RIDGEFIELD — Ridgefield schools are opening with fewer students on campuses, newer instructors and emptier buses.

Due to concerns about the coronavirus, nearly 675 students — or about 15 percent — of the 4,621 public school students registered in grades K-12 have chosen the remote-learning option and will attend classes online.

In addition, 39 staff members have either retired or resigned since May 26, including 19 teachers and 14 paraeducators, who provide instruction under the direction and supervision of a certified teacher.

As the school year starts, about 1,475 students won’t be riding the bus.

With no previous academic years as reference points, school officials and board members at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting could only accept the numbers as another consequence of the pandemic.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Superintendent Susie Da Silva of the number of students opting to stay remote.

Another unknown is how long these numbers will last. With 72 hours notice, students can switch between fully remote learning and the district’s hybrid model, which splits each school into two groups and mixes in-person classes with remote learning.

Students can return to riding buses or deciding to stop riding them, more staff could resign, and new staff could be hired to fill openings.

Even the district’s timeline is tentative. Students in grades K-8 are scheduled to move from the hybrid design to a five-day, in-person model after the first month of school, while high school students will remain in hybrid learning until the end of the first quarter in November. But those dates could change if Ridgefield’s COVID-19 risk level increases.

School officials are finding one positive: With nearly 700 students opting for temporary remote learning, safety protocols will likely be easier to follow.

“It reduces the cohort size,” Da Silva said, referring to the two groups that will take turns attending classes and learning online in two-week cycles as part of the hybrid model.

After telling the board that 1,475 students (including the 675 who are learning remotely) would not be using buses, Da Silva anticipated a response.

“You’re probably asking if we could reduce the number of buses,” she said. “At any time any one of those children, or all of them, could come back to accessing the school bus, so we have to have the school buses available.

“Based on our contract, we ask for so many buses each school year,” Da Silva added. “If we were to reduce those number of school buses and then say we want two of those back, we may not be able to get those back. ... While it does help for the purpose of reducing the number of children on a school bus ... it doesn’t really help us financially.”

Fewer teachers

Karen Dewing, Ridgefield schools personnel director, said the district had nine unfilled vacancies for certified teachers with little notice to find replacements.

“It is very typical that once we hit August, when a teacher resigns, they are required to give 30 days notice,” she said. “I have seen a daily increase in people resigning now, or retiring now, without wanting to give that 30-day notice because of their health concern.”

The 30-day notice is a courtesy rather than a contractual obligation, Dewing said, but coronavirus concerns make it more difficult to enforce the policy.

“It is an unspoken rule right now among districts when you hit August ... another district would say I’m not going to hurt another district by taking their teacher at this time of year,” Dewing said. “So I can say you’re not allowed to start at that other district until (we’ve) hired a replacement or that 30 days has lapsed.

“It is much more difficult when someone says I just can’t work because I’m fearful for my health. So yes, they are supposed to give 30 days; it’s the obligation of how I can enforce it that is the difference.”

Several other teachers are discussing a temporary leave of absence, Dewing said.

“Those are not considered vacancies right now because they would not be vacating their position if they were granted such leave, and so we are looking at substitutes if possible,” she said. “... We are doing our best to make sure we have the most talented, appropriate person in our positions to start on Thursday.”

Cumulatively, the amount of resignations and retirements was only slightly higher than normal, Dewing said. “What is different this year is the timing of when they come in. Normally I would have many of the retirements or resignations earlier. I’m getting them daily now, which is not typical.”