During Thursday night’s Board of Education virtual meeting (July 16), the members reviewed the progress of Wilton school administrators in developing plans for the upcoming 2020-21 school year in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and they discussed how to define their role in planning even further.
The BOE meeting follows two Wilton Schools Re-Entry Subcommittee meetings held over the past two weeks. At the most recent one, held Wednesday, July 15, Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith reviewed with committee members the current draft of the district’s re-opening plan, which must be finalized and sent to the state by July 24.
Thursday night, Smith shared the same document draft with the full Board of Education and explained the feedback he has gotten thus far from the Re-Entry Subcommittee. He invited the BOE members to ask questions, present concerns, or offer feedback on the material as well.
The BOE members delved into deeper detail about their role to support reopening measures, and how the uncertainties of the coronavirus crisis will impact the school calendar, specials classes, and the percentage of teachers they anticipate who won’t return to in-classroom teaching, among other impacts. They also expressed their concerns about fallout for school finances, and transportation and facilities needs.
Shared Community Responsibility, Compliance to State Guidance and Lots of Unknowns
Board of Education chair Deborah Low began the meeting by providing an overview of the board’s expectations, requests, and responsibilities. Specifically, she reiterated the district’s need to submit three plans for review to the state–one each for full reopening of school, semi-remote, and remote instruction.
Perhaps more significantly, Low also emphasized the community’s unavoidable impact in these decisions, saying that residents must uphold social distancing measures now in order to make the ideal full-reopening actually feasible in the fall.
“If we have any hope of a full reopen, we have to continue wearing a mask and social distancing whenever we’re out in public,” Low said.
Low also clarified a point brought up at Thursday’s re-entry meeting about what the thresholds will be for switching between the three models, saying that the state will release benchmarks that the town can then adopt. However, no one decision will be absolute, Low said, and flexibility will be key in adjusting to new data and community transmission rates.
“We may as well use all the scenarios next year, from the full open to the remote only, depending on what the virus does,” Low said.
Smith later assured the BOE members that if the school did need to transition quickly between modalities in response to changing COVID conditions, the learning management software Schoology would help make any transition much easier.
Moreover, he clarified what administrators are currently considering for the semi-remote model: students would be split into two groups; one group would spend two days doing in-person learning while the other group would learn online; the groups would swap places for the next two days; and on the fifth day, all students would learn remotely to allow custodians to thoroughly sanitize each building.
Low reiterated that both the BOE and district officials will prioritize health and safety in all decision making.
With this consideration at the forefront, she called planning the operations and logistics of the school day alone a “monumental” task that may push other typical concerns aside. For instance, though the school district usually focuses heavily on energy efficiency, now the need for the best ventilation systems would take precedence over environmental sustainability requirements. Moreover, where school officials once encouraged students to take the bus, they now “welcome” parents to drive their children to school and that the schools will adapt to any additional traffic concerns.
Low also added that the procedures won’t necessarily be universal for K-12, as health data, building layouts, and schedules vary for each school and grade level.
“We need resources and staff, materials, supplies, furniture, equipment, PPE, and personnel. So as a board we will do our best to ensure we have the needed resources, we will focus on the system as a whole, and we know that the plan will contain elements not everyone will agree with, so as a board we will look to solutions and plans that are the safest for students and staff, that are the most reasonable to implement overall, and will advance the academic program while supporting the social and emotional needs of kids,” Low said.
She added that school officials will add and update policies to make sure all schools are complying, and pledge to be as transparent as possible about their plans by communicating to the public often.
Changing the School Calendar and Start Date–Again
At the end of the meeting, Smith presented a proposal to the board that the district adopt the State Board of Education’s new decision allowing districts to subtract three days from the 2020-2021 instructional calendar and instead, devote three days at the start of the year to COVID-19-related training.
Specifically, his proposal suggests that August 26, 27, and 28 each be repurposed into a half-day, informal open house where one grade from each school will have a chance to see their school’s newly designed building and learn the new safety protocols in action.
“The general consensus is that we all–teachers, administrators, everybody else–need as much time as we can possibly have to continue to plan, engage in professional learning through Schoology and the various technological components as we’re developing as we get ready to launch the school year,” Smith said.
He credited this proposal to Kathy Coon, the principal of Miller-Driscoll School.
He added that this system would allow a small volume of students at a time to understand how different school would look, while also giving teachers added time to prepare or complete additional training. It would also allow the district to adjust the re-opening plans “on the fly” if needed.
If approved, this adjustment would set the official start of the school year to Monday, August 31 and reduce the length of the full school year to 178 days instead of 181. The BOE will vote on whether to adopt this calendar change at its next meeting on Thursday, July 23.
More Safety Plans–and Only 3-Feet of Social Distancing?
Smith covered the current working draft of the district’s re-entry plan [reviewed in more detail in GMW‘s coverage of Wednesday’s Re-entry Committee meeting], again underscoring that, while students will maintain six feet of distance from teachers, classroom space is such that only three feet of social distance will be possible between each student.
He added that while the average occupancy and size of classrooms allows for three feet, much of the furniture will need to be adjusted or exchanged to make this possible. For instance, students sitting at tables at least three-feet long will be stationed at each end with a sneeze guard in between. However, for tables smaller than this, such as the small square tables used in some Miller-Driscoll classes, the district will have to buy new furniture to make social distancing possible.
Smith also addressed the discrepancy in the evidence about the effectiveness of three-feet of social distancing for younger children versus older children, saying that officials may need to rethink the three-feet allowance in the high school. Moreover, some high school classes exceed 24 students, which would push classrooms over capacity when allowing for at least three feet of space between students. As a result, Wilton High School administrators may have to schedule additional sections for some classes, which would require teachers to work more and the district to compensate them accordingly.
