Analyzing School Reopening Details, Wilton BOE Balks at COVID’s Growing Price Tag

With Wilton’s 2020-2021 school year scheduled to commence in exactly one month from today, last night’s “pretty intense” Board of Education meeting (in the words of BOE chair Deborah Low) tackled the hard questions that COVID-19 now has school officials asking:  what are specifics of the learning model plan; can Wilton meet curriculum standards; and how much will it all cost?

The meeting comes on the heels of the CT Department of Education‘s release of its long-awaited guidelines for low-, moderate-, and high-risk transmission rates and the corresponding learning models that would be appropriate for each:  full re-open, hybrid, and remote.

  • Low:  Below 10 new cases per 100,000 = in-person model favored.
  • Moderate:  10-24 new cases per 100,000 = hybrid model favored.
  • High:  25 or more cases per 100,000 = remote learning favored.

To be considered in the “low” case range Wilton would need to have an average new case increase of less than 1.8 cases over a 7-day average. Over the past week, Wilton stands at an average of 1.3 new cases, according to First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice‘s nightly July 30 update.

To the Board members’ relief earlier this week, Gov. Ned Lamont gave districts the go-ahead to pick the model for each school as they see fit, walking back his previous statements that he required all districts to prepare for in-person learning no matter what.

At Thursday’s press briefing, Lamont clarified that if the community is at low risk, is is strongly encouraged to pursue some type of in-person learning, whether hybrid or full. If schools resist in favor of a full-remote option, they would have to appeal for a waiver to the state’s education commissioner.

Wilton’s school administrators plan to make a final decision about what model each school will adopt by mid-August. The officials’ confidence in their ability to implement mitigation factors to the safest extent possible will also factor into what model the district chooses for each school. Where this plays into heavy consideration is at Wilton High School, where cohorts and six-feet of social distance currently aren’t feasible.

The meeting also comes after Lauren Feltz stepped down as the Middlebrook School principal. The BOE kicked off the meeting by congratulating her on her new appointment as Principal of Deep River Elementary School and thanking her for her service to Wilton.

Blended Learning Model and Theory of Action

While past meetings have centered specifically on the safety requirements and mitigation strategies to make reopening possible, this meeting honed in on the specifics of Wilton’s “Blended Learning Model” and what each scenario would look like, presented by Director of Digital Learning Fran Kompar and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Chuck Smith.

The duo emphasized that all the plans are currently a work-in-progress and not final. They reiterated developing a structure for this way of learning is “uncharted territory,” and that what they’ve outlined thus far has been done so with “equity and accessibility in instruction” in mind. The plans they presented broadly described district-wide implementation; however, the pair responded to school-specific questions when possible.

  • Full-in Person Learning
    • Most students would attend in-person learning at school five days a week, with some students who choose to learn remotely participating in real-time via the learning management platform Schoology. Class will be a mix of both on- and off-screen activities and the typical school schedule would likely be followed. Strict social distancing and safety protocols would be maintained, as detailed in the district’s 30-page plan.
  • Hybrid
    • Students would be cohorted into two groups. Half of the students would attend school in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other group would attend in-person Thursdays and Fridays. Both groups would be required to attend school remotely via Schoology when not learning in-person. On Wednesdays, though most students would learn remotely, students with greater needs would be allowed to attend in-person at the school that day too. Deep cleaning of buildings would also happen on Wednesdays.
    • Students would still have the option to learn fully remotely. A typical school-day schedule would be maintained.
    • Hybrid models specific for each school will be structured with what’s developmentally appropriate in mind.
    • Cohorts would be grouped in a way to ensure as best as possible that siblings attend in-person on the same days (for example, alphabetically).
  • Remote Learning
    • All students would learn remotely and be required to attend. Live learning would still happen, but the day would likely be shortened to limit student screen time. It is unclear if teachers will teach in empty classrooms or at home.

Moreover, unlike in the spring, attending live zoom meetings during remote learning will not be optional, and attendance will be taken at least once a day.

Board members asked the most questions about the Hybrid model, which during past meetings had been suggested to be a more viable model for the high school in particular. Assistant Principal at WHS, Don Schels explained that school administrators adopted the 2-days/1-day/2-days approach versus the 5-days-on/5-days-off schedule in order to maximize the amount of face-to-face instruction while minimizing the gap between remote and instruction.

“This five-days-in-five-days-out or four-days-in-four-days-out [model] looks attractive on its face to be sure, but when you really study it, it turns out that that plan gives out something nice with its right hand but then takes it right back with its left hand, because you feel good about the continuity of the five days but you have to feel equally troubled by the discontinuity of the five days that the students are out,” Schels said. “The general census among high school educators was to find a rhythm that would allow for some continuity without too much discontinuity, [so] the 2-1-2 model seemed to be very appropriate.”

