BOE Chair to CT Legislators and Ed. Commissioner: “Please OK Emergency Remote Learning Exception After Wilton School Closures”

photo: GMW

After extensive damage from a late-night lightning strike and power surge last Thursday, April 7 forced Wilton’s Middlebrook and Cider Mill schools to close, the district quickly moved those schools’ students to a remote learning model the next morning.

But that temporary emergency fix didn’t satisfy state education officials, who told Wilton’s Superintendent Kevin Smith they wouldn’t consider any remote learning “to count” toward the required 180 school days CT students must be in school every year — no exception. So that Friday, and any additional remote days, would have to be made up at the end of the school year.

As a result, Wilton educators had to pivot with very little time to make sure all of Wilton’s students were in person for Monday, April 11, even if that meant a disruptive logistical headache to relocate students to other locations. (Middlebrook reopened as usual, but problems at Cider Mill weren’t fixed for the school to reopen until Tuesday.)

It was less than optimal for learning, too, as school started on a three-hour delay, the students and teachers spent upwards of 30 minutes walking from Cider Mill to either Middlebrook or Wilton High School, and then spent whatever little learning time remained in shared open spaces like the libraries or auditoriums.

Smith told GOOD Morning Wilton that students would have been better served by staying remote until they could be back in their own classrooms.

“Frankly, it’s ridiculous,” he said, adding that 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.”

Even though repairs to Cider Mill were made in time for students to return to classrooms on Tuesday, April 12, Wilton’s school officials are not letting the issue go when it comes to the state. They’re hoping for both long-term legislative change as well as short-term relief.

Board of Education Chair Deborah Low sent a letter to legislators — CGA Education Committee co-chairs Rep. Robert Sanchez and Sen. Douglas McCrory as well as Wilton’s legislators Rep. Stephanie Thomas, Sen. Will Haskell and Rep. Tom O’Dea — and Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker and State Board of Education members to ask for immediate relief.

She cited both the expense of adding on another day to the school year, in unanticipated excess teacher salaries, as well as the availability of remote resources that the school had ready to go after investing during the pandemic. Low wrote that she wasn’t asking for the ability to implement regular remote instruction.

“We advocate instead for the flexibility to use remote tools when it makes sense on a short-term basis during emergencies. We cannot believe the intent of this year’s remote learning standards was to totally negate a district’s ability to use the tools we now have available,” she wrote.

Low’s acknowledged her request follows on the heels of Smith’s own letter to legislators asking for a longer-term solution in the form of legislation.

“However, knowing the complex process and uncertain outcomes of proposed legislation, we ask that you — as leaders of the State Department of Education, members of the State Board of Education, Education Committee leaders, and our legislative representatives — collaborate to solve the immediate problem we are facing.”

The full text of Low’s letter is below:

Dear Senator Haskell, Representative O’Dea, Representative Thomas, Commissioner Russell-Tucker, Senator McCrory, Senator Sanchez, and members of the CT State Board of Education; 

I am writing to request assistance from all of you. Because of a severe storm on the evening of April 7, 2022, two of our four schools in Wilton suffered significant damage to all electrical systems. Because of the serious damage, Superintendent [Kevin] Smith implemented remote learning for those two schools on April 8, 2022. The teachers and students were able to implement those plans successfully. Our Board was informed that the day will not “count” as a school day because it doesn’t meet the standards for remote learning and therefore must be made up in June. We are concerned for several reasons and need your assistance. 

First, the April 8 remote learning day for the two schools was carried out successfully. As we are all aware, COVID had already necessitated implementation of remote and hybrid learning models. Early during the pandemic we expanded our technology infrastructure and added a new software learning platform in order to successfully implement remote and hybrid learning models. It seems wasteful and foolish not to use those tools during another emergency — this one much shorter-lived. Remote-learning for April 8 also best supports student learning. We were able to offer continuity of instruction at a time of year more conducive to learning than the “make up” environment of late June. The meaningful acquisition of skills and content is much better accomplished in April than in June. 

Finally, if our April 8 remote day does not “count” we will be obligated to pay teacher salaries for the additional day they will be required to work. This is a significant, unexpected and complete waste of taxpayer dollars to serve no purpose. 

We understand from studies of COVID’s aftermath that remote and hybrid learning are clearly not as effective as in-person instruction. Please know that we are not advocating for its long-term or regular use. We advocate instead for the flexibility to use remote tools when it makes sense on a short-term basis during emergencies. We cannot believe the intent of this year’s remote learning standards was to totally negate a district’s ability to use the tools we now have available. 

You have received a letter from Superintendent Smith asking for changes in legislation. We completely support that request. However, knowing the complex process and uncertain outcomes of proposed legislation, we ask that you — as leaders of the State Department of Education, members of the State Board of Education, Education Committee leaders, and our legislative representatives — collaborate to solve the immediate problem we are facing. 

Thank you for your attention and support. 

Sincerely, 

Deborah Low
Chair, Wilton Board of Education 

Cc: Wilton Board of Education
Dr. Kevin J. Smith, Superintendent, Wilton Public Schools