MILFORD - Students have felt excited, anxious and hopeful on the first day of school since the first bell ever rang.

You can now add Superintendent of School Anna Cutaia to that list.

“All the anxiety’s, all the worries, were quickly set aside,” Cutaia said at a press conference Thursday to talk about the reopening of 14 schools to the district’s 5,500 students.

“I did car duty here at Pumpkin Delight and the kids were bouncing out of their cars,” she said. “They couldn’t wait to come back to school, I heard shrieks and oohs and aahs. If we could have, there would have been a festival of hugs.”

Cutaia noted is has not been an easy six months since the closing of schools because of COVID-19, as “we miss our kiddos; we miss our staff.

“To see them gather again, those (tough) times were washed away. It was a brilliant reunion,” she said. “We are a school community and I feel confident that we have taken the right protocols to keep us safe.”

Milford had five components in place on how to reopen: the decision of students coming back in person (82 percent), the number of staff members coming back for in-person teaching (99 percent), the social and emotional decision-making of what is best for students and staff, and academic priorities.

“Being back in school is the right thing as long as we can all be safe and we are doing everything we can to do that,” Cutaia said. “We know we are still in a pandemic crisis. It is still here and any time it can happen anywhere. We are going to respond as safely as possible.”

The school system took things case-by-case regarding teachers who wanted to opt out of in-person teaching.

“We had some requests,” Cutaia said. “There are different types of leaves a teacher can take if they aren’t comfortable coming in and there wasn’t a distance learning opportunity for them based on the district’s need. We do not have any full-time remote distance learning teachers. Any remote learning going on is being conducted by teachers who are inside our schools. That may change if there is a positive case.”

Milford Public Schools believe a key to holding COVID-19 at bay is having a cohort, which means keeping the same group of students together as much as possible throughout the day. Elementary and middle school classes have 16 to 18 students, with high school (in a larger space) potentially 25 to 30 students.

All desks are socially distanced six feet apart. Elementary schools will be in cohorts 100 percent of the time and middle schools close to 100 percent. At the high schools, freshmen and sophomores will cohort as much as possible. Because of elective and specialized courses, a cohort for juniors and seniors is difficult.

Milford staff also believe the district it is ready for the possibility of illness, officials said.

“Closing one of our schools if someone is infected, that decision is made with the Milford Health Department,” Cutaia said. “How we respond will come from understanding what degree that individual had contact with others. That will inform us whether we must shut down a classroom, a wing of a building or the entire school. It doesn’t mean we would close indefinitely. It would be up to the Health Department to determine when we could come back safely.”

For example, she said, “If it is a junior who is ill, it would impact every adult and young person that junior had contact with.”

“If that junior contacts 10 teachers that day, and it is determined that those 10 teachers must be quarantined, then the junior class might go to all-online learning,” Cutaia said. “I don’t have 10 teachers in the building to replace those sent home. We are writing the playbook as we plan.”

Changes

Day 1 in 2020 was different than the past, from getting on and off buses to walking the halls and breaking for lunch. Buses have color-coded seating for riders to take each day so in case of illness it can be traced. There are one-way and two-way signs in the halls. Physical education and music teachers travel with carts to students.

Cutaia said about lunch: “It is not the days when we could all pile into the cafeteria and there was loud noise and kids are talking more than they are eating. We don’t have that scene anymore. There are no large gatherings, rather for elementary we deliver lunch on a cart. For middle and high school, students pick up a lunch at grab-and-go and take it back to a classroom and eat with a teacher monitoring.”

There are new ways to teach. In middle school and high school, a teacher can be teaching two groups of students: one face-to-face in a group of 16 while the lesson is being livestreamed to another classroom either next door or down the hallway, with another adult monitoring those students.

Cutaia praised teachers for their creativity.

“The first few weeks is always about routine and protocols,” she said. “You know, on the first day you see the younger kids in the hallway lining up. Well, I saw them being taught to stand against the wall and then make ‘wall angels.’ They found that if you are touching someone at your side then you are too close.”

This year if a student is learning from home, they are livestreaming into a classroom where a teacher is giving the lesson. In many cases, those students are being buddied-up with in-person students to work together digitally.

Pandemic costly

Overtime costs, hiring more staff, buying PPE (personal protective equipment), additional cleaning supplies, and desks all are making an impact on the budget.

“In elementary school, we had moved to a model where students sat together at the same table,” Cutaia said. “Over the years, we removed all antiquated student desks. We had some in storage, but not enough. So, we ordered 800 student desks because each child needs their own space.”

Signs in the hallways and individual supplies for each student are added expenses. Every student also must have their own individual supplies and materials.

“On Wednesday, when students have a full day learning remotely, all schools are thoroughly sanitized and disinfected,” Cutaia said. “Staff comes in to clean on weekends, and when students leave our building we sanitize and disinfect. We had to increase our salary line in that area.”

“We’ve had to bring in more teachers,” she noted. “When you take your average class size from almost 21 elementary and 23 at middle and high school and you are reducing that to 16, now you have to add more adults and deploy them to young people in their cohorts.”

Substitute teachers in the past could be hired to work in more than one school as needed for $100 per day. With cohorts in place, teachers are being hired to work in only one building.

Hiccups

“Because of the social distancing it is taking a little longer to get students into our buildings and to go home to their cars and buses,” Cutaia said. Our ridership is down (55 percent to 60 percent) with more parents dropping the kids off. We thank the parents for their patience because pickup in the afternoon does take a little bit longer.”

william.bloxsom@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @blox354