Monday night Sept. 21, in a single-topic special meeting, the Board of Education unanimously approved Superintendent Kevin Smith‘s recommendation to begin phasing in a four-day per week, full in-person model for all students in Wilton’s two elementary schools, Miller-Driscoll (M-D) for Grades K-2, and Cider Mill (CM) for Grades 3-5.

The transition to the new model will begin Monday, Oct. 5 for some grades and continue on Tuesday, Oct. 13, subject to continued approval from the district’s health officials.

The BOE said it would begin discussing during its next meeting this Thursday, Sept. 24, how the hybrid model is working for Grades 6-12, and any possible changes.

According to the timeline that was adopted Monday night:

  • Monday, Oct. 5:  Kindergarten and Grade 1 at M-D and Grade 3 at CM will move to the in-person model four days per week
  • Tuesday, Oct. 13:  Grades 2 (M-D), 4, and 5 (CM) will do the same.

In-person classes will be held on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. All students will attend remotely on Wednesdays when buildings will be deep-cleaned.

Smith and his administrative team will survey families to determine how many plan to return to the classroom full-time in-person. If families choose not to have students return in-person, they will be able to have their students attend remote, online classes on a full distance-learning schedule.

At the request of BOE member Jennifer Lalor, a caveat was added to the proposal that was adopted:  if administrators learn that not as many students as expected opt to return to in-person full-time learning, the district will consider adjusting the timeline for students scheduled to return on Oct. 13 and bring more of them back on Oct. 5.

Smith agreed to at least try to meet Lalor’s request.

Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith

“If this year has proven nothing else, it has proven that we’re flexible and adaptable. We would certainly look at those numbers and if we think we can bring in another grade level, we would do it,” Smith said.

One thing that almost certainly will also change is for students who are currently on the hybrid plan but who do not want to return to the classroom for full-time in-person learning. By default, they may have to opt for a full remote option, even if it isn’t their preference.  Smith said his team would consider running a full in-person model, a full remote model and a hybrid model, but it would be very unlikely to happen.

“Maybe we can work something out, but around that idea I’d really like to manage expectations because it sounds exceptionally challenging on its face,” Smith said.

Why a Full-Time Return is Happening 

When the Wilton Board of Education approved the district’s hybrid learning plan over the summer, the BOE and administrators agreed to revisit the plan every three weeks to evaluate how it was working, with the hope that the district would eventually move all students back to full-time, in-person learning (with families being able to continue opting to remain remote if they chose).

They acknowledged that teaching students in class, in person, full-time was the ultimate goal for both developmental, social-emotional reasons as well as for optimal curriculum delivery and learning.

In facing how to manage educating Wilton students in a COVID-19 pandemic, school officials have maintained that health and safety would be the district’s primary consideration for every decision, and that they would continue to monitor COVID-19 case data for the town, county, and state.

September 29 had been a target date for first considering a change to the model, until both of the district’s public health officials–medical advisor Dr. Christine Macken and Wilton’s Health Director Barry Boglerecently recommended not making any change until Oct. 5, after case data and infection rates increased markedly. While state numbers still remain below levels set by the CT State Department of Education that would prompt statewide closure of school districts, Smith said both health experts “share the serious concern…[when] case numbers were rapidly trending upwards.”

Smith said those numbers will continue to be monitored, and mitigations strategies will continue to be assessed.

Various constituencies in the district have pushed for different–and sometimes opposing–outcomes.

Some parents of very young students have expressed their frustrations with the amount of screen time and parental supervision required for when their students work remotely and want a swifter return to full-time in-person learning.

Educators acknowledge, too, how developmentally important it is for very young learners to be in class with full-time instruction.

On the other hand, the majority of teachers have expressed their opposition to more students in classrooms at the same time, which likely will significantly reduce social distancing–something they fear puts them at an increased risk for COVID-19. The executive board of the Wilton Education Association (WEA), the teachers’ union, sent a letter to the BOE last week, expressing a desire for the district to delay moving back to full-time in-person teaching for at least three more weeks, and called such a move “irresponsible.”

“…there has not been sufficient opportunity to appropriately gauge the effectiveness of the health and safety measures in place at each of the schools. There have been two confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Wilton H.S., and surrounding communities, such as Darien, Greenwich, Norwalk, Stamford and Weston are also being impacted by new cases. Among other concerns, this proposal would necessitate the reduction in social distancing between students from 6 feet to 3 feet, which is not in compliance with CDC guidelines… The WEA supports maintaining the status quo, provided there are no new cases in our schools, for at least another three weeks.”

Comparing Wilton to Other Schools–Are Others Really Going Back Full-Time?

Smith said his team has heard from residents who believe all the surrounding school districts are bringing their students back to school full time, if they haven’t already.

“That’s really not accurate. New Canaan started today as far as I know with their K-2 kids and they’re planning on a phase-in over some time; my understanding is that Ridgefield and Darien still have plans in place to begin bringing kids back next week on Sept. 29th. Then there are other districts that don’t have plans in place at all, ever going to hybrid. And, there have been kind of open-ended commitments to assess how that’s going and then go get back to it, Smith said.

The size of Wilton’s schools is also, he said, something to consider when comparing Wilton to other districts.

