Fairfield's hybrid learning changes remove remote Wednesdays

Teacher Lauren Marchello, left, teaches Modern Global Studies during the first day of school at Fairfield Ludlowe High School in Fairfield, Conn., on Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020. Also working with Marchello is secondary teacher Aaryn Signorile.

Teacher Lauren Marchello, left, teaches Modern Global Studies during the first day of school at Fairfield Ludlowe High School in Fairfield, Conn., on Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020. Also working with Marchello is secondary teacher Aaryn Signorile.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — School officials announced a series of changes to the hybrid model that they say will get students in the classroom more often and gets rid of fully remote Wednesdays.

The bulk of the changes are happening at the elementary level, which are set to begin Jan. 19. The new plan was presented to the school board this week. The previous version of the plans faced backlash from the community after they were shared with staff and leaked to the public.

“Our goal remains to find the best course forward for the students,” Superintendent of Schools Mike Cummings said. “We believe this plan takes us further to fulfillment of that goal, but we still have work to do.”

Under the new plan, all students in kindergarten through fifth grade would attend class five days a week from 8:55 a.m. to 1 p.m. The exception to this plan would be at Holland Hill, where students would be in class from 8 a.m. to 12:05 p.m.

“This reflects our priority to increase K-5 student time in school as we remain focused on student safety,” Cummings said. “The change in the current hybrid model better position schools to host all students in the classroom at the same time and increases in-person instructional support.”

After in-person school, elementary school students move to live, remote learning from 2 to 3:30 p.m. The plan also increases the number of elementary school cohorts from two to five.

This eliminates the current morning and afternoon cohorts currently in place where students spent half of the day in person and the other half remote. A plan to shift elementary students to full-time was called off in October when the town saw a spike in the COVID-19 case rate.

One challenge the plan acknowledged was maintaining health and safety standards, such as the ability to social distance.

“Increasing in-person learning for all students risks inadvertently increasing remote learning for some,” the plan said, noting more students will need to quarantine should a positive case occur.

The plan also replaces remote Wednesdays with a half-day of in-school instruction at the middle and high schools beginning Jan. 4, Cummings said. There would also be additional instruction time for students and professional development time for staff.

It also splits secondary school students into four cohorts, instead of the current two, to allow for more flexibility.

Middle and high school students are currently in the classroom two days a week, learning remotely the other three days. All secondary school students learn remotely on Wednesdays.

“These revisions do not meet all of our needs,” Cummings said. “Due to continuing concerns with lunch, we can not bring K-5 students back yet for a full day of instruction.”

The district’s plan does not have a lunch period for elementary school students, and instead schedules a 15-minute snack break and the option for a grab-and-go meal.

Cummings also said the social distancing required for lunch prevents an increase in the number of middle and high school students who can attend on any given day.

“We will continue to support those students with increased synchronous and asynchronous instruction, but we are not yet where we want or need to be for full-time instruction,” he said.

As educators are working on these plans, Cummings said, there are two currents circulating on the news and in the schools about coronavirus.

“One was the optimism that vaccines had successful trials and would soon be available. We were seeing low transmission in schools,” he said. “The other current was a dark vision of winter months and a projection of increased cases and hospitalizations.”

Together, he said, the message was that things would be worse in the community before they get better. As of Wednesday afternoon, the district reported 35 students and nine staff to have COVID-19 along with 231 students and 47 staff in quarantine.

Cummings said the plan acknowledges the concerns about how the second wave of the coronavirus will go, while also having optimism that, when the second wave passes, a way towards full-time, in-person instruction will be possible.

“I want to thank the administrators and teachers who worked on these revisions,” Cummings said. “Not every idea made it into the final plan, and not everyone is satisfied with the result. However, our work all year has been about finding an appropriate balance between instruction and safety, the needs of families and the needs of educators.”

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com