Schools will be closed until fall, raising concerns

An arial view of Ridgefield’s Barlow Mountain School.

An arial view of Ridgefield’s Barlow Mountain School.

Contributed photo

Preparation can do only so much to minimize reality’s sting.

Even though students, teachers, parents, administrators, coaches — the entire Ridgefield school community — had braced for Gov. Ned Lamont’s long-expected announcement that in-person learning would not resume in Connecticut this spring, the actual announcement came with a gut punch Tuesday, particularly for high school seniors.

“I’m sure the governor took all of us into consideration when making this decision, but it is obviously difficult to hear ...” said Johnny Briody, a 12th grader at Ridgefield High School. “We are all trying to stay positive as a class during this time, pursuing traditions that have been at RHS since my parents were students.”

“We all anticipated that it was coming,” said Susie Da Silva, Ridgefield’s superintendent of schools. “That didn’t make it any less powerful or emotional when we found out, officially.”

The closure announcement from Lamont and Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona came Tuesday morning, after parents, teachers and administrators from around the state increasingly questioned the wisdom of bringing 530,000 students into close proximity to one another too soon.

“I was the guy probably saying, ‘Hey let’s wait a little bit longer ... let’s see if there’s some way we can have two weeks back there to give some completion, but I think that the overwhelming majority of parents, teachers and maybe even students thought that this was the right thing to do,” Lamont said during his daily briefing Tuesday at the state capitol in Hartford.

Public schools in the state closed in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic began. The target date for reopening was moved back twice while learning went online. The latest targeted reopening date was May 20.

“While it is sad that we all won’t be together for the remainder of the school year, I certainly trust in the governor’s directive as he is receiving guidance from experts in this field,” said Stacey Gross, the principal at Ridgefield High School. “Everyone’s health and safety is the most important factor.”

“We are, of course, disappointed for the students who will not have the traditional in-person school experiences that they expected this spring, and for those who are missing the in-person connection with their peers,” said Board of Education Chair Margaret Stamatis.

“However, we have a responsibility for the safety of our students and staff,” Stamatis added. “As the largest employer in Ridgefield, with thousands of people brought together on a daily basis, it would have been a huge challenge to implement, by May 21, the changes in practice and protocol that will be required of the schools to meet social distancing and public health requirements.”

Gov. Lamont’s announcement made Connecticut the 46th state to shutter in-person learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year. Online distance learning will continue in Ridgefield until June 17, the final day of school.

Virtual graduation

All extracurricular activities, including the 2020 spring sports season, were also canceled, and high school graduation ceremonies will take place virtually.

“We had decided a few weeks ago to hold a virtual graduation as an option in case we were unable to return to school or have large group gatherings,” RHS principal Gross said. “The timeline for completion of a virtual graduation required us to begin planning along those lines.”

Tuesday and Wednesday of this week preperations started getting real. “We held a Drive-Thru Cap & Gown Pick-Up so that students can have them to wear in the virtual graduation,” Gross said.

While Gov. Lamont’s announcement provided closure for the current school year, questions and concerns abound for summer school (an update is expected in the coming weeks) and the start of the 2020-21 academic year — currently scheduled for Aug. 27 in Ridgefield.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” Da Silva said. “Staggered schedules, social distancing in classrooms, transportation ... those are just some of the many things that have to be considered. We will rely on the state for guidance, and there may be some orders. Anything beyond that will be decided at the local level.”

Teachers’ concerns

“We feel that there needs to be careful planning of procedures around social distancing, testing, transportation, and cleaning — school districts are preoccupied with distance learning and budgets right now, so very little to none of this is happening as far as I know,” said Jeanne Deming, the president of the National Education Association-Ridgefield, the local teachers’ union. “Additionally, our large class sizes make social distancing very challenging, if not impossible, in the classroom.”

Also to be determined is the town budget for the 2020-21 school year. Executive orders from Lamont give selectmen and finance boards the budget-making authority normally wielded by voters at the Annual Town Meeting and the the budget referendum. Based on discussion at the recent tri-board and selectmen’s meetings, Ridgefield school officials seemed to regard a reduction in the 2020-21 school budget as very likely to be handed down by the selectmen and finance board.

The Board of Education’s current budget request is for $102 million, a 3.96 percent increase from 2019-20. A motion to rescind the request was voted down, 7-2, at the board’s meeting on April 27.

“In a more ‘normal’ budget cuts situation, a district has ideal class sizes that would go by the wayside and classes could be maxed out, but how this could be accomplished given social distancing guidelines is unknown to me,” Deming said. “The district could, as they have tried in the past, cut electives in the visual and performing arts, languages, as well as those in the core categories.

“I think it’s premature to speculate much further as these decisions have yet to be made, but it is upsetting when over 90 percent of public comment in BOE (Board of Education) and BOS (Board of Selectmen) meetings is to keep the current school budget untouched, and they are still signaling drastic cuts,” Deming added.

“We need to think beyond the next few years and look into the future of this town and its school system,” she said. “The school system already has no frills. There is nothing left to cut. My fear is that good teachers will leave our district to go to those that value education and back that up by funding their districts.”