East Lyme Public Schools will welcome students back in a hybrid model for fall 2020, with students attending school in person for two days a week and online for three days a week.
In addition to the hybrid option, students also have the option to enroll in 100% distance learning. The district is calling that option, "Virtual Viking." ELPS is contracting with Edgenuity, an outside provider of K–12 online learning, for the Virtual Viking program.
“It is an opportunity for those students from home to utilize both. Utilize access to some of the teachers in our schools, but also utilize an outside platform as well,” said Jeffrey Newton, superintendent of East Lyme Public Schools.
Newton said that the district decided to hire the outside company for the virtual program because they were concerned with engagement. They did not want students to sit in front of a computer and only attend classes via Zoom.
“Disengagement is going to happen quickly so we are trying to add in a more robust component," said Newton.
“If they don’t have an AP class, for instance, that is where we come into play. We provide the AP class," said Newton.
NBC Connecticut spoke with several parents in East Lyme who are excited to send their children back to school in person on the hybrid plan.
Max Ruzzo said that his family was comfortable with the safety plan and will take the fall day-by-day, but his children are excited to get back in the classroom.
“They are very much looking forward to going back," said Ruzzo.
Parent Jessie Ford said that the virtual track is not an option for her family because she works. She will be sending her students in-person, but still has questions that she would like answered.
“I know they are working hard to give us the info that we need, but there are just so many unknowns and it is hard to get your kids ready when you don’t know what to expect," said Ford.
Parents who are not able to send their students in-person have questions as well.
A group of "East Lyme concerned parents" created a petition on change.org asking East Lyme Public Schools to modify the virtual track. The petition cites concerns over students not being required to have an East Lyme teacher and that students will not be following East Lyme curriculum.
Anna Kate is one of the parents who signed the petition. She will not send her students to school this fall because of health concerns amidst the pandemic. Now she is left deciding between Virtual Viking or unenrolling her children and homeschooling them instead.
"I think every student who resides in East Lyme needs to have the same educational opportunities as those sitting in the classroom," said Kate.
There are no concrete numbers yet on how many students are opting for the virtual track versus the hybrid track.
Newton said that each student in the program will have constant contact with East Lyme Public Schools through a case manager. He stressed that support and social relations are still important.
Virtual Viking will be used on a marking period by marking period basis. If all students need to switch to remote learning because of an uptick in COVID-19 cases, Virtual Viking students will be transitioned back into their class and join other classmates in East Lyme virtual learning.
"That is where the case manager and administrator of oversight comes into play: to monitor that," said Newton, explaining that case managers will work to make sure students are at the same learning level as students in the hybrid model. "That is what we have to monitor. This is an opportunity to accelerate learning because you are more one to one with students. We can hone in and pin point on areas of difficultly."
Newton said that ELPS will begin splitting students up into cohorts and hope to have that information available to parents by Monday. The school system will work to provide additional information on both models as it becomes available, said Newton.
The organizer behind the online petition said that some of their questions are beginning to be answered. They say they are looking forward to hearing more.
"Choosing to learn safely at home should be equitable and supported by the district, not penalized," a representative of the group of parents wrote.
The full statement can be read here: "We admire and do not envy the task that ELPS and the BOE are charged with completing. Ensuring that all students are engaged, learning, and safe is a tremendous ask—yet so is asking parents and guardians to decide on their children’s educational plan without adequate details. The Virtual Viking model, as presented on Monday, left more questions than answers. How will our students be included in the school community? How will we ensure equity across the district if VV students aren’t receiving East Lyme curriculum? Will special education services be implemented? How will social and emotional needs be met? A recent update from administrators late Wednesday night shows that these questions are now beginning to be addressed as well. Unfortunately, the trickling information flow makes a difficult decision even more so. We look forward to hearing more from ELPS administrators and are hopeful that they are listening and will continue to listen to concerned parents and students in the district. This is a process that requires flexibility from all parties. Choosing to learn safely at home should be equitable and supported by the district, not penalized."