Ridgefield Schools are battling to keep buildings staffed

Pictured is a photo of the coronavirus. Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva recently outlined for the town's school board the difficulties facing efforts to keep the town's public schools open.

Pictured is a photo of the coronavirus. Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva recently outlined for the town’s school board the difficulties facing efforts to keep the town’s public schools open.

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Convinced that children learn best in school, and that in-school transmission of COVID-19 is rare, school officials have kept Ridgefield schools open.

But there are problems — including a steady drip, drip, drip of students and staff members who test positive, prompting quarantines of others they’d been in contact with, and difficulties staffing schools.

“We have quarantined 855 people because they have been in a classroom, on a bus or at an athletic event with somebody who tested positive for COVID-19,” Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva told the Board of Education Monday night.

“Of those 855, only four people have tested positive,” she said.

The school system was reporting Tuesday morning that it “has had 36 known cases of COVID-19.”

And schools have spent over $1 million in COVID-19 related expenses through Nov. 12, school business manager Dawn Norton said Monday night — with an additional $1,684,000 in COVID-related expenses anticipated.

Based on the low numbers of positive tests among school populations who quarantine after possible exposures, school officials don’t think in-school transmission is common, or a likely explanation for those people who do test positive — but it is a possible explanation.

“The four I’ve talked about, we can’t rule it out,” Da Silva said.

Schools routinely notify the school community when there has been a positive test, she said.

“If we have to quarantine a classroom, and somebody in that cohort is testing positive, we’re going to share that information,” Da Silva said.

Staff shortage

With staff as well as students required to quarantine when someone tests positive, it’s getting tough to find enough teachers — including substitutes — to oversee classrooms.

“Staffing continues to be a challenge and one of the greater challenges we’re having in terms of keeping our schools open,” Da Silva told the school board.

Ridgefield High School went entirely to remote learning through the end of the Thanksgiving break — a decision reached last Wednesday after four members of the RHS community tested positive, sending 62 students and 10 staff members into quarantine.

Monday, Nov. 23, the Ridgefield Public Schools said there were 279 students and 49 staff members in 14-day quarantine, according to the COVID-19 data-tracker on the school system’s website.

The schools list 13 incidents of potential exposure — eight of them at Ridgefield High School — within the 14-day quarantine period, although not all of them involved potential exposures that required contact tracing or quarantines.

“We continue to believe that there’s limited evidence that we have transmission from the schools,” Da Silva said.

Still, the school administration meets and reviews “local health data and county data” with town Director of Health Ed Briggs and the school system’s medical advisor Dr. James Ahern “each and every Friday,” she said. Together they reach a conclusion about how school should be conducted the following week — in class, remote, hybrid with alternating cohorts — at each of the three levels, elementary, middle and high school.

“Even if we can keep school open,” in terms of the COVID-19 numbers in the community and the county, Da Silva said, the problem of staffing remains a challenge.

“Can we staff for purposes of content?” Da Silva said. “Can we staff for purposes of safety?”

School systems all around Fairfield County are facing similar difficulties, she said.

“When you hear schools are going remote, it’s mostly likely due to staffing, rather than transmission in the schools,” Da Silva said.

What the situation will be after Thanksgiving isn’t clear.

“The first week of December, hopefully we’ll be able to open our schools and hopefully we’ll be able to staff our schools,” Da Silva said.

Da Silva told the board she’d been out at the high school, talking to students, and had gotten some feedback on what it’s like for the kdis who are going to school, with large numbers of classmates on remote learning. Some students like sticking to the routine of getting up and going to school, but they low numbers of other students at the high school can diminish the value of being there.

“The numbers of students being quarantined made the school experience not as rich,” Da Silva said.

“... They were eating lunch with two or three classmates.”

Da Silva also said all athletics are off until mid-January — a decision made statewide that First Selectman Rudy Marconi had announced last week.

“All athletics will be on hold with the exception of ‘conditioning’ until Jan. 19,” Da Silva said.

Numbers up

Aaron Crook, the school system’s COVID-19 liaison, told the school board said that the advice school decision-makers had gotten from the state on COVID-19 was not to go by local numbers, but to keep a regional perspective.

“They wanted us to look at Fairfield County. They said you should look at the larger picture. They didn’t want us to look at the numbers for our town,” he said.

For the first several weeks of school, state officials were encouraged by the numbers.

“We seemed to be holding our own across the State of Connecticut,” Crook said.

A level of about 25 new cases per day per 100,000 population was regarded as a level at which different options should be re-examined.

“Over the last three or four weeks, we’ve just had an explosion of these numbers. Faifield County is now almost double that: 50,” Crook said.

Under state guidelines, some school districts quarantine students based on who has spent 15 minutes or more within six feet of someone who later tested positive for COVID-19.

“Ridgefield is taking a more conservative approach than some other towns,” Crook said.

“We will quarantine that entire classroom,” he said “... out of a sense of caution, and a sense of duty to our students and staff.

“We’ve actually quarantined a very large number of people, compared to other districts,” Crook said.

The situation is largely unprecedented, and schools around the state are working with health authorities, making decisions to open or close or go to remote learning, and simply doing what seems best.

“Nobody has ever run a public school in a COVID-19 pandemic before,” Crook said.