Other schools around Fairfield County have also adopted the 2-1-2 approach, which could help make this option more viable for staff who live outside of Wilton and are concerned about childcare needs. Schels said that when the WHS leadership presented the approach to the faculty they welcomed it.

In terms of how officials would determine cohorts for the hybrid model, they clarified that it will likely differ for each school. For the high school, they likely will create cohorts alphabetically by last name (A-L and K-Z) to make sure siblings attend on the same days. This would make ever class period on average about half the size and would substantially allow more room for social distancing.

However, Miller-Driscoll students developmentally require more support in an online classroom than older students. Administrators acknowledged that with a class of five-year-olds, for instance, tasking a teacher with managing both an in-person classroom and an online one and fully supporting the needs of both groups of students simultaneously is virtually unachievable. As a result, officials determined that if Miller-Driscoll were to adopt a hybrid model, they would likely cohort by classes, making for fewer students in the building each day but the same amount in each classroom.

“It’s a good example not only of the complexity but kind of the competing demands and priorities that we are confronting and trying to overcome as we develop these plans,” Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith said. “We’re trying to be guided by science and certainly by our medical expertise here in the community and our health director. So anything we put forward will not only [be presented] to all of you, [but it] will have to be vetted and approved by those folks as well.”

One BOE member suggested classes could be spaced out throughout the building or utilize outside spaces and tents in order to allow more social distancing.

Though officials do not know what percentage of learning would be synchronous versus asynchronous in the hybrid model, one advantage to employing cohorts, Kompar said, is that it will help assure that learning is equitable.

“What happens with hybrid that’s so important is that students feel included and don’t feel like they’re the online [group] as oppose to onsite, that they’re part of that same learning community [and] that relationship is very important,” Kompar said.

Kevin Smith reiterated that no matter what model the district picks, the ultimate goal is to make sure the end product is high-quality and equitable whether online or in-person.

“Our commitment to this is to try to integrate the students who are participating in remote learning into a full learning experience,” Smith said. “We’re still trying to nail down exactly what it is going to look like, how it’s going to operate for kids at home, but our goal is to make sure the end-user experience really is high-quality.”

No matter what learning model is chosen, students will be graded the same way as before the pandemic, even though instruction may look different.

Support in Day-to-Day New Normal

No matter which model is followed, Charles Smith and Kompar emphasized that student engagement will be key to their success both online and in-person. Low reflected that achieving real engagement especially for a remote learning model will require a lot of creativity. Kevin Smith reiterated that “there is no playbook here” and that while remote learning seems hard to imagine, the district’s guiding principles will help ensure that the students’ well-being is always the priority.

Chuck Smith and Kompar outlined the general principles as follows:

  • Maximizing live, synchronous instruction whenever possible; allow for teamwork between students and among staff; provide support for individuals, family, or small-groups who need it.
  • Develop effective and accessible eLearning by engaging students, refining digital literacy skills, and ensuring all learning matches “culturally responsive and sustaining curricula.”
  • Develop a positive learning environment and culture of learning where students feel supported, develop relationships, and are able to achieve “meaningful collaboration in integrated settings.”
  • Constantly monitor systems to identify where improvement is achievable and/or necessary.

Teachers will be equipped with a WPS Teacher Station, a docking station that connects to Zoom through Schoology; the Smartboard; a sound system; and the teacher’s computer. Any content the teacher plays on the laptop would stream both through Schoology and in the classroom, making learning more synchronous.

The pair also assured the Board that all students grades 1-8 would be provided with a Chromebook, which would be “collected, disinfected, inventoried, and pre-checked out to students” before the school year begins, according to the presentation. Students in grades 1, 3, and 6 will receive brand new devices.

Additionally, WiFi capacity will be extended or upgraded when necessary, including to outdoor spaces when possible; the number of devices available in LLC spaces will be increased; and Schoology will help streamline learning both for students and for professional development. Kompar and Chuck Smith reiterated that Schoology would be the “anchor” to all three models and help for seamless transitions between in school and remote learning.

They also underscored that parent and student communication and involvement is crucial. In fact, next week some students will test out Schoology and the new learning system.

In addition to technical accommodations, the district is also committed to making sure to provide social-emotional support for all students, staff, and families. Mental health staff and counselors will regularly communicate with teachers and families to identify students who may be struggling academically or emotionally, and provide one-on-one support if necessary

In accordance with the district’s desire to establish a “community of learners,” officials will also encourage staff to lead students in activities that strengthen their sense of belonging in the classroom and relationship to the class.

