Most local school systems don’t anticipate switching from hybrid to full distance learning after Thanksgiving and instead plan to follow state health and education department advice, which they say has been working.
There are exceptions.
Groton Public Schools announced last week its schools would move to full remote learning for two weeks following the Thanksgiving break — through Dec. 14. Groton Superintendent Michael Graner said the main factor in that decision is not the rate of positive COVID-19 cases but a staffing shortage.
“The biggest problem for us is we are at the point where we literally have no more substitute teachers,” Graner said.
He said one recent positive case at Catherine Kolnaski School led to a half dozen teachers and paraprofessionals being sent into quarantine. The school initially switched to remote learning through Nov. 30 but will join the rest of the district through the extended period.
Graner is also hoping that the extra time away from in-person classes will give staff and families the extra time to quarantine, especially with the travel and get-togethers expected over Thanksgiving.
Groton is not the only district short on substitute teachers and not the first to contemplate the merits of a shift to remote learning after the holidays.
The Preston Board of Education, earlier this month, discussed whether to switch to fully remote learning following the Thanksgiving break but ultimately decided against the move.
Superintendent Roy Seitsinger told the school board the state Department of Public Health was not recommending remote learning following holiday breaks, because schools remain among the safest places for children to avoid COVID-19 exposure.
Board Chairman Sean Nugent said one problem is that the board needs to give families time to plan. If the board decided to go with remote learning for three days after Thanksgiving, families wouldn’t have much time to adjust.
The board decided it’s too early to decide on possible remote learning after future holidays and scheduled school breaks. Some board members said abruptly changing the school calendar could cause disruptions to parents’ work schedules and child care arrangements.
The state Department of Public Heath and Connecticut State Department of Education issued a joint statement last week to reinforce the idea of school districts making “public health data-driven decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The CSDE and DPH do not think that arbitrary, date-based closures of schools are warranted at this time. We will continue to consult with and work with school districts, local health departments and medical advisers on individual decisions around closures, but are not recommending that districts proactively close for a prolonged period of time in anticipation of changes in disease prevalence,” the statement reads. “In-person education is too important for our children to disrupt their education further, unless and until local conditions specifically dictate the need to do so.”
Ledge Light Health District, which is performing contact tracing and keeping southeastern Connecticut school districts apprised of community and school cases, has consistently credited school leaders with mitigation efforts that have warded off any outbreaks in the schools. The health district has urged school districts to base their decisions on closings on individual circumstances with the health and safety of students and staff at the forefront.
The result of many reported positive COVID-19 cases has been to keep the schools open when possible. Other times schools have closed for a day, two weeks or simply closed in-person classes to specific classrooms.
The shifts to remote learning typically come when multiple staff are out or when positive cases come in too late to properly perform contact tracing, as was the case in New London earlier this month. The Lyme-Old Lyme school district recently shifted two fourth-grade classes — about 30 students — into remote learning because of a school community member testing positive. The classes are expected to resume on Nov. 30
In-school COVID-19 transmissions are reportedly minimal in most schools. The Lyme-Old Lyme district, for example, has maintained full in-person learning throughout the pandemic with just three reported positive COVID-19 cases for the year. None of those cases originated in the schools, and there is no evidence of transmission through school contacts, Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser said.
“This further supports the mitigation strategies that exist in our buildings and is a reminder of the importance of adhering to those standards outside of school especially during the upcoming holiday season,” Neviaser said in a statement to the school community.
Similarly, in Groton, despite a growing number of reported positive cases of COVID-19, there have been no known in-school COVID-19 transmissions and no positive tests among the approximately 225 school community members tested this year because they were considered a close contact.
“My conclusion is that obviously the transmissions are out in the community,” Graner said.
Schools have mandated masks for everybody in the schools, limited class sizes and ensure proper hand washing among students along with ventilation in the schools.
Here’s what other school districts are doing:
Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said the district won’t take a break between the Thanksgiving holiday and winter break, and that this was never a consideration. He also said there are no planned changes to the schedule after winter break.
Superintendent Jay Hartling said the district is slated to continue hybrid instruction as planned after the holidays, though that’s contingent on how many cases develop and the impact of the resulting quarantine on staffing.
The school system will move to full distance learning from Nov. 30 through Dec. 4 due to factors such as staff travel during the holiday, unknown episodes of exposure over the holiday and delays in accessing testing and results for those traveling and visiting family.
Superintendent Peter Nero said the district will continue hybrid instruction and, like Ledyard, could alter plans based on new cases and changes in staffing levels.
Norwich Public Schools will remain in hybrid learning through the week ending Dec. 4. Norwich Free Academy shifted to fully remote learning through Dec. 4 following a rise in cases and information about a large off-campus gathering attended by students.
Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said Norwich will follow the state recommendation and not shift to remote learning following Thanksgiving and future scheduled school breaks.
Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser said the district plans to stick to its normal holiday schedule: Students have half days Monday and Tuesday for virtual parent-teacher conferences and are then off until the following Monday, and winter break starts with a half day on Dec. 23 and ends with students returning Jan. 4.
Preston schools will continue its school schedule. The schools are gradually transitioning to four-day in-person learning for most grades. The district had preschool through second grade in four-day in-person sessions previously and added grades three to five in four-day in-person learning Nov. 16. Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said he hopes to add middle school grades shortly to four-day in-person learning.
Stonington High School and Stonington Middle School moved to full distance learning last Thursday due to rising cases of COVID-19 and quarantine requirements while the town’s two elementary schools will remain on a hybrid schedule until Nov. 25. All schools will be on full distance learning through Dec. 4 with hybrid learning slated to resume Dec. 7.
Staff reporters Claire Bessette, Amanda Hutchinson, Erica Moser and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.
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