Bd. of Education Reviews 1st Week of E-Learning, and Cancels Spring Break

Wilton’s Board of Education held its second all-virtual meeting on Thursday night, with 100 people–the maximum allowed on the school’s Zoom Online Meeting account–participating. The members made a decision to cancel Spring Break before reviewing the first week of distance learning.

Deborah Low, the BOE chair, made remarks during her report to bring perspective on two main points–how fast the district has had to adopt e-learning, and the severity of the health dangers that’s caused the district to have to turn to e-learning in the first place.

“We have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time and I’m sure I speak for all our board members in applauding the faculty for their best efforts and keeping students engaged and moving forward, and also attending to their social and emotional needs to the extent possible. e-learning is a work in progress. We will get better as it continues,” she said, adding, “We are all in this together and the board and the faculty and the superintendent are all appreciative of the support from families.”

It was the emotional reminder of the threat of coronavirus that she turned to next.

“As important as our e-learning plans are during this crisis, we also need to put it in perspective. Our health and safety is the most important priority. I listened to Lynne Vanderslice‘s interview on GOOD Morning Wilton. We are clearly entering a different phase that Wilton will be experiencing much greater numbers of people actually with the virus. Families are going to need to attend to planning for that and caring and supporting those who become ill. That’s our biggest concern,” she said, adding, “Although we’re going to hear school updates tonight and they’re going to highlight what’s been going well and what the issues are, let’s not expect school issues to be addressed immediately. Everyone’s going to do what they can, but we have to remember that health and safety is our biggest challenge right now–that’s really the crucial thing right now.”

This meeting’s agenda allowed for public comment as well as board discussion. As is customary, the public’s participation was kept to comment only, with no answer back from the board on any question posed.

Doug Freeman, a parent of a first grader, touched upon a frequent theme of the evening’s meeting, by asking about the “lack of live schooling,” or what the school is calling ‘synchronous’ learning involving active, real-time teaching and interaction between teacher and students. It was a question asked by other parents during public comment and discussed throughout the meeting by the administrators.

Another parent, Susan Rappaport, echoed the question about live teaching, particularly at the high school. But she also commented on the differences some families have noticed between what teachers are doing.

“There seems to be a real disparity between teachers, I guess as to who is really adept at presenting information in an online way and who isn’t. Could comment as to how are we going to get some of the teachers who are struggling a bit more, more up to speed so that people are on more of the same page with that,” she asked.

Superintendent Kevin Smith

Superintendent Kevin Smith echoed what Low had said earlier, about perspective. He said he Vanderslice had told him that the town planned on turning Miller-Driscoll School into an emergency shelter to respond to an increased number of COVID cases. “It brought home to me the importance of health and safety first and foremost. People are really following through on all of those recommendations to socially distance and stay home, and just really be mindful of their health That’s our first priority as well.”

As for the transition to e-Learning, Smith pointed out how much has been accomplished in a very short time.

“I feel like we’re living in dog years. It seems like we’ve been going for weeks and weeks and weeks, when in fact it’s been a relatively short period of time and I am truly impressed with the work that our staff has done in getting their Google sites up, and the way that they’re reaching out with kids.”

He acknowledged that not all teachers are in the same place with the way curriculum is being delivered, and the interest that some families have in moving to more live instruction–but asked for patience.

“We do have quite a bit of diversity and approach right now across the district that we’re working on. I know some folks are very interested in having us move toward more synchronous learning experiences. Um, we’ll hear about that as part of the update tonight, but I think it’s important for everyone to be reminded that our teachers have just moved incredibly fast and, from where I sit, they’re doing an absolute tremendous job.”

He added, “I want parents to know that we are continuing to get up to speed with all of the tools we have, but we have tremendous teachers doing really good, solid creative work in support of our students as we figure this out during this really challenging time.”

Access to Buildings

Smith also acknowledged that he’s heard from families and teachers who want to be able to access materials and possessions that were left behind in the schools before they were closed.

“We checked in with Barry Bogle, the health director, and his advice remains unchanged. And so the schools are closed. We don’t have access to those materials, so we’re just going to ask people to sit tight and make do with what you have. The second that advice changes, we will have plans to help people get the things they need. But for now it’s really important that everybody just focused on staying home and staying healthy.”

Grading

Smith said the district continues to work on a grading plan.

“We’ve been consulting with neighboring districts and we’re awaiting some further guidance from the State Board of Education. As you can imagine, this is a hot topic across the country. Earlier today, the high school did send a note out that about some point in the near future issuing third quarter grades.” Wilton High School principal Bob O’Donnell addressed that during his later update.

