BOE Pushes Back on State Ed. Commissioner’s Edict on In-Person Only Back to School Plan

Wilton’s educators are under a great deal of stress right now. Every day brings changing guidance from the CT Department of Education and new problems to solve in planning for how students and teachers will safely return to in-person learning when the 2020-21 school year begins just one month from now.

But as of last night’s (June 23) Board of Education meeting, district officials decided that they’d push back a bit on an edict from the State Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona. Despite asking schools to prepare three different re-entry scenarios–full-time, in-person learning; total remote learning; and a hybrid of both in-person and remote–Cardona told school districts in a memo this week that if they planned to implement any remote learning, it would not count toward fulfilling the required number of days in the school year.

Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith did put forward a re-entry plan at last night’s meeting that does have the three scenarios Cardona requested, and Wilton’s BOE approved sending the plan to Hartford for the Education Department’s approval. But, the BOE also decided to send a cover letter with a plea for more flexibility in allowing Wilton to determine which of the three scenario options to employ, possibly using a different options–including remote learning–at each of Wilton’s four schools rather than take a “one size fits all” approach.

Letter from Wilton’s Board of Education to the State Department of Education to ask for more flexibility in planning re-entry to school this fall

This decision was reached after the BOE members heard updates and more specifics from Smith and other administrators about the district’s reopening plan and had a chance to ask more questions. This was their last chance to review the plan before it is submitted to the state today, July 24, though board members emphasized that no final decisions were yet made as to what scenario model would be used and that much of the planning is still in progress.

“We are in the thick of it, the planning for reopening,” BOE Chair Deborah Low said. “These are very intense and busy and sometimes challenging times. We will hear updates and we’ll hear a lot more details, but there are also a lot of details still to come.”

The BOE’s virtual Zoom meeting was heavily attended, with over 100 people listening in. Leading up to this BOE meeting, concerned citizens and government officials alike wrote letters to appeal to state officials to reconsider their ultimatum, in the interest of the safety and health of all students and staff. Beyond an open Letter to the Editor published in GMW yesterday with a message for the state education commissioner, State Senator Will Haskell sent a letter to Governor Ned Lamont “urging his administration to give more flexibility to local school districts in developing COVID-19 plans,” he said on Facebook.

This idea of employing different re-opening scenarios in different schools in the district is consistent with the District, Board, and Re-entry Committee’s fear of being unable to uphold mitigation strategies for a full-reopen at Wilton High School and to some extent at Middlebrook Middle School and their potential needs to consider different options. Having the flexibility to make decisions based on the unique scheduling and student needs of each school and each unique building would prioritize health and safety, which officials say is the district’s ultimate goal.

Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith presented the BOE with his re-entry plan, which totaled about 30 pages in length. The meeting also covered what the curriculum will look like after a presentation from Director of Digital Learning Fran Kompar, and instructional leaders Trudy Denton and Karen Brenneke; updates about staffing; and an overview of finances. Smith reiterated that there are nine goals the district has for re-opening and nine corresponding committees to address them.

Blended Learning–Emphasis on Live Stream and Schoology

After several meetings focusing primarily on safety, on Thursday night the board heard a presentation on another key priority:  the district’s approach to successfully deliver the rigorous curriculum and instruction Wilton expects, and to do so equally in both remote and in-person settings.

In developing their curriculum plan, the educators hope to make learning in any of the three scenarios as close as possible to a “typical” day of school (meaning having all classes or as many as can safely be done) and having an approach that allows the district to easily switch between each model.

Moreover, to make sure there is equity between remote and in-person instruction, the curriculum team aimed to offer live instruction in both settings. In other words, their goal was to create a system that would allow students learning remotely to still be part of the classroom experience and participate in real-time–something that would require the ability to stream all classes via Zoom.

To manage this expectation, the district has introduced the new learning management software called Schoology, which they reviewed at length, even demonstrating how it works during the meeting. Schoology’s parent company is Powerschool, a familiar system for the district. Students, teachers, and parents could log-in to Schoology to access virtually all instruction materials and information, including any streaming or synchronous platforms.

