Students in Ridgefield’s six elementary schools will soon be back in school five days a week.

But middle schoolers will continue with a hybrid schedule — alternating in-school classes with remote learning from home — indefinitely.

And most high school students will continue with the hybrid schedule until at least November.

“We are still working through next steps,” School Superintendent Susie Da Silva said Tuesday of middle and high school plans.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will be going back to a full five-day schedule, with the youngest students — kindergarten, first and second graders — starting next Tuesday, Sept. 29, as had been planned.

Third through fifth graders will start full-time in the elementary schools the following Monday, Oct. 5, allowing staff a little time to get the younger students accustomed to the new realities.

“Mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing and cohorting,” Da Silva said, reiterating for Monday night’s Board of Education meeting what she saw as the key elements to a safe start of the school year.

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced a spring of distance learning from home, followed by a summer off, students returned to school Aug. 27. They have been on a hybrid schedule, separated into cohorts — with one cohort learning on computers form home on days the other cohort is in school.

The number of students enrolled in the Ridgefield Public School for 2020-21 is 4,588, with 1,823 in the six elementary schools, 1,083 in the two middle schools, and 1,579 enrolled in high school.

The cohort system — with half the students at home while the other half are in school — reduces the numbers of kids in classrooms and buildings at one time.

No students or faculty are known to have tested positive for COVID-19 so far this year.

“Now, over three weeks in school, our children have been healthy, our faculty has been healthy — knock on wood. We want to keep it that way,” Da Silva told the school board.

The school administration has been working closely with town Health Director Ed Briggs, Da Silva said Monday night. Administrators were touring buildings with Briggs up until shortly before the meeting, she said.

At the middle and high school levels there are two major concerns: rooms aren’t all large enough to accommodate full classes while keeping students seated far enough apart; and students change classes, which involves passing in the hallways.

Fewer at home

The school system began the year with 675 students — nearly 15 percent of its 4,588 student population — doing remote learning from home full time.

But the home-learning group is getting smaller, according to Da Silva.

“Every day, there are students in remote learning that are coming back into hybrid, at every level, because it is safe,” she said.

And she suggested a reason it’s safe.

“Our kids and families are doing the right thing: They’re not coming to school when they’re sick,” Da Silva said.

“We don’t have anybody in our schools that has a known case of COVID-19,” Aaron Crook, nursing coordinator for the district, told the board.

“We have a lot of people we’ve sent for testing both students and staff,” he said. “And so far they’ve all come back negative — which is great.”

But managing it all can be difficult.

“Proper social distancing has been by far the biggest challenge we’ve had,” said Da Silva.

“We’re encouraging the kindergarten teachers to do the best they can, knowing that masks are the most mitigating factors,” said Crook.

There’ve had to be adaptations.

“Yes in some classrooms we’ve had to shift from hexagon tables to desks, where we wouldn’t normally want to do that,” Da Silva said. “...Teachers in kindergarten who need plexiglass so they can teach children sounds and words, seeing their mouths.”

Maintaining social distancing practices in school isn’t easy — especially with the younger children.

“They’re like little magnets,” Da Silva said. “The first day I was over at Barlow Mountain and was helping a child get out of a car. He kept going for my hand — it’s a natural instinct for that age child.”

Still, the superintendent expressed confidence in the move to full attendance, five-days a week, in the elementary schools.

“K-5 we are planning to return to full; we can properly social distance our children,” Da Silva said.

“We feel pretty good about the spaces,” she said.

“I know we’ll be ready to go for the 29th.”

Higher grades

Returning to classroom routine is more complicated at the higher grade levels.

“When would you bring back middle school kids? When would you bring back high school kids? I’m not sure at this point I can answer that question,” Da Silva said.

Part of it is the buildings.

Da Silva said she’d been through both middle schools with Briggs, and she had administrative team working on ways the two middle schools’ 1,083 students could be housed and configured and safely move from class to class.

But nothing has been devised that fully satisfies all the concerns.

“For us it’s the space issue,” said Tim Salem, principal of Scotts Ridge Middle School. “... Our classrooms are not extraordinarily large.

“Just the other day we had the health director walk the building with us,” he said. “We’ve done so much measuring...

“We’re stuck right now with the numbers,” Salem said. “It just doesn’t work out when we’re asking students to be three feet apart in a classroom setting.”

High school

The original plan was to have high school’s 1,579 students stop attending in school in alternating cohorts, and have everybody go full time, after the end of the first quarter in November.

But there are concerns to resolve.

Ridgefield High School Principal Dr. Jacob Greenwood said the high school building had two sections — one built in “the early 2000s” and an older section that “dates back to 1971.”

The building has “lots of nooks and crannies, different size classrooms,” he said.

“The hallways particularly in the old section are extremely narrow,” he said.

“At what point do you increase passing time so much, to cascade kids out, that you’ve lost too much instructional time?”

Even in normal times, with the cafeteria allowed to fill, the school has multiple lunch waves so all the kids can eat.

“Our biggest challenge probably is lunch,” Greenwood said. “That’s where we have to get creative if we’re thinking about bringing kids back.”

“It’s probably more realistic to bring back some of the kids than to think about bringing back everybody right away,” he said.

Greenwood said there had been talks about having five-day weeks for specific groups of students who have more of a need for in-person instruction — special education students, but some others as well, such as kids who didn’t embrace the spring’s distance learning.

“I also think we have a bulk of students who have some hanging incompletes from the spring,” Greenwood said.

“And there were students who had known attendance issues going into the spring.”

But Greenwood said the high school administration and staff had work to do before students return to the building five days a week.

“We just don’t have a good plan,” he said. “... The truth is, we’re working on it.”

Why return?

Da Silva was asked why, if the cohorting and the hybrid schedule had been keeping students safe, the schools were moving ahead with plans to have elementary students attend school in person five days a week.

“Our faculty and our parents know our children learn best when they’re at school,” Da Silva said.

“At the same time, when we bring them back,” she said, school officials need to be sure “we’ve made every effort to keep them as safe as possible.”