‘The first day of school again’: Fairfield schools ready for full return

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Fairfield Ludlowe High School students arrive for the first day of school for Fairfield Public Schools in Fairfield, Conn., on Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020.

Fairfield Ludlowe High School students arrive for the first day of school for Fairfield Public Schools in Fairfield, Conn., on Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — School officials and staff will be busy this coming week as they prepare the buildings for students’ full return on March 8 and 9.

Elementary students will fully return on March 8 and grades 6-12 students return fully in person the following day. This means they will be in school five days a week for the full day, including lunch. This will essentially be the first time this has happened in a year.

“For 6-12, this is in many ways is going to be the first day of school again with the two cohorts coming together,” Superintendent Mike Cummings said at a special meeting detailing the reopening plan.

The Early Childhood Center, Walter Fitzgerald Campus and pre-K will also return to a five-day week beginning March 8. The K-5 students in the Remote Learning Academy have the option to return in person then, with the option extended to the 6-8 grade students later, most likely when the marking period ends.

Cummings said students who leave the Remote Learning Academy won’t be able to go back to it for the rest of the year, and will instead have to switch to the synchronous learning offered with the classroom teacher if they decide in-person isn’t working for them.

There will no longer be a hybrid option, and students will either be in person or following along at home through the synchronous option.

He said they’re working to prevent students from switching back and forth between the two models, which is detrimental to the students and difficult for teachers to plan for. He also said they want to stop people from using the synchronous option as a way to take vacations, which, though “not a rampant issue,” is happening.

“We’re trying to hold the line because there’s been an increasing concern,” Cummings said.

Sands Cleary, Fairfield’s health director, said now was a good time to reopen the schools because every major variable has been declining for six weeks, including deaths and hospitalizations. He said the current numbers are similar to those in mid-to-late October.

“Then we were on an increasing trend, now we’re on a declining trend,” he said. “In addition to that, we have more experience.”

Cummings said he recognizes the challenges facing students, so the priorities will be to rebuild that sense of community and focus on their mental health and social and emotional well-being. Instructionally, the classes will focus more on skill building than the content. Courses will still align so students end in the same place regardless of their section, and teachers can pick up next year.

Building administrators are finalizing schedules and staff will move furniture back into the classrooms and cafeteria this weekend and coming week. March 8 will be a remote day for 6-12th grade students, so teachers have a chance to finish setting up their classrooms before the full return.

A key part of the reopening is ensuring people continue to follow the mitigation strategies, especially wearing masks.

“The absolutely most important thing we can do is have strict adherence to the mask wearing,” Cummings said.

People will also have to maintain appropriate distances. For adults, that’s 6 feet and for students 3 feet. Other mitigation measures will be used when this isn’t possible.

Officials cautioned that more people in the schools and the shorter distance could result in more quarantines if there is a positive case. It will most likely be more targeted, though, and could mean the whole class quarantines from earlier might not happen based on who is within 6 feet of the positive case and when.

This will be trickier at the high school level where students change classes.

Jill Mitchell, Fairfield’s nursing supervisor, said the best comparison she can give is what she has seen at a private school in town that’s remained in person. There, one case can cause about 20 to 40 students to quarantine.

“I don’t really expect it will be that high given we have the advantage of block schedules and less exposure,” she said.

The timing for the vaccine is also helpful because it will reduce the need for teachers and staff to have to quarantine after a certain number of days of getting the second dose, and reduce their chance of getting COVID. A clinic is scheduled for school employees on March 1.

“It’s a game changer,” said Chairwoman Christine Vitale. “It gives a lot of comfort knowing we can offer it to our staff on day one.”

Seating charts will be critical to determining quarantines, especially in the lunch rooms where students will have assigned seats, sign in or use a QR code to help with contact tracing. Lunch was one of the biggest challenges for the reopen plan.

Students will sit in every other seat to keep a 3-foot distance and use barriers while eating. Elementary students will bring their plastic barrier with them and older students will pick up cleaned ones in the cafeteria. Tents might be used so students can eat outside when the weather is nicer and spread out more.

Cummings said some elementary lunch waves will start earlier, with the entire lunch period lasting three hours based on the waves themselves and the cleaning in between them. He said snack time will be adjusted based on when the students eat.

The schools are seeking volunteers to help monitor lunch waves, and anyone interested should contact their school office. The district is hoping to hire monitors too.

There will be assigned seating on the buses as well.

Cummings encouraged parents to send their children on the bus instead of driving them. He anticipates long drop-off lines, at least in the beginning, and the district is working with the police department on traffic control.

There’s a chance there might be some staffing shortages if teachers don’t feel comfortable returning with more students in the buildings.

“It’s something we don’t have a handle on but are aware it could become an impact,” Cummings said, adding they’re working with those employees.

Like everything so far, he said they will continue to monitor health data, taking it week by week and could have to change plans.

“We have to have guarded optimism about where we’re going,” he said.