“One significant difference between our elementary schools and all of those in neighboring towns is school size. We operate some of the largest elementary schools in the state. Under normal circumstances, the economy of scale works to our benefit. In the COVID-19 environment, where social distance is a high leverage mitigation strategy, the size of our schools works against us,” he said.

Logistical Concerns that Impact the Decision to Return to Full-Time In-Person–and WHY officials prefer to Phase In the Return

Smith explained that the size of Wilton’s schools and the number of students make the logistics complicated, both from a planning perspective as well as a health and safety one.

For example, the decision to bring back students in phases is one of numbers:  population density and logistics are involved in managing the increase in students.

He described the logistical concerns that will have to be navigated by possibly doubling the in-class students, keeping health and safety in mind. All concerns will require monitoring and making adjustments–to be determined once entire classes can be assessed.

  • Traffic Flow–Getting people on and off campus:  The majority of families, as recommended by school officials, drive children to school with staggered schedules. Arrival and dismissal, while “relatively smooth” and getting better, “takes considerable time to get students in and out of school.” Returning to full occupancy will exacerbate arrival and dismissal challenges.
  • Student Restroom Use:  To support social distancing, the maximum occupancy of restrooms has been restricted, which may be problematic with twice the number of students in the building. This may impact daily classroom routines.
  • Lunch and Recess:  Now, lunch is delivered to classrooms and students eat there. Recess is taken either before or after lunch, depending on grade level. It’s the time of day when students remove their masks in classrooms to eat. With full classes, desks will now be three feet apart. There are plans to have sneeze guard barriers on each student desk, but what adjustments need to be made can only be assessed with full classrooms.Maintaining students’ social distance with young children now is challenging, even with half the student population in the building. Recess with entire classes will add to that challenge.
  • Traffic Flow–Inside Buildings:  Now, students spread out and social distance as they move from one location to another. Full classes will double in size, posing supervision challenges.
  • Classroom Social Distancing:  Three feet of space between student workstations in most classrooms, depending on class size, is possible. Some classrooms space will be slightly less than three feet and classes will need to relocate. Final in-person enrollment numbers will give more clarity. This is the fundamental concern for Health Director Barry Bogle; he asked for floor plans of those classes, and wants to consider all other mitigation strategies.
  • Cleaning and Sanitizing:  Custodians will be pressed to keep up with disinfecting all high-touch surfaces. Smith is “most concerned” about bathrooms, which are cleaned multiple times a day and temporarily taken offline to clean–adding to the concern of needing to meet increased student usage.

Other Considerations

Smith mentioned other considerations that had been discussed.

  • Shortened in-person days:  Smith does not recommend shortening any in-person days because of “serious barriers,” including needing an additional bus run, which would “substantially add” to transportation costs; or losing instructional time. Other ideas for schedule changes would add family burdens with adding tasks at home or adding new schedules–none of which he recommends.
  • Shortened remote days while in Hybrid at Cider Mill:  Smith said he did not hear the same level of concern about the length of remote days at CM as he has at M-D. With particular concerns, he suggests working with specific teachers to adjust the ration of synchronous and asynchronous activities to relieve screen time levels.

Board member Mandi Schmauch noted that phasing in the return might create logistical problems for some parents, as she explained with a hypothetical example of a parent who needs to drive a Kindergartener or first grader to school but has to leave a second grader home alone. “I still am not totally convinced that waiting a week for Grades 2/4/5 will help parents, and I think it’s going to create a lot of logistical issues for parents,” she said.

Smith answered with a bit of frustration creeping back in his voice–frustration that may have stemmed from being asked to juggle multiple competing interests and requests.

“With all due respect, I don’t think our motivation in trying to wait was really driven by helping parents. And I don’t mean to disrespect our parents and families. We are working to provide education in the most challenging of circumstances. What we’re also really committed to doing is ensuring that when students return to school and classes are fully occupied, all of the commitments we’ve made around mitigation strategies we can stand by and that the environment is as safe as we can make it,” he said.

Schmauch expressed a worry that while bringing back a portion of the students would help prepare the district for bringing back the entire school one week later, there was also always the potential for “another delay” like the district saw in the first week of school when a return to in-person learning was postponed a week. “You know, [if we have to say,] ‘We’re not ready.’”

Smith reiterated that nothing could be predicted and that he’d prefer to be prepared and cautious rather than hasty.

“Who has a crystal ball here–none of us do. But we have educators who have committed significant time and energy in thinking through the very minute details of what this is going to mean. …The details are not insignificant and unless you are a school principal or a teacher or somebody who works in the building, I don’t know that you call to mind all of them readily. So the strategy makes sense because, whether it’s K-1 or Grade 3, we’ll see things in real-time. Our folks are really nimble and agile and can adjust and adapt as they need to. But I’d rather have people live through the couple of extra remote learning days and then hopefully all will go well and we’ll be ready to go for everybody in the elementary schools on [Oct.] 13,” he said.

Other details will depend on how many students will commit to returning to full-time in the buildings. Smith said based on returning numbers, some classrooms will have to be reorganized, either because of space limitations and needing to maintain social distances or because regrouping of additional remote students may require some changes.

He added that would be up to the building principals, M-D’s Kathy Coon and CM’s Jennifer Falcone.