Spring Break 

The district had surveyed teachers, staff and students’ families about preferences for either cancelling Spring Break (April 13-17) and ending the school year a week early on June 10, or keeping Spring Break and ending as scheduled on June 17.

Administrators received over 4,000 responses and 83% elected to cancel Spring Break and end school early. All the BOE members reported hearing the same feeling from members of the public.

Smith reminded everyone that there will be no school on Good Friday, on Friday April 10.

As for the question that some people have asked about changing the calendar for the next school year (2020-2021), and starting one week later, Smith said the two issues were unrelated:  “The calendar for the next year is set. If we end school on the 10th of June, people will get a fairly full summer. We’re starting on the 24th of August,” he said, adding that so much is still up in the air. “In this climate, who knows what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of wait-and-see over the next couple of months.”

The BOE voted unanimously to cancel Spring Break.

Fran Kompar, Director of Digital Learning

Kompar echoed her praise of how quickly the district personnel and students have adapted. “Everyone’s going above and beyond and it’s an amazing feat of what has happened in a very short period of time.”

She said her update would touch on three things:  volume, the rate of change, and connections and connectedness.

How much goes into e-learning

“As we’re moving from e-learning 1.0 to 2.0, the different infrastructures that are making sure that things are working and that online learning is actually happening and happening well, are dependent on so many different issues. Some we have control over, some we absolutely don’t have control over.”

She gave examples technical problems that can impact learning online.

“So many different schools and districts across the world, everyone is using the same platforms, the same tools, the same resources,” she pointed out, which was a problem that had affected Miller-Driscoll’s use of Padlet. Similarly, the new exponentially expanded use around the world impacted how well another digital product the district uses–Gaggle–worked and there were also issue on Goggle.

“This just speaks to the fact that this is such a global [issue],” Kompar said.

How Fast Everything Changed

She addressed asynchronous vs. synchronous learning, and how much is involved behind the scenes with actually making that happen–in a much more accelerated time frame than would typically be required.

She explained that Zoom web conferencing was in the budget for next year (2020-2021). When it became available to educators around the world because of the crisis, she jumped on getting it.

“But then we needed to set it up. We needed to get our own domain. We needed to make it safe. We needed to touch base with data privacy. We had, the platform and the professional development in place for the beginning of this week. So we’re really only talking about three days. We’ve been running professional development and we’ve had a lot of engagement; teachers have been wonderful and going in and doing the trainings. They’ve reached out to LLC staff and are working together to make sure that they have the types of things they want to do online,” she explained.

Putting it in perspective, Kompar later said, “I had a three year digital learning strategic plan that I presented to the Board [before coronavirus], and that has now become a five day strategic plan. That’s probably not much of an untruth considering how much we have had to do in such a short period of time.”

She added, “We’re only in day four of e-learning 2.0 and I look forward to more.”

Connections

Kompar said the big change from last week [maintenance learning] to this week [active e-learning] in how the district is moving learning forward, is a blend of asynchronous and synchronous. She also pointed out that the transition is different based on the four different Wilton schools. “Developmentally that’s something we have to be very mindful on.”

She said that there is much more synchronous learning happening now, and  more is being added.

“Our teachers have been doing things like hearing students play their instruments using Zoom and help tuning their instruments using email, Google classroom, Google docs and comments through Google chats; using Presence learning, something that the special services staff have been engaged in; using real time conversations through Padlet; uh, using Google meet for morning meetings and Hangouts for questions; Flipgrid for collaboration; responding to emails simultaneously with the class and providing support,” she listed, adding that while asynchronous learning is something that’s much more self directed, “Synchronous actually has to do with all of the things that I just mentioned as well as Zoom and Google meet sessions.”

Another important concern is how the district is setting up guidelines for how video conferencing is used. “Data privacy is another big, very quickly changing area,” Kompar said.

She added that it’s something at the state level that is a concern as well, but that the district is moving as fast as it can, especially since it’s moving at a much faster pace than it had ever planned to do.

“We’re being very mindful of data privacy. At the same time we want to fast-track and provide the resources that we need for our teachers and students. That has given us the opportunity to fast track about 25 different resources that provide support for our PE teachers, our music teachers, a variety of special services, types of resources, eBooks and e-resource platforms, and a few others that basically when you look at all the grade levels, all of the different students, all the different needs, we do actually need a variety of different things to be able to address learning for everyone,” Kompar said.

Through all of it, there is community happening. “I want to say that the connectedness that’s happening, the collaboration that’s happening, the learning that’s happening, is not a curve, but a very, very steep, going up kind of thing,” Kompar added.

