District Plans Phased-In Return to Full In-Person Learning at Saxe Middle School

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As has been done successfully at the elementary level, district officials said Wednesday that they plan to bring Saxe Middle School students back to full in-person learning in phases starting next week.

Under a plan discussed at a meeting of the Board of Education Reopen Committee and backed by its members, all fifth-graders would return to Saxe on Tuesday, with the sixth grade starting full in-person learning the following Monday, Oct. 5.

The approach will help faculty and staff “work through some complexity of that with the arrival, with dismissal, with lunches, with outdoors spaces, with all of what it takes, and even furniture arrangements, things like that,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi said the meeting, held via videoconference. 

“And our custodial crew has to work even harder when all the students are back in, because there’s more students in the space, more things to clean and disinfect each night and all of that. So look at fifth grade on Tuesday and then following Monday bring back in the sixth grade. That would be 50% of Saxe as of Monday, Oct. 5, so at that point we would be K-6 district-wide. Saxe would be running at about 1,000 students in one place and we then would see what is the next best step for seventh grade and eighth grade.”

One advantage of the district’s carefully planned phase in is that it “continues to prioritize the youngest learners and work our way up.”

“So at that point, as of Tuesday, our K-2 would have had the five days in, our [grades] three and four would have two days in. So we are kind of making sure that our youngest learners are in person for the longest period of time if we have to return to hybrid or if things get even worse and we have to consider remote, which of course we are hoping we don’t have to do. But the staging by going the youngest up helps us keep those youngest learners in session full-time for the longest, if we have to shift course somewhere down the line and make a change.”

The updated plan comes as the school district enacts its standing policy, based on guidance from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, of what to do when there’s a positive case of COVID-19 virus identified in school. According to an online dashboard that goes with the district’s continuously updated operations plan for this year, “Charting Our Course,” four NCHS students had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday. Those in quarantine due to close contact included 52 high school students, one Saxe Middle School student and two staffers, one from NCHS and one from West School. (A town-wide outcall that First Selectman Kevin Moynihan plans for Wednesday will report that New Canaan has some six to eight additional new coronavirus cases, Luizzi said.)

“We believe in all cases we have an idea of where it come from which is important part of contact tracing, being to go back to the nexus to identify where it was introduced and when you do that, it helps to contain it overall,” Luizzi said. “So I think we are in a good place with that. but it’s a lot and it happened to us p quickly to go from zero Saturday to four yesterday [Tuesday].”

Board of Ed members asked whether the idea is to bring seventh- and eighth-graders back to Saxe for all in-person learning in successive following weeks (yes though that’s subject to change), whether there are plans to remind residents that the mitigation strategies that are working in the schools should be used community wide (yes), and whether, as more motor vehicle traffic comes to South and Farm, campus monitors or police will provide more support at that intersection (yes and Police Deputy Chief John DiFederico “has been a great help,” Luizzi said).

Board Chair Katrina Parkhill asked for clarification regarding the way groupings among students change as they move up from elementary school to fifth grade at Saxe, and then to sixth through eighth grades.

Luizzi said that because as students progress up through the grades they’re taking more different classes and changing classrooms more often, the number of other students with whom they come into contact also increases. So, while elementary school students spend most all of their time with a single homeroom class, that changes to a two-teacher model in the fifth grade, and then changes again to a four-teacher model starting in sixth grade, Luizzi said.

“What that does, as you bring everybody in, is it increases the likelihood that a positive case will have close contact with others in the room,” he said. 

(Health officials define “close contact”—the kind that becomes part of “contact tracing”—as being within six feet of a person continuously for 15 minutes or more.)

Luizzi added that the hybrid model at the high school has proven to be effective because out of the 60 NCHS students in quarantine, very few of them are there because of close contact at the high school itself. 

“It’s from elsewhere, outside of the high school,” he said.

During Monday’s regular meeting of the full Board of Ed, Luizzi reported that this week’s phase-in of the full student body at New Canaan’s elementary schools was going well. 

The plan called for all kindergarteners, first- and second-graders to attend school in-person starting Monday, with third and fourth grade to follow Thursday “and in our conversations with our principals after school, the kids were thrilled to be back together.”

“They were very excited,” Luizzi told the school board. “There was a lot of positive kid energy, I heard from all three principals in the building. And they meant that in all good ways. Arrival was a little challenging, dismissal was a lot challenging. And so they are continuing to work through some of the nuts and bolts of that. As you can imagine, South is a little bit easier than the other two, because they have so many walkers. So they are able to get that dismissal going. But East and West, they have some things to figure out to speed that up. The buses are running OK. It’s really the pickup, the parent pickup lines and the time it takes to move those through. So, we have gotten good at doing it with 50%. Now it’s going to take us a little time to get good at doing it with 100%. And we will keep working with New Canaan Police Department to do that.”

Though some families have opted to move to all remote learning and some teachers were “very anxious” as the full student body came into the elementary schools, New Canaan educators “really stepped up,” Luizzi said Monday.

“We are so fortunate to have a group of dedicated professionals who jus respond to the call every time they are asked,” he said. The superintendent added, “The mitigation strategies that we have in our schools are working, they continue to. One of the things that the teachers shared today, and the principals shared with us, was that having 50% of the kids really made a difference in learning those strategies.”

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