He also stressed how cohorts may not be perfect, especially as you get to Middlebrook and Wilton High School where there are more nuances and variations in students’ schedules.
When hand-sanitizing and washing procedures were brought up, a question was posed about the schools’ water quality, as the buildings have been closed since March. Smith responded that the custodians are regularly running the water and he hopes to test it before the fall.
Moreover, the district has reached out to multiple experts to make sure their procedures and facilities are as best designed as possible. Turner Construction, a firm familiar with the school buildings because of past work in the Miller Driscoll renovations and at Wilton High School, is working with the schools to make recommendations for where physical barriers can or should be installed in places like office spaces and nursing stations. On Friday, a consultant from another firm will visit the schools to help plan internal traffic flow in the buildings and make signage. School administrators are also working with furniture consultants Strategic Spaces to discuss the possibility of creating temporary classrooms.
The district is also developing plans to accommodate traffic flow, as about 75% of parents said they would be willing to drive their kids to school to help allow for more social distancing on the buses. This is up about 25% from the typical 40%-50% of parents who transport their children to school, and thus will provide more space. Smith said that they will likely stagger arrival and drop off times to make sure students can still social distance on their way into the buildings.
Teachers Unable to Return
Smith also provided an update on teacher and student surveys about returning to school.
According to data from 2,996 respondents to the student survey, 65% of families plan to return to in-person learning, 12% will opt to learn remotely, and 22% are still uncertain.
The most recent data on teachers was very significant. Responding to an ADA “checklist of considerations,” 112 staff members checked off at least one reason they would not be able to return to school. Thus far 318 current staff members out of about 600 total have responded.
District HR director Maria Coleman, one of the primary administrators monitoring staff surveys, said that many of the teachers they followed up with identified childcare as their primary concern. Coleman added that if the school were to offer childcare–a possibility she said they are exploring but are unsure if it will be realistic–she estimated that about 150 children would participate as of their June survey.
Beyond childcare, Smith said “quite a number” of those 112 staff would be in the high-risk category, and thus may not be comfortable returning at all.
Right now there is no firm date teachers must commit to or opt-out of teaching. Coleman added that future discussions–such as whether leave would be paid for teachers who cannot return–will likely play into each teacher’s decisions. Coleman said they will communicate to teachers about their rights and about pay soon and work to accommodate them.
“I think it’s a good start to give us a sense of where people are, but we recognize that that number is subject to change between now to the start of the school year and we’ll be checking again,” Coleman said.
To prepare for a scenario in which that amount of staff (about 20%) does not return, Coleman said they are looking at the state’s requirements for teachers’ certification and their existing pool of staff (paraprofessionals, substitutes, etc.) to see who may be able to fill the gap. The state has not changed its requirements for certification, but Coleman assured that they are creatively thinking outside the box about how to use other staff differently.
“It is definitely a concern, we could provide support for a limited number, but if we had 30% of our staff not returning to work, that would be of significant concern in terms of our ability to run our courses the way that they are currently running,” Coleman said.
The district plans to re-administer the survey to teachers later this summer.
Another big topic at last night’s meeting was specials classes, a discussion Charles Smith, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, helped guide.
In accordance with the district’s desire to minimize student movement throughout each school, rough guidance would suggest that specials teachers rotate to different classrooms instead of having students come to them, at least for younger grades. High school students would likely continue to move to their respective special large spaces for their activities.
However, for some classes, operating inside a classroom is impractical and the schools must make other arrangements. For instance, physical education classes will likely move outside.
Additionally, one member raised concern over students singing, which is considered to be a higher-risk activity without more precautions because of droplet projection. However, Charles Smith assured that chorus classes will look much different, as the district will require students to sing with masks on and distanced 12 feet apart. He also suggested that perhaps Fine and Performing Arts (FAPA) teachers could attend the next BOE meeting to discuss their plans.
As an additional level of safety, BOE member Ruth Deluca suggested that perhaps they could gauge parental comfort over specials classes, to which Kevin Smith agreed. Another member went a step further, suggesting the district could consider postponing in-person specials and hold them on zoom instead while focusing on core activities. Kevin Smith responded that, although prioritizing core academics is key and everything is up for discussion, he feels a “strong obligation” to deliver as full and rich a curriculum as possible if it’s safe, especially as many students find their joy and purpose in those arts and specials classes.
For all specials classes, they will minimize shared equipment to the fullest extent possible and for those that cannot be shared, such as long string musical instruments, to make sure there are cleaning procedures in place and that no mouthpiece is ever shared.
With safety as a priority, the scope of new cleaning procedures, equipment, changes, and precautionary measures is escalating fast. But so is the expense, to the unease of some board members.
For instance, due to the strict requirements for cleaning and disinfecting, district officials estimate they will need to hire seven more custodians. Vice-chairman Glenn Hemmerle said this additional cost alone would drain the board’s existing COVID funds reserve. Moreover, the schools must provide Personal Protective Equipment to all teachers and have disposable masks available for students, pay teachers for over-time if they must teach more class sections (an anticipated need at the high school), acquire new furniture, consult and pay experts, update ventilation systems, install plexiglass and potential temporary classrooms, buy extra equipment and more.
Though the figures are daunting, Chief Financial Officer Anne Kelly-Lenz said as of now FEMA will cover 75% of approved costs the district incurs in preparation until about December 2020, which would take a significant financial burden off of the schools. She added that the state could potentially provide the district with some funding although precedence would likely go to other districts.
Smith said he hopes to have preliminary numbers ready by next week’s meeting.
Conclusions and Decisions for the Next Meeting
The board will vote on Smith’s calendar proposal, review new survey data, go over any changes to the plans and procedures, and look at the finances at the next BOE meeting on Thursday, July 23, at 7 p.m. The board and superintendent welcome feedback, questions, and concerns.