Leaked school reopening proposal receives backlash from some Fairfield parents

Fairfield Ludlowe High School Headmaster Greg Hatzis chats with seniors during the first day of school for Fairfield Public Schools on Sept. 8. From left to right are seniors Emma Torello, Ellie Melvin and Allie Clark.

Fairfield Ludlowe High School Headmaster Greg Hatzis chats with seniors during the first day of school for Fairfield Public Schools on Sept. 8. From left to right are seniors Emma Torello, Ellie Melvin and Allie Clark.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — A proposed plan for the next phase of school reopening was decried by some parents, prompting the special school board meeting to be canceled after the draft was leaked by a district staff member.

“Last week, a draft proposal regarding cohort and schedule changes was shared internally with staff,” Superintendent Mike Cummings said in a message to families and staff. “The proposal was distributed to gather valuable feedback from our educators. We understand this initial proposal has since been shared with a larger audience. We apologize for the confusion and concern this may have caused.”

In the week since it was shared, Cummings said, several suggestions and concerns have been raised which needed to be addressed before bringing the plan forward. He said the goal is to create a plan that will allow the district to move flexibly between models in response to changing health data and guidance.

In addition to scheduling changes, the now defunct plans saw an elimination of the lunch period, an increase in cohorts at the elementary level, a removal of remote Wednesdays and shortened class periods at the middle and high school level as well as changes to how families and staff would be notified when the district switches between learning plans.

Many parents’ main concern was the lack of a lunch period. Although, the confusion when plans not meant or ready for the public were distributed seemed to be what caused the biggest reaction.

“We want to increase student-teacher contact time, continue to improve student engagement and remote learning capabilities, as well as provide ongoing professional learning and support,” Cummings said.

To this end, Cummings said, the district will be eliminating remote Wednesdays for secondary students and increasing in-school instructional time for elementary school students, as well as making other changes. He said a full presentation of the plan will be made at the upcoming Board of Education meeting on Dec. 8.

In an email, school officials said the plans were just a draft and are no longer part of the ones the board is seeing on Monday. They said the new plans will be posted on Friday.

But the leaked proposal did cause some parents alarm and confusion. Amy Ruggiero, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 1, said the proposal spread to “hundreds and hundreds” of parents.

Ruggiero, who has been an outspoken proponent of getting kids back in school full-time, said she saw them on several Facebook pages and had several parents send them to her. Noting the plan was dated Nov. 23, she pointed out that it appeared not to have been presented to the board yet.

“It sounded like it was passed around to administration and the teachers were disgruntled about it and leaked it,” she said. “People saw it and had a lot of questions, and really wanted to understand it.”

Those parents, Ruggiero said, had a lot of genuine concerns, but were waiting for Monday’s now-canceled meeting in hopes of getting answers.

Sally Connolly, a parent of four children in the district who has voiced concerns with the current system, said it is good to see the district go back to the drawing board, but she was upset with the propsoal to remove the lunch period.

“It’s completely inappropriate,” she said, later adding that some parents were in a state of disbelief about the district not figuring out how to manage lunch.

Connolly said many questioned how the district expected children to go such a long period of time without food.

Ruggiero also questioned how the district planned for students, especially in elementary school, to not eat lunch during the more than four hours the students would be in school. The plans did specify that grab-and-go lunch was still available.

“No food and no recess,” she said. “How does a child manage that? Who could manage that?”

In middle schools, the plan called for students to have 32-minute class periods. Ruggiero said that amounted to no time to learn.

“That’s nothing,” she said. “By the time you get in your chair, you sit down and have a discussion and you have to get up and ready for the next class. What are you learning in 32 minutes? And, then, you’re unleashing all of the kids at 12:45 in the afternoon.”

Ruggiero said middle school parents seem to be the most unhappy with the current learning situation for their children. While her daughter at Ludlowe High is not struggling in the current system, she said the plans laid out in the defunct proposal, such as 57-minute periods and the removal of remote Wednesdays, would be good improvements.

Overall, Ruggiero said parents had a lot of questions when the plan was leaked, but were optimistic to see that changes were being made after months of feeling like there was no plan.

Connolly said most of the people she knows are in favor of more in-person learning, especially for elementary and middle school students. She said she thinks there can be more flexibility at the high school level.

One question she keeps coming back to is how other districts can do full-time, in-person learning, while Fairfield cannot.

“I have Fairfield parent friends who teach or are administrators in the Greenwich school system, which are still full-time, in person,” she said. “Then, their kids are here in this hybrid situation.”

Both Ruggiero and Connolly pointed out that many officials, such as Gov. Ned Lamont, have said the safest place for children to be is in school. Each of them pointed out that Mayor Bill de Blasio is reopening elementary schools New York City.

“How long are we going to are we going to go on the fears and not the fact that schools are one of the safest places to be with appropriate mitigation?” Connolly said, going on to acknowledge that not all parents want their students in school full time.

“The bottom line is that there is a remote option for families who feel that that is their best option,” she said. “But there is not a better in-person option for those who feel that that’s appropriate.”

This story was updated with the correct high school for Amy Ruggiero’s daughter.

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com