Stonington Prepares to Reopen Public Schools

STONINGTON — The Stonington Board of Education on Wednesday night asked Superintendent Van Riley to create a plan that would bring all grades back to in-person learning as soon as possible. 

The plan comes in response to demands from parents that the schools reopen, despite teachers and paraeducators asking to remain in a hybrid model. 

The key concern with returning in-person was the lack of space, which doesn’t allow students to maintain the six feet distance that the CDC recommends. 

Yet according to a district-wide survey, about 60 percent of parents are asking for the district to return to in-person learning 4-5 days per week – even without the ability to socially distance. 

The other 40 percent of parents elected to remain in the hybrid model. 

The district will eliminate the hybrid model for kindergarteners and first graders beginning on March 15. Parents will choose between sending their students to school in-person four days a week, or keeping them in remote learning. Sixth graders and ninth graders will also be able to return on March 15, although options for hybrid and remote learning will remain.  

All students will continue to learn remotely on Wednesdays so the schools can disinfect and clean and the teachers have extra time for planning.   

All the board members agreed upon the necessity of returning to in-person schooling.

Board member Heidi Simmons said she believed the elementary schools could start back in-person very quickly, given that the HVAC systems in those buildings were almost new. 

“In-person instruction is not just preferred in elementary school, it is essential,” she said. 

Board member Gordon Lord said that Stonington needed to look to its neighboring districts as an example. 

“If we look at our neighboring towns, they are all working on phase-in plans, and I think we need to do the same,” he said. 

Lord added, however, that it would be important to give teachers some time to get vaccinated so they would feel comfortable. 

Allison VanEtten, director of special services, said that of 371 of the employees that responded to a survey they offered, 325 said they planned to get the vaccine. VanEtten said that many of their staff made appointments to get their first vaccination at the clinic that Ledge Light Health District will be running at Foxwoods on Sunday. She estimated that 20 percent of the staff still needed to sign up for appointments. 

Teachers and paraeducators have pushed back against the idea of returning in-person. Paraeducator Rachel O’Dell read a letter to the board asking that the district not open the building to full capacity.

“We’ve made it this far, let’s just hold on and get to the point where it’s safe,” she said. 

In a survey of teachers circulated before the governor announced prioritizing educators for the vaccine, between 84 and 87 percent of teachers at the Stonington schools said they would prefer to continue with hybrid learning. If the hybrid model was removed as an option, between 50 and 65 percent of the teachers said they would prefer remote learning over in-person. 

Riley said that he would prepare a plan determining how much distancing the school could accommodate between students, how the classrooms would be set up, and what other mitigating factors, such as plexiglass shields and upgrading the ventilation, would need to be put in place. 

The plan will be presented to the Board at a meeting on March 11. 

Board Chairman Frank Todisco also asked for the forming of an advisory council made up of community members to determine how to address the potential learning loss that has taken place over the course of the year and any future concerns related to COVID. 

“I think the work has just begun,” he said. 

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