Schoology will serve as the anchor to blended learning by streamlining class instruction, assessments, discussions, and assignments all in one place. In other words, the district is looking at a very digital year, whether in-person or remote.

Kompar explained that their proposal of blended learning has three principles:  continuity, connection, and fluidity. By running everything through Schoology, instruction would be continuous and the same either remotely or in-person, creating a community so that everyone has a real connection as part of a “community of learners,” and providing fluidity for students, staff, and administrators to easily switch to remote or in-person learning without much interruption.

“We are replicating what the classroom in-person looks like in this online version of it,” Kompar said, adding that students can access it “and not make where the student is a barrier to learning.”

Kompar demonstrated how the online format could be adjusted for each grade level, and how the interface is streamlined with many organizational features, even digital functions like “playlist,” which Kompar said students are familiar with from websites like YouTube. Below is the recording of Kompars full Schoology demonstration:

Illustrating how the platform “is accessible for every learner at every age level,” Kompar showed examples of pages from Miller-Driscoll’s Schoology–with more pictures and a larger print–and from the high school. Moreover, Schoology can incorporate a variety of media into a lesson, such as slide shows, videos, and live instruction with an embedded a Zoom link.

A BOE member asked for clarification on the relationship between live instruction and Schoology. Kompar clarified that students would first log in to Schoology to access a Zoom session, a feature which would also provide more security for live instruction.

“I don’t think we can emphasize enough the fact [of] how different live instruction will be from last spring when we did it certainly in a hurry the best we could,” Low emphasized. “Now the online learning will be much more interactive as I understand it, be much more live, we’re going to follow the curriculum… emphasizing the leverage standards, and so these are tools to help us move from the classroom.. if we have to be home for a day whatever the schedule will be.”

Not only will 3rd-8th graders again be provided with Chromebooks, but the district will also give Chromebooks to Miller-Driscoll students in 1st and 2nd grades.

One hitch the district is trying to overcome is the objections that the teachers’ union, the Wilton Education Association, has to live instruction over video, including Zoom. Andrew Nicsagji, the union’s president told GMW in a statement that the teachers union has concerns hinging on “privacy and security” that they are actively working on with the district.

“The WEA understands the need to develop a plan for reopening schools and wants the reopening to be done safely. We have very serious concerns about the efficacy of live-streamed instruction, as well as privacy concerns for staff and students involved. The WEA is working with district administration to find solutions to these very challenging issues we face,” Nicsaji said in his emailed statement.

Smith confirmed this during the meeting, noting that while not all teachers may yet be comfortable with the idea of using live video instruction, district officials continue to meet with union representatives to negotiate being able to use the platform this coming school year.

BOE member Ruth Deluca asked if the district could still offer live instruction even if it had to go to a totally-remote scenario where school buildings would be closed. Smith clarified that in every scenario live instruction is still the most ideal, even when that can’t happen in a classroom.

“We all understand that learning happens best when teachers teach or teach live,” Smith said. “So whether we are all sitting in our dining room or in the classroom it is the key piece of the model that we’re developing here.”

Kompar noted that many other CT school districts are switching to Schoology as a learning platform. A large percentage of Wilton’s educators have already completed preliminary training in how to use Schoology, and the district has purchased an extra support package that gives all teachers “24/7 access” to technical support.

Smith ended the curriculum discussion by emphasizing his confidence in the program and instruction, both remote and in-person.

“I want to just repeat, we are having school and it is not going to look like emergency eLearning,” Smith said, referring to the way remote learning was delivered after schools closed last March. “We are developing tools, we’re developing models as we move forward in the next days and weeks, hopefully to paint a clearer picture of what that’s going to look like and inspire some further confidence in people. But just know that’s our commitment to how we’re moving forward.”

Staffing

With the district’s teacher survey now closed, Director of H.R. Maria Coleman reviewed the results about staff concerns and the likelihood that staff will return.

