standing Stonington High School

STONINGTON — The Board of Education Tuesday night endorsed a plan for reopening town schools that would put every student back in their classrooms with 3 feet of distance between them.

Superintendent of Schools Van Riley said the state required local districts to come up with three plans for consideration: a full reopening plan where every student attends school every day, a hybrid plan where students have a mix of in-person and distance learning, and a full distance learning plan that would be enacted if the state has to shut down again. The plans were due to be submitted to the state by Friday.

The preferred plan — dubbed Plan 2 — favored by the board for a full reopening would most fully utilize the district's facilities and staff while providing needed in-person instruction and social stimulation for students, most board members agreed.

Riley opened his presentation on the options by summarizing the results of the school district's most recent survey of staff and parents. He said 43 teachers have said they will not or cannot come back to teach, and over 250 families said they did not want to send their children back to school until the coronavirus pandemic has subsided. Distance learning, he said, will be available for families that are reticent to send their kids back, and the district will have to adjust to the teacher attrition, which will most likely have an effect on class offerings.

Another survey will be sent out in early August, Riley said.

No matter which plan is ultimately adopted, state requirements will add to the burden on the schools budget. Mandates include designating a liaison at each school site to serve as a resource and contact point for parents, guaranteed transportation options and full PPE for staff and students.

"Every plan costs something. We put away funds in this town for a rainy day, and a global pandemic seems to be a reason to do this," Riley said. "There's no plan that's available — except all-distance, and we don't even have that option — that really wouldn't cost that much. Bringing students back will cost."

He added that the town also expects to receive CARE funds of about $200,000 to cushion the financial blow.

The district will also be required to provide masks for those who need them, but Riley said many parents indicated on the survey that they will provide their own.

Before the vote, Riley presented three different plans — Plan 1A, Plan 1B and Plan 1C — for a modified opening that would meet the current CDC 6-foot distancing guidelines.

Plan 1A, a straight reopening for all students with 6-foot distancing, would require the district to rent 112 portable classrooms and hire about 100 additional teachers. Riley called the plan "simply unfeasible."

Plan 1B, which would utilize current staff, would split the day into two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with a deep-cleaning of facilities in between sessions. Riley said Plan 1B would mean a large jump in costs (for instance, it would require double the transportation costs) and would mean all extracurricular activities would be sacrificed. 

Plan 1C, a hybrid model developed in concert with other southeastern Connecticut school districts, would split students into two cohorts, one of which would be in school Monday and Tuesday with distance learning Wednesday through Friday, with the other cohort attending Thursday and Friday with distance learning Monday through Wednesday. Deep cleaning of facilities would happen on Wednesdays, when all students are distance learning.

Plan 2, which ultimately won the support of the board, is to reopen fully but with 3-foot distancing. It does not meet the CDC guidelines, but it is consistent with guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Riley said this plan provides more structure for students.

"This does not meet the CDC guidelines of the 6 feet, but it does use the current buildings," Riley said. "It's basically having pretty much a regular school plan with 3 feet of distancing in classrooms."

"I guess I see the choice being between the threat of a widening achievement gap and closing down our community, and the threat of COVID-19, and right now I'm thinking the achievement gap and community shutdown is more concerning in the long run," board member Heidi Simmons said. "I realize the really complex safety measures that will need to be taken, but this is a very complex moment in our history, so we should not be surprised that we must resort to really complex strategies to deal with it."

Board member Alisa Morrison agreed, saying "I think that any choice other than the kids going back is going to widen the achievement gap. The lack of socialization is another reason. I think the social stuff is so important to the kids, and they need to go back."

Board member Jack Morehouse also supported Plan 2, although he said he liked aspects of the hybrid Plan 1C. 

"I think for many teachers, they signed up for a profession where they were exchanging ideas and they were around kids all day long and helping students, and distance learning is difficult for some teachers as well," he said, adding that he also liked the hybrid plan because it reduces the amount of in-school exposure students have to potentially contracting the virus.

Board member Craig Esposito said he didn't support Plan 2, but would vote for it because it's the best option under current state mandates to have children return to school five days a week. He said he would prefer the full distance-learning or hybrid plans over Plan 2, if the state eventually allowed those options.

"I feel like the state really hasn't given us an option. I think we're experimenting with the health of our community and our children," he said.

"This is a fluid plan that we probably have to be ready to pivot from if things change," board Chairman Farouk Rajab said.

Riley concurred, saying, "it's one of those things where, again, on a Friday, they could say, 'start the hybrid Monday,' or distance (learning), and we just need to be ready."

Plan 3 was a strictly distance-learning plan to be used for students who chose not to or were prohibited because of health risks from attending in-person school, or in case of an emergency uptick in COVID-19 cases.

"Our teachers did an amazing job (with distance learning), but we need to have more instruction at more set times, and we're going to be working on that," Riley said.

After the reopening discussion, the board also approved moving back the start of school until after Labor Day weekend and using the week before Labor Day as professional planning days. Students will also be released early from classes on the first three days of school, Sept. 8-10.

The board will next meet on Aug. 13, when they're expected to have more guidance from the state on the district's options.

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