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Stratford looks at how to return to school

The Stratford school board met on Wednesday, July 15, to discuss options for potentially returning students to in-person instruction for the 2020-21 academic school year.

The board has chosen to form subcommittees to tackle the hurdles facing a successful return to face-to-face schooling, with two such meetings already taking place prior to Wednesday’s meeting, superintendent Scott Winch said.

“The first meetings were largely organizational,” Winch said. “We looked at the survey results from the community and the staff and out of that meeting we decided to have subcommittees.”

A public survey was sent out to families in the district, asking them for input regarding how they wish the board to proceed with instruction. As of now, Winch said there are three plans the board is mulling over - a virtual instruction only option, face-to-face instruction and a blended approach.

“Is the committee looking at one option and kind of barreling down that path? Or are we looking at the three options?” board president Chris Dickenson asked. “Are we digging down a path of each one to see what the pros and cons of each are and balancing that? Or is it more ‘We kind of think we want to go down this path?’” The results of the survey, completed by 50-55 percent of the district’s families, showed favor towards face-to-face instruction. Winch said this would be the preferable scenario come Sept. 1.

“When we put these subgroups together for each building it was let’s start by looking at what this would look like if we brought all or as many kids as possible back into the building and work from there.”

As of now, there are subcomittees for the elementary building, 6-12 building and committees on transportation and mental health. After the board has examined the plans and information gained from the subcommttees, they will then be given over to the board and staff to review before being shared to the public via Skylert.

A public listening session will then be held on Wednesday, Aug. 5, at 6 p.m. in the high school gym for public comments from families and community members.

Dickinson asked what sort of measures were being taken to minimize and mitigate the risk of exposing students and staff to COVID-19 should face-to-face instruction take place.

Winch told the board that masks and sufficient hand sanitizer have been purchased. Other forms of curbing the risk of exposure include taking temperatures at the door, having an isolation room for anyone who does exhibit symptoms during instruction, as well as eliminating lunch lines by having students receive and eat meals in their classrooms.

However, Pam Warosh and others admitted that their ability to control exposure only extended to the halls of Stratford’s buildings.

“We can do everything right, but what happens when they leave our building? Where are they going and where have their mom and dad been? You can’t control that.”

Dickinson ended the discussion by addressing the elephant in the room - when can students and families expect a return to normalcy?

“Is anybody looking at when we go back to normal?” Dickenson asked. “What is the metric that we would have in place to say we’re done with this and we’re just moving forward? What’s our exit strategy?”

Winch said at the moment there is no metric for deciding when or what constitutes a good time to move back to normal. Winch said it would be “semester by semester and go from there.”

Debate on extracurriculars

As the board debated possibly returning students to the district’s building, the topic turned to the fall sports season. Warosh wondered if the subcommittees will take into account the impact athletics and extracurricular activities will have on the schools and student body.

“What does that look like?” Warosh asked. “What are the inherent risks that come with that?”

Winch told Warosh that the first two committee meetings had not discussed sports; they were focused solely on education. As a member of the WIAA board, Winch said that the WIAA had not taken any action, but would be looking at proposals for fall sports in the near future.

“Right now the stance from the WIAA is that they will provide and assist in schools that want to participate in athletics,” Winch said. “But there’s been some pressure now, that says ‘You know what? We’re not ready for this.’” Winch said there has been a proposal coming out of CESA - 3 that would shift and condense the sports seasons to give schools more time to figure out what they would do academically.

Warosh asked if having spectators and allowing games to take place would not, in fact, undermine efforts to provide a safe environment to participate in academics during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It doesn’t pay to go all this way on one side academically and then sports is open, which is fine, but it completely changes your playing field,” Warosh said. “We’re putting all this effort here and then by 3:30 it’s virtually gone because of practices.”