She distinguished between classified and certified staff:  classified referred to paraprofessionals, secretaries, and campus supervisors; certified referred to certified educators. The numbers of staff who said they may not return were as follows:

  • Miller Driscoll:  2 classified, 27 certified staff 
  • Cider Mill:  0 classified, 21 Certified
  • Middlebrook:  2 classified, 27 certified
  • Wilton High School:  6 classified, 30 certified

This totals account for 35% of staff at Miller Driscoll and 25% at each of the other schools. Of those 115 staff members who said it was possible that they would not return, 38 said the reason was “childcare considerations.” With the state pushing for all schools to reopen, Coleman said this may become less of an issue. Of the other respondents, 4 answered “individual age or a family member’s age,” 7 said “individual medical condition or family member with a medical condition,” and 1 said “safety concern.” The other 65 answered ‘unknown.’

Coleman emphasized that the data was preliminary from staff who said they may not return,” and she believed the results “over-report” the number of staff not coming back, especially with concerns related to childcare rather than health. Moreover, she said once staff get more information about their rights and options, data is likely to change as well. A follow-up survey will be sent out the week of Aug. 3.

For staff members who choose not to return, Coleman listed three possible scenarios:

  1. Some staff may apply for accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act, in this case, most likely to ask to teach or work remotely. As the employer, the district’s responsibility to staff who have qualifying disabilities is to “provide reasonable accommodations to the extent that those accommodations do not present an undue hardship to the school district.” However, the district will have to decide if remote work is possible, or if it’s an “undue hardship” to the district and therefore not an option.
  2. Staff may apply for a leave of absence, which is not automatically guaranteed. In some cases,even if the leave would be unpaid, the school may still have to incur the expense of benefits for that individual. Furthermore, this would require the school to hire a temporary replacement, which presents the hiring challenge of finding candidates willing to accept a short contract.
  3. Staff may resign or retire early.

Coleman said the district will work with each teacher individually and communicate to them what their rights are. She is encouraging staff to let the district know their plans early, although there is no deadline they can hold teachers to for a final answer. Coleman emphasized that the district understands how hard the decision is to make and will not pressure teachers to commit if they cannot do so.

“The decision to return for many of our teachers and staff members is a very difficult one,” Coleman said. “I believe very firmly that our staff members are very committed to their kids, they’re very hardworking, they want to be onsite, and their reasons for potentially not returning are reasons related to health concerns or childcare, things like that and I think they’re not things that they take lightly. So I think this is a very difficult decision for many that they’re really struggling with.”

On a positive note, even though the state mandate requiring all instructors to be certified still stands, the district is in a much better position to handle its anticipated staffing needs than initially anticipated. Of the district staff, there are more than 250 additional certifications that the staff holds in total, including 20 certifications held by substitute teachers and paraprofessionals.

As a result, Coleman said there are professionals within the district that could replace staff who do not return,.

Moreover, each building will be assigned at least one “Building Substitute” with a teaching certification on a daily basis to fill emergency vacancies or help out when needed. Since the state does not require substitutes to have a certification in specialized subject areas to teach beyond 40 continuous days, the district would have flexibility in some longer-term emergency situations.

“We have a very accomplished substitute pool that we’re continuing to build on a daily basis, we have additional interviews scheduled for the rest of the summer, so we are really focusing on that as an opportunity for us,” Coleman said.

Board member Mandi Schmauch added that she has been contacted by several Wilton parents who have teaching certifications and offered to help. Coleman said she would be willing to talk to anyone about applying and helping out and welcomes people to reach out via email or by applying to become a substitute directly online.

Budget 

While safety is at the forefront of the town’s priorities, the measures the district has take so far have incurred a significant cost. Smith presented some of the current estimates to the Board, indicating that expenses have been split between upfront (e.g. furniture) and continual (e.g. salary) costs. Anne Kelly-Lenz, the CFO, was not in attendance to provide specifics, but Smith was able to give a brief overview of the additional costs:

