School reopening committee has busy months ahead

Ridgefield High School

Ridgefield High School

Contributed photo

How many students can ride on one bus or sit in the same classroom? How many times each day do school supplies and equipment need to be cleaned? Will students and staff have to wear face-masks throughout the school day? Can lunch be eaten in the cafeteria?

Those are among an avalanche of coronavirus-related questions which Ridgefield’s newly formed Reopening of Schools Committee has less than three months to answer before schools begin the 2020-21 academic year Aug. 27.

What that reopening looks like remains hazy ... dependent upon both the coronavirus pandemic and guidelines or recommendations from Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and state education officials. School districts could stagger schedules so that not all students and staff are on-site at the same time, or they could continue with the distance learning model that has been in place since schools physically closed in mid-March. Another possibility, albeit less likely in August, is the return to a traditional school schedule.

“We have given up on making guesses or speculations,” Ridgefield Schools Superintendent Susie Da Silva said. “At this point, we will be preparing for all possibilities.”

The reopening committee’s stated purpose — displayed on a slide during Monday night’s presentation at a virtual Board of Education meeting — is to “involve stakeholders in scenario planning for the safe return of students and staff to school in August, as well as ongoing planning throughout the year.”

“We know we’re going to need to continue that work throughout the year,” said Karen Dewing, the school system’s director of personnel and one of the committee co-chairs along with Liz Hannaway, the assistant superintendent of special services. “We will have to respond to any changing federal, state, or local guidelines.”

As highlighted Monday night, the reopening committee includes 104 members from various aspects of the school community: Teachers, administrators, parents, school nurses, and local medical doctors; union, facilities, custodial, transportation, and athletics representatives; town officials, school psychologists, paraprofessionals, and the director of public health. Even someone from Chartwells, the company that serves meals to Ridgefield schools.

“We felt it was really important to include as many minds that could look at our different projects and plans from as many perspectives as possible,” said Hannaway.

Missing as of Monday night are students.

“Please don’t take that as a sign that we will not be including students because we will,” Hannaway said. “But in the formation of the initial subcommittees we determined that until we have some scenarios and planning worked out in draft form we didn’t want to pull students in for much of the initial muddiness that happens when you bring different groups together and try to work through to get to some clarity.

“Students will very much be included, whether it be part of the subcommittees or perhaps part of focus groups or other forum,” Hannaway added.

A six-member steering committee comprised of the co-chairs, three administrators (one from each educational level), and facilities manager Joe Morits will oversee seven subcommittees: Health and Safety; Teaching and Learning; Facilities; Social and Emotional; Extracurriculars and Athletics; Community Relations; and Transportation.

Each subcommittee has a specific focus and considerations. For example, the Health and Safety subcommittee’s focus is to identify necessary health and safety requirements; design implementation of corresponding practices; and identify needed resources and training. Among its considerations are cleaning of buildings prior to reopening; student and staff monitoring of [coronavirus] symptoms; and responding to confirmed case [of COVID-19] in schools.

“While these are distinct subcommittees ... there’s going to be overlap of work,” Hannaway said. “There will be opportunity for collaboration among them and overlap of projects.”

As part of its first timeline phase, the committee is sending a reopening survey to students, parents and staff this week. Phase II begins in early July and includes updates to the board of education and the community, as well as separate parent, student and staff focus groups.

A Reopening Implementation Plan will be presented to Da Silva and the board of education in late July or early August prior to the start of Phase III, which begins when school resumes Aug. 27.

“So I think an expected question, if it doesn’t get asked, might be in many people’s minds is ‘how are you going to accomplish all of this between now and August?’ ” Hannaway said. “But what I think is important is that for each subcommittee and for our steering committee is to have a very clear process of what the focus of our work is.

“There is going to be much work to get done, but the assessment and prioritization process is going to be critical to do the right work first,” Hannaway added. “Then we’re going to identify steps and resources that we need, and those steps will have to be clear and succinct. After that, communicate our plan out to various stakeholders and groups and the board of education, the superintendent, and then solicit feedback ... that will be a critical part of the process.

“And then finally implement and go back to the beginning in terms of accessing and prioritizing,” Hannaway continued. “This committee is going to exist after school opens, and so this is going to be a cyclical process.”

“My hypothesis is we’re going to be hamstrung by state recommendations ... Massachusetts just pushed out theirs ... that are going to guide the vast majority of our decisions,” said board member Sean McEvoy, following the reopening committee presentation. “This plan looks like we’re designing something that we’re not the architects of.”

“That may be the case. We may be over-planning right now,” Hannaway said. “I would rather have something in place that we have to tweak instead of trying to call folks together after the [current] school year has ended and scramble. If we are in the position of being guided by the state with very clear directives, it’s only going to narrow the focus of each subcommittee, making their work more efficient.”