After Lightning Strike Closes Cider Mill School, District Scrambles to Find Space at WHS and Middlebrook for In-Person Classes [PHOTOS]

After a lightning strike closed Cider Mill, students were dispersed to Wilton High School and Middlebrook. (photo: GMW)

A Thursday night (April 7) lightning strike that hit near Cider Mill School and Middlebrook Middle School presented the Wilton Public School district with a bad news, worse news, good news scenario this week.

The damage that resulted to both schools from the strike and electrical surge was extensive — burned lights, melted plugs, and electrical shorts caused entire electrical systems at both Cider Mill and Middlebrook to become non-operational, most critically the HVAC systems that have become very important in a COVID age when clean air circulation is an absolutely must to keep a school open.

It could have been worse — much worse, according to Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith, who said the district’s building supervisor Jose Figueroa told him Wilton was very lucky.

“He said we’re lucky the building didn’t burn down. It was a pretty substantial lightning strike and it literally melted surge protectors, the variable frequency drives which control the motor speeds on the HVAC units on the rooftop — they literally melted. All kinds of electronic components were melted from the strike,” Smith said, adding that the cost of the damage and repair is still being assessed.

[UPDATE, TUESDAY APRIL 12 — Facilities manager Chris Burney was waiting for reports from Eversource but here’s what he told GMW:  “In my opinion what happened was a twofer. I think that Cider Mill was hit by lightning somewhere after the electrical service from Eversource entered the building. I then think that there was a second event, a major power surge that took out the power at Middlebrook and Comstock.

“There is a possibility that the two events were related, although it might have been two distinct events. School Rd. has seen several outages over the last couple of years.”

When it became clear that the HVAC systems at both schools wouldn’t be working for Friday, April 8, Wilton school administrators responded quickly to move both Cider Mill and Middlebrook schools to remote learning for the day. But that temporary emergency fix didn’t satisfy state education officials, who told Smith they would not consider any remote learning “to count” toward the required 180 school days CT students must be in school every year — no exception.

So Wilton educators had to pivot with very little time to figure out a way to make sure all of Wilton’s students were in-person for Monday, even if that meant being located somewhere other than Cider Mill or Middlebrook.

Luckily, school maintenance staff were able to get enough lights replaced and HVAC equipment working over the weekend at Middlebrook in time for the start of school Monday. But the situation was much worse at Cider Mill, which bore the brunt of the damage.

Cider Mill Principal Dr. Jen Falcone worked out a solution with the help of her faculty and some assistance from building administrators at two other district schools. They decided all students would report to Cider Mill on Monday morning with a three-hour delay, either by riding buses or getting dropped off by families. Then, led by teachers and staff, the third grade classes would walk up School Rd. to Middlebrook and the fourth and fifth grade classes would walk across the athletic fields to Wilton High School. They’d use any bit of available space — in the Library Learning Commons areas, auditoriums and even the Zellner Gallery at the high school — as temporary classrooms.

The logistics involved were substantial. School nurses had to pack up necessary medications kept for students and all the related paperwork and files. One student in a cast needed to be transported by golf cart. Everyone needed to make sure their cell phones were charged. Police needed to be stationed at any point kids would cross a road, and the route needed to avoid any danger spots — like the high school parking lot with new teenaged drivers.

Monday morning, just before her students began their caravan, Falcone was remarkably calm as she stood in Cider Mill’s darkened hallway. “After two years of COVID, this is like, whatever!” she laughed, before adding how thankful she was for her team.

“I can’t even tell you, I literally had so many people on Friday asking what they could do to help. They’re all fantastic.”

Falcone made one last announcement over Cider Mill’s PA system. “Hello Cider Mill, we are off on an adventure today! All of your teachers and our wonderful staff around the building will all be with you in your new spot, so everybody have a fun time and enjoy the adventure.”

For the Cider Mill students, heading to the schools where the older kids were was thrilling. Their smiles, shrieks and laughs as they made their way to their destinations made it clear how exciting the prospect of a day away from Cider Mill was.

The 550 or so Cider Mill students who went to Wilton High School were greeted by upperclassmen dressed in “Link Leader” tie-dyed t-shirts, as WHS Principal Dr. Bob O’Donnell and members of his faculty team stood outside to welcome the younger kids. With fourth graders assigned to the auditorium area and fifth graders to the LLC, the classes quickly and efficiently got to where they needed to be.

The theme of the day was “make it work.” Learning conditions might not have been ideal, but the kids and teachers made the best with what they had. Each class staked out turf that would be home base, as teachers tried to explain how important it was to keep their voices low so as not to disturb the several other classes spread out around the large spaces.

For the high school students, having the little kids in their space was a curiosity that only got in the way a bit, including somewhat limited library access and an occasional crowded stairway. But administrators and faculty in both buildings made it all work as best as possible.

State’s Refusal to Allow Remote a Frustration to Administrators

The state’s refusal to even consider remote learning frustrated administrators, from Smith on down. One school official who didn’t want to be quoted because they weren’t authorized to speak on the matter was clearly aggravated that the state couldn’t accommodate the request for even a limited number of days. “The state of Connecticut really thinks that this is a better idea than remote learning that we have at the top of our game? Nobody does it better than we did.”

Smith walked around the LLC and auditorium at the high school checking on how things were going. While he was grateful his teachers, administrators and students adapted so quickly, he wasn’t thrilled that this is what they had to resort to doing.

“The state at this point does not have a legal provision to enable temporary remote learning. There were options while the governor’s executive orders were in place to allow for COVID-related disruptions, but that option doesn’t exist any longer,” he said, before expressing his frustration, knowing that remote learning was probably a more efficient option. “Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”

If the district stayed remote despite the State Department of Education’s ultimatum, the students would have to add on days at the end of the year (which they will have to do for Friday’s one remote day). The idea of that option was a no-go for Smith.

“Today, the learning time is more effective, now, in the beginning, middle and early last part of the school year. To preserve continuity of instruction is more valuable than to tack days on to the end of the year when kids are tired, teachers are tired, you’ve worked through the curriculum, and those days, despite good efforts, just aren’t prime learning time,” Smith said.

Smith said Friday’s remote day was still valuable even if the state didn’t consider it as counting. “Kids were engaged. Instruction was delivered. Learning was happening. Far preferable than to have to come to school on June 22.”

The Fix is In

Meanwhile, school maintenance pros worked hard all day Monday to try and repair Cider Mill’s mechanicals enough to get the HVAC system up and running, knowing that the longer the interruption to regular learning time went on the more disruptive it would be to actual learning. They had to scramble to find the right equipment and replacement parts, facing supply chain issues and other complications.

According to Smith, the district’s electrician Luis Gonzalez and other maintenance staff scrambled to replace “hundreds of ballasts” for the lights. “They went to whatever local supply houses, bought all the light ballasts they could find and they’re still short,” he said.

They also had to find other random parts — the plugs for the walkie talkie bases all melted, for instance, and needed to be replaced.

But it was Mark Esposito, the district’s HVAC specialist who worked his magic and was able to repair the HVAC system enough that students will be able to return to Cider Mill on Tuesday. Considering that Esposito is retiring at the end of this school year, Smith knows how ironic it is that he’s staying very busy right up to the end. “We wouldn’t want him to be bored,” Smith said.