  • A large portion of the expenses is tied to additional staffing needed for sufficient cleaning and disinfecting protocols as dictated by the Department of Health, to the tune of $430,000 in salaries for seven additional custodians. The district may also need to hire additional certified teachers, including a proposal from Middlebrook to hire an additional world language teacher and an additional physical education instructor to better manage cohorting on teams. Moreover, the district will need additional staff for campus supervision, to promote social distancing in the hallways and supervise students eating lunch in the classrooms.
  • The district is working with a company to better prepare to accommodate traffic flow and create signage in the buildings, for an estimated cost of $60,000.
  • To encourage outdoor instruction and erect tents would cost around $34,000.
  • Purchasing additional PPE and hand sanitizer (outside all entryways, in every classroom, and in hallways): $122,000.
  • Purchasing furniture (specifically for kindergarten classrooms which currently have shared tables and now need stand-alone individual tables to separate kids by at least three feet): $40,000.
  • Sectioning in the high school as a result of limiting classes to a lower number of students to manage even three feet of social distancing: Unknown $.
  • Moving lunches into classrooms and lunch program: Unknown $.

Kelly-Lenz has already submitted a reimbursement proposal for $400,000 to FEMA, and if approved the district would get 75% of that amount back. Smith said they hope to hear back soon.

One back up option would be to look at state funds that are available. Smith also said current discussions happening at the federal level about funding for school reopening may help as well.

If necessary, Smith said the BOE may need to revisit the issue and prioritize areas for funding, or consider going to the Board of Finance to ask for contingency funds.

“This is expensive, we have got a strategy in place,” Smith said.

BOE member Mandi Schmauch asked if the district would still pay the new janitors in the event of a full school closure. Coleman and Smith said that extra custodians would likely be hired on short term contracts.

Smith also clarified that officials determined that having bus monitors–initially estimated to cost $1 million–would be cost-prohibitive, adding that it was likely unnecessary.

District Planning–Review

The BOE unanimously approved sending the 30-page plan on to the state for review–as well as the cover letter pushing back against the education commissioner’s edict against any form of remote learning, especially in a hybrid scenario.

[For plan details, see GMW‘s coverage of the previous day’s re-entry meeting.]

The BOE members emphasized that they have made no final decisions about how the plans would be executed and which of the three scenarios would be used–reiterating that they will not vote on them until much later in the summer.

One notable part of Smith’s presentation was a section entitled, “While it is our staff’s responsibility to get our schools open, it is everyone’s responsibility to KEEP them open.” Smith called attention to this, making a plea to the wider Wilton community to continue following mitigation strategies and precautions in their own lives so that the staff’s intense work that’s been done to plan to reopen is not futile.

“As a community all of us–parents, students, all the community members–we really need to continue to take those mitigation strategies seriously so we continue to reduce the spread and thereby [reopen],” Smith said.

He underscored that deciding which model to pick will depend on two elements:  community transmission rates and the schools’ effectiveness at maintaining cohorts.

Smith also said that the district will draft protocols clearly stating that everyone who is able to wear a mask must do so unless they have a certified medical reason not to, and that any family or individual who refuses to wear a mask without a valid reason will have to learn remotely. Students who cannot wear masks because of medical conditions will be accommodated on a case-by-case basis.

Revised Calendar

The BOE also voted to approve Smith’s proposal to shorten the school calendar year to 177 days to allow the district more preparation time for reopening, given the state Board of Education’s new guidance allowing schools to shorten the year by three days. Smith suggested using the first three days (Aug 26, Aug 27, and Aug 28) as half-days for one grade level at a time to visit the schools and learn the new protocols with their teachers. On the two days each staff member did not have to be in the building with students, they could complete more training and professional development on any new platforms or technology. The school year would start instead on Aug. 31.

Next Steps

The Board of Education approved new proposed meeting dates for the 2020-2021 school year, also tentatively scheduling a meeting every upcoming Thursday at 7 p.m. through the summer depending on whether Smith needs to meet with them.

Low added that meeting next Thursday, July 30 at 7 p.m. will be necessary. On the agenda will be further re-entry planning discussion, especially related to finances, staffing, and any state response to plans Wilton submits. The BOE will also better define what a hybrid schedule would look like.

Both the Board of Education and the district welcome feedback and ideas. Smith said that the district has created a new inbox specifically for this purpose, and the Board members said that they read and take into account every email they get.

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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