She also acknowledged that there is a similar learning curve for parents. “I’m also very aware that our parents may need some support in terms of navigating some of the tools and we’re going out to parents to ask for what they feel they need. And I would like to do some webinars [with parents], face-to-face through Zoom so that we can provide support for our parent community as well.”

Board member Mandi Schmauch question:  What is the ideal point that you would like to say [synchronous teaching] is consistent?

Kompar answered, “It depends on the grade level. It depends on the subject area. It depends on what the curriculum is and how it’s best delivered. Research shows that a mix [of synchronous and asynchronous] is really the ideal.”

She also added that she’s also concerned with too much screen time for students. “As we go along, I’d like to see the ramping up of the synchronous with the asynchronous, but also being mindful of how much time students are spending in front of a screen, which is really a very difficult balancing act.”

Board member Schmauch:  “I think it’s good to set expectations that we’re never trying to get to a full synchronous day of learning.”

Board member Ruth DeLuca:  “I also want to point out that, especially with the younger ones that need more supervision over their digital use, having more required face time makes it harder for parents to organize their day. And also [the difference between] younger children and older children and the ability to be independent and not independent. Also as virus numbers increase and households have to adapt to that environment as well–I don’t want there to be a feeling of disconnection within the community if a child is unable to participate because of those circumstances. I just want to be mindful of how we frame the synchronous learning going forward in terms of having content be on a synchronous platform that then becomes the only way that information is given.

Smith acknowledged the load and difficulty the situation has placed on parents of students both young and older, and the challenges on all fronts.

“We need to remind ourselves that this is really hard and we’re choosing to do something in a very short period of time. We surveyed our staff a couple of days ago to get a sense of what people were up to across the district and to get a sense of people’s readiness. And I was struck by the large number of teachers at every age who felt like they were ready to do more synchronous type of activities. So Fran and her team have developed some guidelines that we’re going to share with administrators and then push out to staff and set up additional coaching opportunities and professional learning opportunities. So people who are ready can jump into those waters and start swimming really quickly,” Smith said.

He mentioned “the complexity of this endeavor and the broad diversity of home experiences for people.”

“That needs to be repeated over and over again.”

There was more discussion about how some teachers are using synchronous teaching and others aren’t, whether because of comfort, training, age and subject matter, etc.

Board member Jennifer Lalor:  “I think what the difficult part of this is that you have some teachers doing it and some not even within the same subject level or matter. So it’s, it’s kind of hard for some parents to see their kids engaging with teachers in the same subject and somebody else’s.”

Kompar answered:  “It’s early. It’s definitely early. So that should, within the third and fourth week, there should be some more consistency.”

Smith added that a survey will be going out to parents for feedback on e-learning experiences.

Andrea Leonardi, Assistant Superintendent for Special Services

Leonardi updated the progress that has been made since announcing at the previous meeting about contracting an online digital learning platform structured specifically for special education, called Presence Learning.

“Today was day four,” she explained for how quickly the district has had to adopt, adapt and begin to think about implementing. “Getting training in the use of the platform and many of our speech pathologists are OTs, and our behavioral mental health, psychologists and social workers and some school counselors have been out introducing families to the platform itself, testing some things out this week. This week has been a test week.”

The district will go live with it next Monday. “Our goal is to ramp up those services, to be able to provide the level of service as outlined in each child’s IEP, albeit virtually. So group services will be group, and individual services will be individual,” Leonardi said, saying that staff will be working with families to schedule those services, “so they fit into the family schedules.”

That, she said, is likely going to be the hardest part–”Making sure we schedule all those services. It’s one thing when we have the kids for seven hours in school. We have a captive audience to schedule services. This is going to be a little more challenging, but we’re looking forward to working with the families.”

In addition, special ed teachers and service providers have been connecting with students and families using Google Hangouts and zoom and Presence Learning this week to help the students get used to the video platforms and engaging with their teachers and therapists in this format.

Direct services will be rolled out next week.

She acknowledged the difficulty and enormity of the task.

“I personally can’t thank the staff enough for the work they’ve done over the past almosttwo weeks to get ready to be able to implement individualized education plans in this kind of format. It has been Mount Everest and they have been climbing it without oxygen tanks. I know it’s not as front facing to the families yet, but I think families will be very impressed with what they’re about to see,” she said.

Genesis teachers are working individually and in small group with their students on all curriculum areas. “That’s going well,” Leonardi said. “I have been impressed with the kids. The kids are engaged, they’re giving us a lot of good feedback about what’s working and what’s not.”

