. Such operations would be too cost prohibitive and would stretch resources too far for the school to make ends meet, Messina said. But the return to school will also look much different.
“Students will remain part of focus groups to prevent excess interaction,” she said. “For our middle schoolers, there will not be the typical change in classes.”
St. Michael serves as home to approximately 150 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 8, and both Messina and Fr. Dennis Perkins said this week that staff plans to utilize every inch of the school this year to keep everyone safe. Traditional gym classes have been redesigned, spaces including the gymnasium and the expansive outdoor playground area will provide for enrichment opportunities such as band class and socially-distanced concerts.
None of this would have been possible, however, if the town had not come to terms on a lease earlier this year. Members of the Stonington Board of Selectmen voted in January to approve the agreement, which leases the property to St. Michael for a base rent of $300 per month for the three years. The lease also holds a mutual option for two-year extension.
While the town agreed to certain repair work on the elevators and boiler system, St. Michael’s has taken responsibility for utilities and general maintenance including parking lots, snow removal, janitorial services, electrical repairs and above-ground pipes.
Perkins, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Church, said the church community is blessed to have numerous active parents and parishioners who have volunteered their time or other donations — one unnamed benefactor provided a “generous gift” that Perkins said has provided immeasurable financial support in completing the most dire repairs and remediation needs — and the entire community has been energized about this year’s return to school.
Messina said the enthusiasm and support has been so great that the school was able to move class materials and furniture for kindergarten and grades 4 and 5 “in a matter of hours,” after volunteers showed up in force.
“There were a number of trucks, a number of people and within a few hours, we were already done,” Messina said. “We’ve had so much support, and we are truly thankful because we would not be able to meet these deadlines without it.”
School officials said pre-kindergarten classes and grades 1 and 2 will be part of the coming move, followed by grade 3 and middle school classrooms.
There’s still a lot of work to be done at the school, which remains largely under construction even as sections begin to reopen, but both Messina and Fr. Dennis Perkins said they are confident that the facility will be ready for families when classes are scheduled to resume on Sept. 8.
Construction is already underway in first-floor classrooms that will require isolated removal of flooring, removal of asbestos and refinishing of the original maple hardwood floors to their original “brand new” look. The main entrance will also be renovated to remove a wall, which Perkins said would provide a more open and welcoming atrium, while also allowing for installation of a front desk island that will provide greater security and oversight of those who are coming and going from the property.
While there are challenges that come with such an expedited project, Perkins said many in the community have expressed excitement regarding what the end result will look like, and for good reason.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our school and something that will be a win-win for everyone,” Perkins said. “We intend to not only make great use of the space, but to restore this beautiful building that holds so many memories for so many people in the Pawcatuck community.”