Following a summer of near-constant preparation, a school year in Ridgefield unlike any other begins today.

For the first time since mid-March — when the coronavirus arrived and schools in Ridgefield (and throughout the state) closed for in-person learning and moved online for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year — students will set foot in classrooms again.

Ridgefield students will do so earlier than their peers in District Reference Group A (DRG-A). None of the other schools in those towns (Darien, Easton, New Canaan, Redding, Weston, Westport, and Wilton) is starting before Aug. 31, and many have pushed back their opening until after Labor Day (Sept. 7).

“Teachers’ contractual days have been met. In order to extend at this point, we would need to reduce the number of student days,” said Superintendent Susie Da Silva about Ridgefield’s decision to stick with its Aug. 27 opening. “State data continues to indicate that we are in a low-risk model [for COVID-19), and we communicate to determine frequently with our local health director and medical advisor, and review data to determine if any change is needed.”

Ridgefield Health Director Ed Briggs said Tuesday that there have been seven positive COVID-19 tests in Ridgefield since the beginning of August.

“At this time, there is no indication that a change is needed for the start of school,” Da Silva added. “The only reason to delay at this point would be to offer more time for teachers to prepare, and that would mean less instructional days for kids.”

At a Board of Education meeting Monday, several members asked Da Silva about delaying the start of school by another week, particularly after reports of a spike in COVID-19 cases in Danbury last week. But Da Silva explained her reasoning and no motion was made or vote taken.

“I think that board members understood the reasons that Dr. Da Silva provided for keeping the schedule as it is ... ” said Margaret Stamatis, the Board of Education chair.

Like many Connecticut districts, Ridgefield is opening with a hybrid model that combines in-person classes with online (or remote) learning. Students in the district’s nine public schools have been divided into two groups, with each group taking turns going to school and attending class remotely. During a 10-day, two-week cycle, each group (A and B) will be in school for five days.

For example, students in Group A would attend in-person classes for three days one week and two days the next, and students in Group B would attend classes two days the first week and three days the second. On the days students are not attending in-person, they will follow a live-stream of their classes.

Plans may change

As long as COVID-19 risk levels remain low, Ridgefield’s six elementary schools and two middle schools will follow the hybrid model for the first month and then switch to in-person classes five days a week. Ridgefield High School will stay hybrid until the end of the first quarter in November.

“Everything is fluid and tentative,” Da Silva said in a recent phone call. “Plans are constantly being revised, sometimes on a daily basis.”

According to enrollment figures presented at Monday’s school board meeting, 4,621 students are currently registered in Ridgefield schools for the 2020-21 academic year. That is 47 fewer than the 4,668 who were projected to attend.

Ridgefield’s six elementary schools have 1,859 students registered. Another 1,090 are registered at the town’s two middle schools, and 1,589 students are registered at the high school. Eighty-three more students are registered in general education and special education, a group that includes off-site students.

Coronavirus fears have affected several other important metrics: Almost 700 students will forego the hybrid model and start school fully remote; nearly 1,500 students are not taking buses; and almost 40 staff members have resigned or retired since late May.

Ridgefield teachers returned for professional development days last week and got a first-hand look at classrooms that have been retrofitted with cameras and other technology to provide live-streaming for students. Signage that stresses COVID-19 safety protocols will adorn hallways; students, teachers and staff will wear facemasks nearly all day; and desks have been rearranged to meet social-distancing guidelines.

“The social and emotional well-being of our students, staff, and the entire community remains at the forefront of our minds,” said Jake Greenwood, the first-year principal at Ridgefield High School. “Transitioning back into the building after being out since March and adjusting to our new norms of masks, social distancing, and hybrid scheduling has the potential to be anxiety-producing for all involved. However, we remain committed to delivering the high-quality education our community expects from us by remaining flexible, thoughtful, patient, and student-centered.”

“We are confident in the safety protocols that have been set up in Ridgefield and believe that with these protocols, as well as additional hand-washing, we should be in good shape in Ridgefield,” said Jamie Palladino, the principal at Ridgebury Elementary School. “The only concern I have is what happens outside of school that I cannot control.”

Even with all the reopening committee’s summer planning, unexpected situations are likely to arise.

“The challenges are the natural hiccups with technology, live-streaming and planning; the developmental differences in children at the elementary level; and the social/emotional supports for all stakeholders,” Da Silva said.

“Teachers and staff have a sense of energy when we talk about having children back in the building,” Palladino said. “Teachers have been working hard on the new protocols and technology, and they are eager to see students again.”

Notes: More information — including school start and end times, informational videos, health and safety protocols, schedules, district communications, and technology resources — is available through the RPS 2020 Reopening section on the Ridgefield Public Schools website at ridgefield.org.

Information regarding bus stops and pick-off and drop-off times is available via the parent portal on the RPS website.