Accessibility is also at the forefront of their plan, they said. English Language Learners will still receive all of their services and important communications documents will be sent out in a different language if possible. Students with special needs will also receive their required support as well.

Parents will receive regular communication from the district, school and teacher. They will have access both to Schoology to see assignments and deadlines, as well as to Powerschool where they will see grades and attendance.

In terms of the traditional “meet-the-teacher” event at the start of the school year, some K-5 teachers have discussed hosting virtual, live “meet-the-teacher” sessions. Middlebrook Middle School may have pre-recorded, virtual meet-the-teacher sessions with the team leaders. At the high school, the WHS Link Crew student ambassadors will host a virtual orientation for incoming freshmen with staff and students alike, offering virtual tours. Link Crew’s “Where Everybody Belongs” group is currently in the process of creating a virtual orientation experience for incoming sixth graders as well.

Low called the plan a “tremendous” amount of work. She emphasized that although the development process will be long, she is confident in the district’s approach and in the administrators’ thorough review of all the procedures.

Financial Update

Dr. Kevin Smith and Town/School CFO Anne Kelly-Lenz reviewed details of estimated costs involved with hiring additional FTE staff to meet new needs associated with all the changes–to the shock of some BOE members.

Smith asked the BOE members to consider that the anticipated expenses were estimated to be higher based on the assumption that the district would hire the most qualified teachers and offer the best benefits. The list of new hires and reasons justifying the district’s need are as follows:

  • 1.0 Interim Middlebrook World Language teacher:  $131,794.66.
    • To allow for better cohorting on the team level, instead of having one of the two other World Language teachers cover
  • .5 PE at Middlebrook: $81,108.16
    • To allow for better cohorting at Middlebrook
  • 1.0 Kindergarten FTE at Miller-Driscoll:  $131,794.66 
  • 7.0 Temporary Custodians:  $400,000
    • Reflects hourly pay on a temporary 120-day contract, after which they would be hired as full employees
    • Estimate is high, for 40 hours/week per new employee
    • Necessary COVID expense to allow for regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces
  • 8.0 Additional Building Substitutes (two per school): $149,600.00
    • In response to an anticipated increase in teacher absences
    • Building Substitutes are preferable because they are available to cover any teacher at a moments notice, often also certified, and familiar with Wilton Schools
  • 2.0 Cafeteria Aides at Middlebrook: $7,854.00
    • To allow for more supervision during lunch, which will be eaten in the classrooms. Teachers cannot supervise lunch due to union mandates. All students will eat lunch in classrooms, even at the high school

The total cost for this category was $902,151.48, a figure the Board found staggering. Smith said all of the faculty he listed would be hired on one-year contracts, except for the custodians.

Smith reiterated that the estimated costs reflect the “worst-case scenario,” not only due to his generous estimate of salaries and benefits, but also because of state or federal funding resources.

Kelly-Lenz said that the town can submit any previously unbudgeted expenses to FEMA, which would cover 75% of all approved expenses. For the remaining 25%, the district could apply for federal or state grants. However, it’s likely that state funding would be prioritized for bigger cities over Wilton. In order to apply and secure funding, the plans must be written in extreme detail, Kelly-Lenz said.

Board member Glenn Hemmerle said that he trusted Smith’s judgment, and motioned to approve the list of requested hires. However, no one seconded Hemmerle’s motion. Board member Jen Lalor said she would feel more comfortable waiting to see the results of next week’s parents’ survey to anticipate how many students will likely return to in-classroom learning to determine if they could lower any new salary expenses.

Smith said that the only expenditure he sees as absolutely essential and unchangeable is the cost for the custodians, although it could turn out to be lower as the custodians are paid hourly. The BOE approved that cost unanimously and deferred a vote on the other proposed expenses until the next meeting on Aug. 13.

Unrelated to COVID, other new costs proposed to the Board were related to the hiring of 2.0 SPED professionals for $127,320; however, rather than asking for additional funds, Kelly-Lenz and Smith asked to reallocate the money from the Special Education Department’s existing budget. This BOE approved the expense.

Kevin Smith suggested the BOE defer decisions on two other possible expenses–hiring seven additional campus supervisors for $441,364 and an additional paraprofessional at WHS for $63,600.

Conclusions

The board will meet again on Aug. 13, not next Thursday. At that time they will review plans specific to each school and any new data. A survey will be sent out to parents and families early next week with results anticipated by the end of the week. A final decision will be made about reopening by mid-August.

To get a more detailed look into the district’s planning process and requirements, please see GMW’s past coverage, linked below:

 

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