In addition, she explained, many of the district’s secondary ed teachers are collaborating with their general ed teachers, “…doing some small group instruction with kids who may need assistance in particular assignment areas. We’re moving forward. We’re not there yet. But I’m very pleased with the progress special ed has made in such a short time,” she said, adding that mental health staff is also connecting with kids and with families.

For families that have not connected with anyone in special services, Leonardi said, “Their first line is to their case manager, typically their special education teacher or if they’re receiving speech as their only service, it wouldn’t be their speech pathologist. For 504, it would be their school counselor. So if they have yet to hear from their case manager or from a team member to talk about how they’re going to roll these services out, they should reach out to them. And if they’re unsatisfied then to Sharon, Melissa or myself and we can help.”

Kathy Coon, Miller-Driscoll Principal

Coon was positive about how e-Learning has rolled out at her school:  “Overall the feedback that we’re getting from students, from teachers, from parents is incredibly positive. There are many things we did this week that we’re very proud of.”

“We have many lessons available for the kids in reading, writing, math, art, music, PE, and even our developmental guidance curriculum. We do have a lot of consistency across grade levels and teams are planning together to provide information to parents on what they want the students to follow up on and what they would like students to post to be able to demonstrate their learning,” she said.

On the question of synchronous learning for pre-K through 2nd grade:  “Teachers are also working on staying connected and, while it’s asynchronous at this point, teachers are staying connected through morning message videos, through emails with the kids and all of that. What we’re hearing from parents, a lot of parents appreciate being able to access the materials when it’s convenient for them. So while we’ll start to look at synchronous opportunities, I do think it’s hard for some of our littlest learners to be sitting in front of a computer when no one’s there, and also to be sitting in front of a computer for a long time.”

She added about the speed with which things have been adopted:  “We have to kind of gauge and slow down and make sure that everybody can access what we’re putting out there. So for us, we are trying our best to keep things developmentally appropriate, but also fun. We’re also trying to make sure that we’re looking at some of the challenges that people are having,” she said noting that she began sending lesson plans to parents on Sundays, but after feedback has begun sending it earlier on Fridays.

In addition, Coon said the district is looking at options for finding additional books, “Because again, our youngest readers fly through their books pretty quickly. So we’re working with Fran on some options and more of those will come out next week.”

Jennifer Falcone, Cider Mill Principal

Falcone reiterated how much has been accomplished in such a short time. “This has been a lot for all of our teachers and they’ve really been unbelievable. The feedback that we get has been very positive.”

One big change she announced is a change in time schedule for Cider Mill students. “We’ll be starting at 9 a.m., which is more in line with Miller Driscoll. That’ll be big for families. And we’re ending at 2 p.m., so it’s still even a little bit earlier, but we’re going to have an extension block at the end of the day for additional, independent practice or if we have students that might need additional small group instruction or if a student wants to participate [in some type of] enrichment.”

Falcone said the school’s educators are focusing on community and new units of study and reading and writing. “Read aloud and morning meeting were the community building parts, so we really wanted to tackle that part first, and got a real head start on math and getting the students into that.”

She added that the school is still working with Columbia’s Teacher’s College, which has created a new online unit of study and more resources. It’s helping address one major hurdle–that the school’s curriculum materials are inaccessible and locked in the school.

“That’s been a challenge for everybody. So we’re thankful that those [Teacher’s College] units are coming out and we’ll be starting that.”

For people asking about synchronous and asynchronous learning, Falcone said, “Some families really would be happy if there was somebody in front of them on the computer the whole time leading the kids through. But that’s not realistic because every kid sitting out there participating in the learning isn’t available like that.”

She continued:  “So we are going to continue to do pre-videoed direct instruction the way we started with the math and we’ll be moving into that with the reading and the writing mini-lessons. But Google hangout is really designed to serve no more than five in a group. Right now when we’re using zoom, we can see all of you. When you meet through Google hangout, you can only see up to five and it’s really difficult to navigate any kind of whole group learning in that environment. Right now, only the adults in our school are using any type of zoom platform. As we go forward, we’re looking at using that with our students and it might provide some more opportunities for us.”

Lauren Feltz, Middlebrook Principal

Feltz added her appreciation for the work being done. “We are hard at work at the e-version of Middlebrook and I want to add my kudos to the incredible amount of collaboration that I’ve seen, both within and beyond our building. The staff has been amazing. We celebrate the heroes of our LLC team and applaud Fran [Kompar] and the amazing turnaround time that she’s able to give us in terms of being responsive.”

