State’s revision adds flexibility to school reopening plans

If the COVID-19 risk level remains low, classrooms in Ridgefield won’t be empty at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

If the COVID-19 risk level remains low, classrooms in Ridgefield won’t be empty at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

When Ridgefield school officials presented the district’s lengthy reopening plan to the Board of Education last Wednesday night, they were following state guidelines.

Less than a week later, however, those guidelines changed.

During a press conference Monday, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont announced the state would allow each district to choose which model (in-class, hybrid, or remote learning) it preferred to begin the 2020-21 academic year.

That was a walk-back from the state’s previous requirement, which said districts needed to have students in-class five days a week or learning remotely — without the option of starting school in a hybrid model (a mix of in-class and online learning designed to prevent all students and teachers from being on campus at the same time).

Some districts, including Ridgefield, had originally recommended that a hybrid plan be allowed in certain schools where social-distancing protocols might be difficult to follow due to large-class sizes. Ridgefield, for example, wanted to open the school year with a hybrid model at Ridgefield High School.

That idea is now back on the table.

“We are considering all options, including the original recommendation [for a mix of in-person and online learning at the high school],” said Ridgefield Superintendent Susie Da Silva on Tuesday morning. “There is a chance but [we] can’t say yes for sure yet. We need to revisit with BOE (Board of Education).

In an email sent to parents Tuesday, Da Silva addressed the state’s update.

“Given this new information, the Steering Committee [part of Ridgefield’s reopening committee] will be processing and planning any implications that this will have on Ridgefield and we will update you as soon as we can and have enough information to do so,” wrote Da Silva, who was among a group of superintendents that met with Lamont on Monday morning, prior to his press conference.

Based on Lamont’s decision to give school districts more flexibility, Da Silva wrote (in her email) that parents should not complete the temporary remote learning form, which was set to open Tuesday.

“We believe it is important that we provide you with a full understanding of any changes that could come as a result of this new information before you are asked to make this decision,” Da Silva wrote.

At a virtual Board of Education meeting that live-streamed last Wednesday night, Da Silva presented the district’s reopening plan for Ridgefield schools. No vote was required, and the plan was subsequently sent to the state’s education department in time for the July 24 deadline.

The state required each district to submit plans for three levels (low, moderate, high) of COVID-19 risk. With Connecticut currently at low risk, districts were instructed to design a model that returns students to classrooms yet offers remote learning for parents who choose to keep their children at home. Districts will receive guidance from the state about how to define each risk level.

Ridgefield’s current reopening plan calls for an in-class school day that is 40 minutes shorter than usual, with face masks required, social-distancing protocols in place, outdoor space used as much as possible, and frequent hand washing mandatory.

If coronavirus cases increase in Connecticut, students might go to school a few days or week or return fully to remote learning — something they did for the final three-plus months of the 2019-20 academic year.

To meet state guidelines, Ridgefield’s plan includes in-class, hybrid, and remote models. The district will switch plans if the COVID-19 risk level changes.

In a letter to the Ridgefield community that was part of Wednesday night’s presentation, Da Silva said the district was limited by state requirements.

“While we have made every effort to plan as much as possible, it is important that we all understand where the District had autonomy in its planning and where it did not,” Da Silva wrote. “The state has formally communicated (on 7/21/2020) that Districts must provide a full, five-day physical school experience for all students; thus, while it is not the administration’s recommendation, we have complied with the state’s directive. We will continue to advocate on behalf of the District.”

But that was before Lamont’s reversal on Monday, which allows Ridgefield and other districts to adopt a hybrid model even though the state is at a low-risk level for COVID-19.

Ridgefield’s reopening model for in-class learning includes cohorting (keeping the same group of students and teachers together) at the elementary and middle schools.

“The “low risk” scenario relies on the ability to cohort,” Da Silva wrote in the district’s reopening plan. “The elementary schools will cohort by class, and the middle schools by team. However, adequate cohorting is far more of a challenge at Ridgefield High School. Therefore, a hybrid model was recommended by the Superintendent for RHS in a “low risk” scenario.”

In the moderate-risk, hybrid scenario, students spend two days in class and three days learning remotely each week. Students with special needs who participate in the Ridgefield Intensive Special Education (RISE) Program have the option to attend school in-person for four days each week.

In the high-risk scenario, school buildings are closed and all students learn remotely.

Regardless of the risk level and the model Ridgefield schools are using, students have a remote-learning option and can study from home. Students also can switch between remote learning and in-class learning, although they can’t do both at the same time (unless schools are following a hybrid model).

Based on 2,361 responses to a survey (open July 2-21) the district sent to parents, 81.3% said they intended to send their children back to school for in-class learning this fall.

In the low-risk scenario, buses can operate up to full capacity, and monitors are used to ensure students are wearing masks and following specific loading and unloading procedures. Passenger capacity is reduced in the moderate-risk scenario, and no bus transportation is necessary in the high-risk scenario, when school buildings are closed.

Only 36.4% of parents responding to the district survey said they intend to put their children on buses if full capacity is allowed.

According to the district’s preliminary/estimated financial implications, the additional costs for the reopening plan could top $2.5 million. Those projected costs include $105,000 for bus monitors; $237,00 for Chromebooks; $271,920 for cleaning supplies/PPE; $71,346 for washing stations; and between $345,000 and $690,000 for custodial overtime.

Where the money will come from is yet to be determined.

“[We are] unsure about any funding,” said Da Silva on Tuesday.

Note: Following is the complete reopening plan: