All faces masked in class

A few technological hiccups, students adhering to safety protocols, and, most importantly, no individuals reporting positive COVID-19 test results.

From Superintendent Susie Da Silva’s perspective, the first three days of Ridgefield’s 2020-21 school year were smoother than expected — particularly since no one knew exactly that to expect.

“The students are happy to be back in school and are wearing their masks and doing a great job following the other guidelines, and the teachers are engaged and positive and getting creative already,” Da Silva said Wednesday morning. “We’ve had some technology lags on Monday, but those seem to have been corrected.”

After more than five months without in-class instruction — due to COVID-19, Connecticut schools switched to remote learning in March and continued in that manner for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year — roughly half of Ridgefield students in grades K-9 returned last Friday. Joined by students in grades 10-12, that same group (Cohort A) attended school on Monday and Tuesday, and Cohort B began on Wednesday.

Like the majority of Connecticut school districts, Ridgefield has chosen to start the year with a hybrid model that combines in-person classes with online learning. Students in the district’s nine public schools were divided into two groups, Cohorts A and B, based on the first letter of their last names. Each group takes turns going to school and attending class remotely, through a live stream. During a 10-day, two-week cycle, each group is in school for five days and following along from home five days.

“You can tell how happy the students are to be back” said Da Silva, who rode on buses the first three days of school. “They are thrilled to be with their friends and peers. It’s really great to see.”

Thirty-nine staff members (19 of them teachers) either retired or resigned from May 26 through last Monday, with many citing COVID-19 concerns as a reason. Da Silva said a few more teachers resigned between last Tuesday and Friday.

“Our certified teachers have taken on overages, and we also have substitutes in place,” Da Silva said. “We have teachers who are coming from other districts but they have to wait for 30 days or until the other district hires someone. We are also interviewing people. I think we are in better shape than many other districts, which have lots of openings for teachers.”

At last Monday’s Board of Education meeting, Da Silva reported that nearly 675 students — or about 15 percent — of the 4,621 public school students registered in grades K-12 had chosen the temporary remote-learning option and would be attending classes online. Another 800 students who are going to school have opted out of riding buses, leaving the district with 1,475 fewer bus riders.

“The buses are really empty, which helps with social-distancing,” Da Silva said.

With 72 hours notice, students can switch between the online-only model and the in-person hybrid model. Students can also decide to ride buses or use other transportation.

“A lot of things are uncertain at this point,” Da Silva said. “Planning is the biggest challenge because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

If Ridgefield’s COVID-19 risk level stays low, the elementary and middle schools will move to in-class learning five days a week after the first month of school. Ridgefield High will remain in a hybrid model through the end of the first quarter in November.

“There’s still a lot to figure out; the transition to full-time, in-school learning will be significant,” Da Silva said. “But after the first three days, I can say that I am encouraged by what I have seen.”