‘Back home again’: For first time since start of pandemic, Darien schools to reopen full-time

DARIEN — Town schools will reopen Monday with students returning to the classrooms full-time for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order will require students and staff to continue wearing masks inside until at least Sept. 30.

“There is a frustration with the mask mandate, “but there is always positive energy around the new school year,” Board of Education Chair David Dineen said. “There is light on the horizon — we have full-time, in-person learning again.

“We survived, but we also thrived as a district during this time,” Dineen added. “We have started our strategic plan, we have started a new school construction project, and we have initiated three school renovation projects. We have kept the wheels in motion through all of this.”

Darien opens the new school year with some 43 new staffers — eight of whom are administrators, with new principals at Tokeneke and Hindley elementary schools and Middlesex Middle School and five new assistant principals.

Enrollment has also risen. As of Aug. 17, the district has jumped from 4,604 to 4,655, with 44 of those new students coming to Ox Ridge School. In all, there are 61 new students in the K-5 system, with a drop of two at the middle school, and eight fewer at the high school.

“The delta variant has created a new dimension, but we plan to open as normal as possible,” Superintendent Alan Addley said. “We will make sure all the students are safe. This is an uncertain time, but it is our job to make it comfortable for the children.”

One certainty is that Ox Ridge School, which remains under construction, will open on time.

Dineen said he toured the site Tuesday with other town officials, including First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and Addley. The temporary parking lot is in place, the playground has been moved from the front to rear and a test bus run was held showing the school was ready for occupancy.

“It’s exciting,” Dineen said about the ability to open the school while construction of a new facility is happening at the same time on site.

Dineen said the work is being used as a learning experience as well, with holes with Plexiglass installed at different heights so children can look through and safely observe the work in progress.

Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Steve Olvany said his commission has been monitoring the project as it has proceeded throughout the summer school break.

“The new building looks like it is coming along well and is on target,” Olvany said. “I am glad to see that the school site is ready to accept the students next week. The construction team already had test runs for the buses and cars for student drop-offs and pickups.

Olvany said the new academic wing will be ready in August 2022. The new assembly wing will be ready in August 2023, he added.

“School reopening is always special, maybe even more this year,” Addley said about all the town schools opening their doors Monday. “Everyone is coming back as a collective school community. They’re all back home again.”