WESTBROOK — Staffing levels continue to be a concern as schools prepare to reopen Monday following a two-week closure due to COVID-19, Superintendent Peter Lancia said.

Meanwhile, the voluntary remote-only program has been extended through the rest of the school year.

With COVID-19 cases impacting at least one member of the district’s transportation department and a number of teachers in quarantine, school buildings have been closed since Nov. 24.

“We haven’t had a lot of new subs in the last month or so,” Lancia said. “We are hoping to hire throughout the year. In general we are covered, what we don’t have is subs for a run-of-the-mill sickness. That’s where we struggle and patchwork people in throughout the day. With plain-old flu season coming we are concerned over that.”

Since March, the school has hired about 20 classroom substitutes, but when transportation is affected, the school has few options.

“We can’t take in people to drive as we can for substitutes, so that has been a challenge,” Lancia said.

On average, the schools use 20 substitutes a day, compared to about 10 a day prior to the pandemic.

While students may have been “disrupted” by the temporary switch to all-remote learning the last few weeks, Lancia said most are handling it well and there is no plan to abandon the hybrid learning model (half in person and half remote).

“We want kids to be here as much as possible,” Lancia said. “It’s disruptive for a school to close for two weeks like we are going through, but we are trying to bring kids to school as often as we can and as safely as we can. Hybrid, overall it’s working pretty well.”

The remote-only program, Remote By Choice, will continue through the next semester.

School officials are in the process of determining how many current remote-only students will stay with it and how many new students will be added to that roster.

“Initially this summer when we built it, we sent a survey to the whole district,” Assistant Superintendent Kim O’Donnell said. “Not sure if we will go down that road or just go with open enrollment or an announcement down the road.”

Just over 400 students are in the program, which is more rigorous and structured, according to Lancia, than last spring’s remote-only curriculum.

According to O’Donnell, 87% of families so far in the program said they would like to stay fully remote, while “a number of families” not in the program said they wanted to opt in, Lancia said.

Designed by company Edmentum, the $34,000 Remote By Choice program was paid for by CARES Act money and has students in contact with roughly 20 remote-only staffers, up from 10 at the beginning of the year, who hold office hours and conduct testing and assessments.

Most of the participants are in grades K-5, with middle school students making up the second-highest group.

“Parents have been incredibly supportive and providing feedback,” O’Donnell said. “Folks working in the program are working very hard and I have to say, with the resources we have and the people we have, I can’t be more complimentary to the staff.”

Parents must contact O’Donnell to sign up for the program by Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 18,  just before the start of the second semester.

O’Donnell asks that families that sign up stay committed to the program for the rest of the year.

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