Ridgefield students to start school year in hybrid model — as of now, at least

Write plans in pencils; buy extra cloths for the whiteboard; stay close to the drawing board.

In 2020, the year of the coronavirus, the best way to stay prepared is to prepare for revision.

School officials certainly are getting used to it: Fifteen days after presenting one plan to the Board of Education, the Ridgefield reopening committee returned with another last Thursday.

The updated version means that Ridgefield students in grades K-12 will begin the 2020-21 school year with a hybrid model that mixes in-person instruction with remote (or virtual) learning. Students also have the option of fully remote learning.

If the COVID-19 risk level remains low, students in grades K-8 will switch to in-class learning five days a week following the first month of school; high school students will continue with the hybrid model through the end of the first quarter in November.

“It allows for us to establish some structures, some routines, especially for the younger kids,” Ridgefield superintendent Susie Da Silva said about the hybrid approach. “It also should instill some confidence on the part of parents and staff.”

To start the academic year, students at all Ridgefield schools will be split into two alphabetical groups based on last names and follow two-week cycles. Students in one group go to school three days the first week and two days the next, and students in the second group attend school two days the first week and three the second week. On days when students are not in classrooms they take part via remote learning.

Each school day will be 40 minutes shorter than usual, with students starting 20 minutes later and ending 20 minutes earlier. Students and staff are required to wear face masks while in school, and social-distance protocols will be in place.

If the local COVID-19 risk level (based primarily on number of new cases each day) rises to moderate, schools will continue (or revert back) to hybrid learning. If the risk level is high, all classes will take place remotely and school buildings will be closed.

Ridgefield’s decision to begin the school year in a hybrid setup became possible on July 27, when Gov. Ned Lamont and the state’s education department adopted a more flexible stance, giving each district the choice to decide which reopening model it preferred. Less than a month before that, Lamont and the education department had released their initial guidelines, which instructed school districts to avoid a hybrid approach by offering in-person classes five days a week with an option for fully remote learning.

At a virtual Board of Education meeting July 22, Da Silva unveiled Ridgefield’s first plan, with models for each level (low, moderate or high) of COVID-19 risk. The low-risk model (students in school five days each week) was presented as the one in which Ridgefield schools would open the year.

“It was a bit of a relief when the state said the districts could have more say,” Da Silva said. “Our original recommendation was to have students in grades K-8 in school five days a week and have high school students start in the hybrid. Cohorting (keeping students together in one classroom or one team) is easier in the elementary and middle schools but much harder in the high school.

“But the state said we couldn’t have hybrid at the high school, so that’s why the plan we first presented to the BOE called for either in-person five days a week or remote learning.”

After Lamont relaxed the state’s guidelines, Ridgefield’s reopening committee decided to start the year with a hybrid model at all schools.

“Even in the elementary schools, some of the classrooms are not big enough to socially distance [students] between three and six feet,” Da Silva said. “Opening in the hybrid helps us with that and gives us some time to see how things are going. By Sept. 29 (when grades K-8 are scheduled to return to in-person learning five days each week), we will have a better idea of how many kids are doing remote learning only or being home-schooled.”

As of Tuesday, 69 students (across all nine Ridgefield schools) had opted to begin the year with remote learning, according to Da Silva.

Specific information for each school regarding cohort and class assignments, schedules, and building procedures is expected to be sent to parents on or around Aug. 14.

“Families will probably decide what to do, whether to send kids to school or have them learn remotely, after they get that info,” Da Silva said.

Before school begins (Aug. 27 for grades K-9 and Aug. 28 for grades 10-12), parents and students will also receive information regarding specific arrival/dismissal protocols for each school and how to administer at-home daily COVID-19 screenings.

In addition, a series of digital training sessions covering health and safety protocols will be required viewing for all staff and students and also available for parents to watch.

“We want to get as much information and communication out there to staff and students and parents,” Da Silva said. “And that information and communication will continue once school starts.”