standing Stonington High School

STONINGTON — The Board of Education and administrators with Stonington Public Schools have reissued a survey to parents after concerns that an initial effort to gauge family interest in a full return to in-person learning was compromised.

That won't stop the district from moving forward in beginning to plan for a return to class, with Superintendent of Schools Van Riley telling board members during a meeting Thursday night that district staff has been working to develop a plan that would offer an opportunity for some students to begin return to in-person classes four days per week as part of a phased return that would begin March 15.

In a letter message sent to families on Thursday, Stonington Public Schools asked parents to resubmit their answers in a new online form. Changes in the form will allow the district to better verify answers for each individual student and assures more accurate results, the district said.

“It has come to our attention that the integrity of the recent survey has been seriously compromised due to a variety of reasons,” the letter said. “In order to retrieve accurate information, the survey will be reissued with a shorter turnaround time and include your child(ren)’s names. The results will inform decisions specific to the instructional model offerings at each building for the remainder of the school year.”

Officials warned that results of the survey shared on social media Thursday are not considered to be accurate data. Results of that survey, which was due back on Tuesday, will not be used.

Board of Education Chairman Frank Todisco said during Thursday's special meeting that despite the district's intentions, it had become clear to board members and school district staff that "there was an integrity issue across all schools."

The district made the decision to resend the survey, which was sent around 1:30 p.m. Thursday, and will work to streamline efforts to collect the data and return results to the board and the general public.

"Staff will pull together the data on Monday, and the board will have to schedule a special meeting immediately to discuss the results," he said. The meeting is expected to be scheduled either Tuesday or Wednesday.

The district has not said how the initial survey was compromised, or how inaccurate data was identified.

All parents are asked to resubmit their survey by 5 p.m. on Friday. A link has been emailed to all parents and one survey must be completed for each student.

Board members had directed school administrators to issue the survey on Feb. 18 after more than a dozen parents shared concerns that continuing in a hybrid or distance learning model for an extended period of time was detrimental to the growth and development of students, especially younger students.

Stonington continues to operate using a hybrid model that involves students being divided into cohorts based on last name. Cohort A meets Mondays and Tuesdays in-person while cohort B meets in-person on Thursdays and Fridays. All students attend school virtually on Wednesdays and school days when their cohort is not assigned to meet in-person.

The push to offer the full return option came after Riley sent a letter to families on Feb. 2 defending the district’s handling of the pandemic. The correspondence indicated that the district was unlikely to return to full in-person learning this academic year, with a focus on bringing all students back safely in the fall.

Parents expressed concerns again Thursday, with all three who spoke sharing concerns about the negative impact of the hybrid model on student focus, motivation and mental health.

In response to the outpouring of concern from parents, Riley told board members that his staff has already developed a proposal that would see students in kindergarten and grade 1, 6 and 9 all return four days per week effective March 15, with masks still required and students able to still maintain six-foot social distancing.

"To be able to determine that we can bring back kindergartners, that we can bring back all first graders and still maintain the six-foot social distancing is a promising start," Riley said.

The date was chosen, Riley said, to offer parents two weeks from Monday to properly plan for adjustments in schedules and secure any necessary child care. Board members expressed a desire to see an even faster timeline, but promised a continued focus on developing a plan that would allow students to return without compromising anyone's health or safety.

Officials said students in other grades would then be phased in to the four-day system by April 1, with staff then refocusing to begin planning for a five-day return in either late spring or by the fall at the latest.

Under the plan, it was unclear whether a hybrid option would be offered once the four-day system is implemented. Those families who wish to continue using a full distancing learning model will be allowed to continue to utilize that option through at least the end of the school year, Riley said.

In the coming week, Riley said the board and district staff would need to determine whether it would continue to follow the CDC guidelines for safety or shift direction and follow a different set from the American Association of Pediatrics, which still emphasizes use of masks but defines six-foot social distancing as unnecessary in certain conditions where masks and other barriers are used.

The board was expected to deliberate further on the issues and comprehensive plan at next week's board meeting as well. Riley said in the meantime, he is committed to gathering as much information as possible to aid the board in coming to a decision.

"We will be continuing to work to get all students back in the classroom as soon as possible and agree with parents that it important to return to in-person learning as safely as possible," he said.

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