East Lyme superintendent criticized for ‘snail pace’ of returning students to school

A meeting of the East Lyme Board of Education on Monday saw Superintendent Jeffrey Newton present elementary school reopening plans.

EAST LYME — In a few weeks, elementary schools in town will begin what some feel will be a long process of returning students to the classrooms full-time.

Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey R. Newton announced during this week’s Board of Education meeting that elementary students will be phased back into school. The plan will eliminate the hybrid model and replace the A and B cohorts with classroom cohorts.

Some board members were frustrated the transition could not be completed sooner and that the plan did not include middle and high school students. Others shared concerns that COVID-19 would spread through the schools, forcing them to close again.

Newton said how and when to reopen schools was a difficult decision.

“There’s no right answer in this,” Newton said. “We all want our kids back — bottom line. There are such mixed views and I hear it.”

Before the discussion on the plans, Board of Education Chairman Timothy Hagen said the board had received 10 comments asking the district to reopen schools as soon as possible, while three requested to delay going back to full-time learning.

Newton said safety would be the primary factor to any decision. He said the Ledge Light Health District and the school district’s medical adviser support the phased approach to returning students to school.

In his presentation, Newton said the plan would bring elementary school students back to full-time learning in phases. The plans show kindergarten and first grade would switch to full-time on March 1, second grade would come back on March 15 and third and fourth grades would come back on March 29.

During that time, students would go to school on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday — with a remote learning day on Wednesday. On May 3, the elementary students would all return to five-day, in-person classes, according to the plan.

Notably, cohort changes will be frozen as of March 1. Officials noted there had been 1,218 cohort change requests throughout the school year as of Monday night.

Newton said there are students and staff who are concerned about a full return to school. He said a gradual approach supports both the people who want to go back as fast as possible and those who are apprehensive about returning.

When asked by member Candice Carlson if the plan was negotiable, Newton said it wasn’t, pointing out the district had worked closely with elementary school administration and staff to create the plan.

Carlson said the district is seeing the ramifications of the hybrid model — impact on mental health and grades had been previously discussed — but also pointed out concerns about the pace of the timeline.

“When I got the timeline, the first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Oh, that is at a snail pace. That is very slow,”’ Carlson said.

Carlson said she wanted to see middle and high school students back in school soon as well.

Board member Jaime Barr Shelburn said she hoped the timeline could be expedited.

“Kids are struggling. The parents are struggling and the teachers are struggling,” she said. “I know that we said that timeline is not negotiable, but I would like to see an across-the-board phased-in approach.”

Shelburn said the plans appear to indicate high school students would not return to in-person learning full-time until close to the end of the year.

“They need to be back sooner than that,” she said. “They need to be back way sooner than June.”

Board member Eric Bauman agreed elementary school is the easiest to bring back full-time, but said he would like to see the middle school reopened more quickly.

“I think the high school is brutally challenging,” he said, adding that the logistics of organizing schedules for 1,000 students would be difficult. “My biggest concern is that we have to close schools again and go fully remote.”

Hybrid learning is not ideal, Bauman said, fully remote is “really bad.” He said the community needs to work together inside and outside of school to keep COVID-19 from spreading.

Hagen said Newton and district officials have spent a lot of time considering all options. He said he understands that most board members want to see a plan for reopening the middle and high school.

“We very much want to see how we would go about achieving that, because, let’s face it, COVID is probably still going to be with us in the fall,” he said.

Connecticut Media Group