She described the approach at Middlebrook:  “My teachers are off and running. They are trying. I want to preface my comments by saying 100% of the decisions that the Middlebrook teachers are making is based on trying to do what’s right for the needs of children. While they certainly want to keep skills growing and learning fresh, we 100% of the time will make the choice that we think is going to be supportive of student wellness, both physical wellness and social and emotional wellness.”

Feltz said Middlebrook team leaders are sending surveys to parents to get team-based feedback. “One of the things we’re really trying to pay attention to is listening to the feedback parents and students give us about how long various tasks are taking in this format because this is brand new learning for us.”

She added there is a “really significant learning curve” for teachers. “But I think they’ve done magnificent work. There’s a high degree of alignment in terms of content that is being shared across teachers of the same content, but they are trying to be very personalized in the responses and support that they give to students.”

Feltz said students are adjusting to online work. “Our students are online and working hard. They are submitting work every day. They’re getting personalized feedback from their teachers. Where we’re at right now is really trying to help all of our stakeholder groups–our parents, our students and our teachers–strike a balance that is healthy.”

She reiterated that parents should reach out if they have questions. “If any parent is sitting at home feeling like they have a need that isn’t being addressed, I really welcome the opportunity if you’d send the questions to the appropriate folks, we’d love to help work in partnership with you.”

Bob O’Donnell, Wilton High School Principal

O’Donnell started with a message to his students–in particular, the graduating senior class of 2020.

“I want to emphasize that we recognize that this is very, very new and an unexpected situation to our students. In particular we’re very sensitive to this great Wilton High School graduating class of 2020 and their end of year events, including proms and graduation. We’ve had to make some decisions around canceling events but we’re going to try to remain hopeful that we can still pull off some of these events and work together on them. I would encourage all of our seniors, let’s keep our eyes on the prize of graduation, which of course still is June 13,” he said.

He said the WHS staff has been working “amazingly and tirelessly” to support all students. “Our support staff, our school counselors and our administrators have been reaching out to ensure that those who require additional support in this challenging time are receiving it.”

There’s been a focus on specific service delivery of individual counseling and group services, and assessing how students with specific needs and their families are handling the current challenging situation. “Know that we are listening and we’re very sensitive to that. We are teaming and communicating so that we will not miss students or let students fall off the tracks. We are really working to stay on top of that support for our kids.”

Teachers at WHS are focused on connecting with their students, navigating new technologies and the challenges presented to them, O’Donnell said. They are working together to collaborate on improving and deepening curriculum, instructional experiences, and targeted student learning outcomes. “I would encourage our students and our parent community to recognize that things will converge as we engage with these deeper conversations around quality instructional experiences.”

He acknowledged the discussion around the balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning. “The feedback from teachers suggested there has been a lot of synchronous learning. That is not the panacea. That is not the main goal. We need to find the right blend of these two approaches so that we can maximize student learning. So I would encourage our entire community, let’s believe in and support our educators because this is what we need to do right now. And I would again remind us, we’re in day four right now of this more robust learning. It is not yet perfect, but we will continue in this iterative process. A lot of people are working really, really conservatively to improve this.”

He acknowledged the ongoing discussion around how families can be kept aware of what students are doing, and that an issue that has cropped up is the question of assessment and grading.

“This is an important topic in the school community. I don’t want to over dwell on it, but I did want to share some rationale. We did reach what I believe to be an informed decision on awarding third quarter grades for our students. Some of the rationale behind this decision included the following:  our academic quarters are 45 days a month; our students and our staff had 30 days–six weeks of what I might describe as ‘regular instruction’ before this very abrupt shift to e-learning; and there will be approximately 18 e-learning days that we are engaged in right now. So I canvased our academic departments on the extent to which they would be in a position to award valid quarter-three grades. A very, very vast majority of our departments and teachers almost unequivocally indicated that what they would be in a position to do so. They also indicated that they needed more time in the third quarter–which some parents have requested–and we listened. So we’ve extended quarter three to April 8 in an effort to give students more time to learn and to demonstrate what they know and what they’re able do and also for teachers to evaluate this.”

So third quarter grades will be based on the 30 days of the ‘regular’ assessment period before schools were closed, combined with the 18 e-learning days at home. “Again, I would ask the school community to be patient as our dedicated educators engage in this process. Teachers will be communicating directly with students over the next week about how students would ultimately be assessed, to give the students an opportunity to know, ‘This is how your grades will be computed,’ and try to reduce any anxiety they may have and then support them and really have the focus mostly on the re-connected fabric of the relationship between teachers and students and also what they’re ultimately learning.