‘I sensed an exuberance’: Full-time, in-person learning returns to Ridgefield schools

Photo of Alyssa Seidman
Ridgefield student Sofia Cluney was all smiles as she prepared to return to Branchville Elemenrary School in person for the first time since last year.

Ridgefield student Sofia Cluney was all smiles as she prepared to return to Branchville Elemenrary School in person for the first time since last year.

Contributed photo / Ridgefield Public Schools

RIDGEFIELD — A majority of middle and high school students returned to classrooms for full, in-person learning this week for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

The anticipation during morning drop off Monday was palpable, Scotts Ridge Middle School Principal Timothy Salem said.

“Today, I sensed an exuberance that I haven’t felt since prior to the pandemic,” he said Monday.

The district began planning a full return for grades 6-12 earlier this year as local COVID-19 cases declined and staff vaccinations ramped up — roughly 95 percent of its K-12 faculty is vaccinated.

District officials said they also gauged in-school transmission numbers among the town’s elementary-aged students who have attended classes in person since September, and factored in vaccine eligibility for those 16 and older.

Parents had the autonomy to decide whether their child would report to school or continue learning remotely for the rest of the school year.

“We all have a role in opening our schools and keeping them open, thus, we ask that we all stay committed to the implementation of our mitigating measures,” Superintendent Susie Da Silva wrote in an April 14 email to faculty members and families.

Scotts Ridge Middle School

Scotts Ridge families were surveyed in mid-March in anticipation of a full return. Approximately 87 percent of students opted for full in-person instruction, and the remaining 13 percent will attend classes remotely through June.

As the smaller of the district’s two middle schools, administrators have taken “proactive steps” since last August to ensure learning spaces were appropriately set up for social distancing, Salem said.

“Assistant Principal Lisa Frese and I have become experts of the tape measure,” he added. “We added a number of hand-sanitizing stations in and throughout the building (at) high-frequency areas, such as the cafeterias and corners of hallways, and no use of lockers helps with congregating.”

Although there’s roughly 10 weeks left of the school year, Salem said the decision will help students assimilate to a normal routine.

East Ridge Middle School

Ninety percent of students at East Ridge Middle School have opted for in-person learning. When they were dropped off on Monday, Principal Patricia Raneri said, “It feels like the first day of school in a lot of ways.”

“For many of them, this was their very first day in our building — some of them have only seen their classrooms on camera,” Raneri said.

Students will continue to follow a two-way traffic flow in the halls and a one-way traffic flow, either up or down, in the stairwells, and be dismissed to their next period at staggered times. Teachers have organized their classrooms to ensure 3 feet of distance between each desk and will maintain an assigned seating chart for contact tracing purposes.

Referring to East Ridge’s low transmission rates after winter break, Raneri said she was confident about the district’s full return following spring break.

“Our kids have been so earnest in following mitigation strategies,” she said. “We wanted it to be a really strong finish and bring the cohorts together to have fun and interact — that’s what they miss the most.”

A teacher’s perspective

Steve Ruland is an eight-grade social studies teacher at East Ridge. He is also president of the National Education Association’s Ridgefield affiliate, a local teachers union that represents 440 faculty members districtwide.

Since managing group projects and class discussion under the hybrid schedule was “difficult,” he said, he looks forward to instilling a renewed sense of normalcy for his students in academics as well as social-emotional growth.

“A lot of these students have been home for a significant amount of time, and we’ve prepared for any outcomes of that,” Ruland said. “We want to be able to get the kids back into an environment that they feel familiar with. … We definitely feel this is the best way to go.”

Ridgefield High School Principal Jacob Greenwood could not be reached for comment on Monday.