Officials: Fairfield students with special needs will return to in-person school March 1

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Parents in the Fairfield school system held a rally for a full time return to the classroom for students on Sherman Green in Fairfield, Conn. on Monday, November 9, 2020.

Parents in the Fairfield school system held a rally for a full time return to the classroom for students on Sherman Green in Fairfield, Conn. on Monday, November 9, 2020.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — All of the district’s special needs students should be back in school full time by March 1, officials announced this week.

Timelines for the rest of the district’s students should be ready in about three weeks as the district strives to get everyone in person five days a week.

“That’s the goal and that’s the work happening in the buildings,” Superintendent Mike Cummings said.

While hundreds of special needs students already are in school throughout the district, the new protocol will put all students with individualized education plans or 504 plans in-person five days a week, said Robert Mancusi, executive director of special education and student services.

“It’s a lofty goal, but I think we can do it,” he said.

Board member Jennifer Jacobsen said she wants to make sure other at-risk students are also getting the opportunity to return in person soon.

“Just because someone doesn’t have an IEP or 504, they might need additional support that we should be offering,” she said.

Officials gave board members a rundown on plans moving forward and problems they may have once school is reopened to everybody full time.

Among biggest concerns will be lunch — and how best to allow students to safely eat, officials said. Plans on how far apart each child should sit, how many children should be gathered at a single group or wave for lunch and how many supervisors will be needed will be dependent on health guidelines. The recommendation might change from six feet to three feet, Cummings said.

And the guidelines, in turn, factor into how many lunch waves are needed and how that affects the rest of the schedule, including specials, officials said.

The amount of distance between students will also play a role in where lunch is held, the type of furniture or equipment needed and how many people are needed to supervise.

Cummings said the district doesn’t have enough staff it can pull from other responsibilities to cover the different waves. And while the schools can use volunteers to help supervise, he said he worried those people might not always be available.

The district has had little luck filling a lunch supervisor position who would ideally be used to supplement the staff and volunteers throughout the district, he said.

“We’ve had very little interest in that position since it’s been posted in the fall,” he said, adding only three applications have been received.

The district also plans to use plastic barriers when students are eating. These are already used for snack time and mask breaks at the lower grades, but students have complained they have a hard time hearing or seeing the board with them up, Cummings said.

Cummings added that while the district has had challenges with barriers at the elementary schools, he believes they might have better success at the middle and high schools. He said the district bought them based on input from other districts already using them.

“The barriers are going to have a role going forward as an additional mitigation factor,” he said.

Distancing will also affect classrooms, which vary in size throughout the district.

“Some of them will be able to handle that (six-foot) distance, others will struggle,” Cummings said.

The warmer weather will also allow the district to put tents back up outside, providing more space for learning, mask breaks and eating, he said.

Cummings said tents are weather dependent but expects them to go back up next month.

Sports resumed this week and advisers for before- and after-school activities are working with their principals, he said.

Board member Carol Guernsey said she had concerns about the reopening plans, particularly about a lack of timelines and with mitigation, especially lunch. She said she hoped the district would improve the Wednesday schedule and hybrid learning.

Several board members and officials commended the students, staff and community for keeping COVID-19 transmission down within the district, preventing Fairfield schools from having to go fully remote.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the district had 12 total positive cases with 54 students and eight staff in quarantine, according to the school’s COVID dashboard.

“The safety and mitigations we have in place are working,” Chairwoman Christine Vitale said.