Darien students will return to school on Thursday, Sept. 3, and the initial month of school will be a hybrid model, according to the plan presented by the administration to the Board of Education Monday. The hybrid model will continue until students return to full- time, in school learning on Sept. 29, barring any changes.

Zoom issues

The two-and-a-half hour meeting initially began with some concerns that many who wished to watch and participate were unable to access the meeting. The Zoom call had a threshold limit of 300 attendees which, due to the interest in the meeting, was quickly surpassed. (See more online). Board members discussed whether the meeting should proceed, and a consensus was made given the timing to continue while addressing a better plan was needed going forward.

The plan

The hybrid plan means students will attend in person on either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday, with a remote half day Friday in order for a full sanitizing and cleaning of facilities. The remote half day Friday will continue throughout the year.

Students who are learning on remote days will participate by livestream instruction part of the time and independent work on other parts of the remote eLearning.

Students will be divided into cohorts by last name and by grade.

Desks will be facing forward three feet apart. Tables will be using plexiglass dividers. Elementary students will be in grade level cohorts, middle school will be team cohorts with subgroups, and high school will have block scheduling.

Face coverings will be worn at all times with breaks when six feet of distance can be manged.

Hand sanitizing stations, portable hand washing stations and hand washing protocols will be in place. There will be increased custodial staff and intensified cleaning and sanitation protocols. There will be external audit and improvements for air quality.

Why hybrid

Several board members asked why the schools are starting at a hybrid level when the data indicates Darien is within the threshold of starting in person. The requirement for in-person learning is fewer than 10 cases within seven days per 10,000 population. Darien has reported three new cases within the two-week period of July 24 through Aug. 4.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Alan Addley said while the data on paper might indicate that in-school learning was acceptable, his decision was made after getting feedback from the school community as well as the administrators’ and teachers’ unions.

He also said the plan was supported by the town’s director of health, with whom he said the schools were working closely.

“We’re doing our best in the environment we’re in. It’s still a work in progress,” Addley said.

Board member John Sini asked for more details in the decision to open as a hybrid model.

“When we met with our health officials, they were supportive of a hybrid model,” Addley said.

He said the transition was “a reasonable step to take for people. We can’t forget we’re in a pandemic health crisis so we should do anything we can do to mitigate exposure.”

Testing and contact tracing

Alicia Casucci, the schools’ health department director, addressed the process for tracking illnesses. She said if a student is absent due to illness that includes symptoms of COVID-19, he or she will be asked to stay home. The department will then begin to look at attendance from the day before, and track any absences there.

Parents of students who exhibit symptoms after getting home from school are asked to call that evening to alert staff to then track those students’ contacts at school.

Students will have assigned seating to make it easier to track whom they come in contact with. If a student is suspected to have COVID-19, his or her cohort will be asked to stay home until the test comes back either way.

If teachers are made aware of a student returning from a travel ban state, he or she will be asked to quarantine for 14 days before returning to school.

In terms of testing, Casucci said the CDC is not recommending testing for asymptomatic students.

“The test results are only good for that moment the test is taken,” she said. Casucci also said that rapid tests often provide false negatives for asymptomatic cases.

“Public health officials have pulled back on recommendations for double testing,” she said, in terms of having to test negatively before returning to school.

“If you have a positive test, you remain home for 10 days,” he said.

Resources

Board member Deb Ritchie asked if the administration had enough resources to have staff answering phone calls in the evening.

Board member Michael Burke also said the board is ready to support the administration’s needs.

Expenses related to COVID-19 are estimated to be approximately $1.4 million, the bulk of which is approximately $835,000.

Human Resources Director Marjorie Cion said she’d heard from approximately 35 staff members who expressed concern about returning to the classroom. She said she hoped many would be able to be accommodated. If any cannot, the district will be posting those job openings.

Other costs included approximately $355,00 for facilities and $234,000 in technology.

In person

Board members asked if there was a possibility the return to in-person learning on Sept. 29 could change.

Sini asked if the Sept. 29 return date would be based on qualitative data or if the date was a “hard restart.”

“The goal posts seem to move every day. If the data doesn’t deteriorate or otherwise, the intent of this plan is to go in person on the 29th,” Addley said.

Burke asked that should the plan change, that the administration provide hard data to the board to explain the reasoning.

When questioned as to whether the hybrid plan was made in interest of the unions or the students, Addley said he was not going to separate the value of an adult life vs. a child life.

“They are both equally valuable. This decision is in the best interest of both,” he said.

Grading

Grading is expected to remain the same and curriculum has been slightly modified to return to school on the hybrid plan.

“We took all that into consideration when reviewing curriculum at the end of the year,” said Assistant Schools Superintendent Christopher Tranberg.

Special education will also be provided in the least restrictive environment with many cohorts learning in person.

Opt-out

While the state has provided an opt-out option for parents hesitating to return their children to an in-school environment, Addley said the district is not encouraging that option.

“We’re not asking people to jump ship, but if they decide to do that, we would ask they give us a reasonable amount of notice. We would ask for their support and understand the challenges that provides for staff and children” Addley said.

Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman added that full remote learning also is not the same as the delivered curriculum for those actively participating in the district’s schedule.

“People should be aware that is not the same full delivery. Full remote learning could be something else. It is important that parents know the playing field as they decide what is best for their family,” she said.

Sports and extra curriculars

The CIAC has voted to move football to the spring and board members asked if that was a local or state decision. Addley said the decision to cancel or postpone sports was a district decision.

“The board could make a local decision to cancel all sports. I’ve tried to straddle that line. I clearly recognize the importance of sports and the social and emotional learning aspect,” Addley said.

He also said that students could technically attend practices even if they weren’t attending in-person classes that day.

In terms of other extracurriculars, students can continue those activities remotely or in person when safely possible. One particular challenge, according to Tranberg, is anything that involves singing, given the virus traveling via the aerosol activity.

“The traditional musical is going to be very challenging to pull off,” he said.

Public comment

Public comment was made both at the beginning of the meeting and at the end as more participants were able to enter the Zoom call.

Darien Housing Commission Chairman Joe Warren spoke as a father of a Darien teacher. He said he was concerned from her perspective for her safety, and wanted to make sure that any potential air quality concerns were addressed.

Joslyn DeLancey, president of the Darien’s teachers’ union, who spoke both at the beginning and the end, said that teachers were advocating for a safe environment for both teachers and students. She said teachers were also concerned about students’ privacy given the plan to livestream from the classroom.

“Other students are watching. Behaviors will happen. Parents will be watching. We have not had training for that and we don’t know how it will work,” she said. She said the livestreaming might impede students who are nervous to share their thoughts publicly.

DeLancey reiterated that teachers want to be back in the classroom with their students, but said teachers just wanted to be a voice in this conversation.

Erin Lumpkin asked if students tested positive for COVID-19, would they need to test negative before returning. She also asked if parents would have access to livestreaming cameras only when their students were in the classroom.

Greg Grambling asked how the schools came to the decision to start with hybrid since he said it seemed like a “lose/lose/lose.”

“Kids aren’t going back full time, teachers are still being exposed and parents are managing kids at home three days a week,” he said. Grambling asked if parents could be asked which they prefer.

Louise Waylett-Brown asked if the SAT scheduled for September at Darien High School was still on, and also asked if students required to quarantine would be learning remotely.

To watch the meeting, go to Darien TV 79’s Vimeo channel here.

For more information, visit darienps.org.