Bd. of Education Update: Graduation Set, COVID Testing to Start, Wednesday Return Up In the Air

Standing (L-R): Mandi Schmauch, Ruth DeLuca, Debbie Low (chair); seated (L-R): Glenn Hemmerle, Gretchen Jeanes and Jennifer Lalor

Wilton’s Board of Education held a meeting on Tuesday evening, March 9, that featured a wide-ranging agenda. Members moved from adopting a budget for FY-2022 to setting a graduation date for Wilton High School‘s Class of 2021, funding a district-wide COVID-19 surveillance testing program, and debating the merits of having students and teachers return to in-person learning on Wednesdays–the last remaining remote instructional day*.

Graduation Day Set

In perhaps the easiest decision made Tuesday evening, the BOE approved Superintendent Kevin Smith‘s proposal to schedule WHS Graduation on Saturday, June 12.

Officials have not yet determined what that graduation will look like, but WHS Principal Robert ODonnell said his team is actively working to answer that question.

District-Wide COVID-19 Surveillance Testing Funded

The BOE also approved funding for a plan Smith created to implement COVID-19 surveillance testing in the district, as part of a condition set by Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle for the return of students to full-time in-person instruction.

While testing will be conducted district-wide, Bogle asked for a plan to be developed as an additional mitigation strategy when school officials asked to bring Middlebrook Middle School students back to in-person learning, something that would place more students in closer proximity to one another more frequently, and potentially increase the risk for transmission of the coronavirus.

Mitigation became even more crucial with the transition to more in-school time for WHS students* as well.

After researching how to put surveillance testing in place, Smith told BOE members that to implement his plan, he would need $39,400 to put that plan into action. Funds would be used from the district’s medical health reserve account.

Smith said he expected that the approximately $40,000 would cover the cost of testing supplies for the remaining 10 weeks of the 2020-21 school year in all Wilton Public Schools as well as provide salary for one individual to manage the program.

In the event that increased pool testing would be required, Smith said it’s possible he may need to return to request additional funding.

Request to Return Half-Day All-Remote Wednesday Instruction to In-Person Learning Questioned: Some BOE members ask, “Is it worth it?”

In the most surprising moment of the meeting, Smith’s expected slam-dunk request to bring Pre-K through Grade 12 students back to in-person learning on Wednesdays–the final remaining remote day of the COVID-19 pandemic response–didn’t receive universal support. Instead of a vote of approval, he left the meeting with a request from BOE members to gather more data for further consideration at the board’s next meeting.

Since implementing the hybrid learning plan at the beginning of the school year, Wednesdays have been used by the district as a full-remote day for staff and students. It was a day district custodians could perform a deep clean of the buildings as one of the many layers of COVID mitigation, and was structured as a half-day instructional day for students to allow teachers to have the afternoon as planning and meeting time.

Many parents have joined BOE members in advocating a return to increased in-person learning for students throughout the course of this school year.

Smith acknowledged to Board members that he knew there wasn’t support for the idea among some staff members, who have in general, been more reticent to return to full, in-person learning.

“Everything about this year has been hard and few decisions have been met with universal agreement. In fact, most learning model decisions have highlighted competing perspectives,” he said, noting that any learning model changes always take health and safety into consideration and have been phased-in to allow the district to “adapt and respond” to situations that may result from the change.

From a teaching and learning perspective, Smith said that remote Wednesdays have “provided value” for students, particularly at the secondary level, and staff as well.

“Staff members have noted that, instructionally, Wednesdays are more cohesive because they’re not managing both in-person and remote environments. Our staff members have placed a great deal of value on remote Wednesdays. From a mental health perspective, many have remarked that Wednesdays have afforded them the opportunity to breathe during a year when fear and anxiety have been ever-present. And for those who needed it, it also enabled them to have their own children at home on those days,” he explained.

Smith had targeted Wednesday, April 14 as the first day for in-person return. By then surveillance testing will have been implemented across the district, and all staff who had elected to will have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, with second doses administered around the first week of April.

He noted that custodians would be able to adjust deep cleaning to a new, five-day per week schedule, and that the current half-day model would remain.

Smith said that the plan has been shared with both district health officials, medical advisor Dr. Christine Macken–who he said supports the idea. Smith said he hasn’t received feedback yet from Bogle.

Two BOE members weren’t convinced the plan was something they supported.

“Part of me says, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Glen Hemmerle said, adding he was concerned that staff members wouldn’t be comfortable with the Wednesday return.

Smith said he understood that staff had concerns, “but even in light of that, Glen, I have a very, very strong belief that we need to return our students to school in person.”

Surprisingly, BOE member Mandi Schmauch, who acknowledged she was “a big proponent of getting Wednesdays back when the students were not in school four days a week,” now wasn’t so sure.

Her fear was that on a half-day schedule, students at Middlebrook and WHS, in particular, would spend so much time on mitigation steps between changing every class period that it would mean much shorter instructional time.

“They’re going to have like 17 minutes of learning, wipe down their sneeze guards, wipe up, get to the next class. And also I think that the teachers have very strong opinions on this and I just want to make sure they’re heard,” Schmauch said. “I don’t know how much of the school day we’re going to get back by having our kids in school for a half-day.”

Smith acknowledged the concern. “With the transition, as Mandi was describing, we certainly lose minutes. We have drop-off and pickup and then transition between classes, so that is a factor, for sure”

Middlebrook principal Jory Higgins reported that teachers described remote Wednesdays positively in this regard. “They like the remote from that standpoint of, you turn one Zoom [class] off, you turn the other one on, there’s no transition.”

Schmauch said that bolstered her belief. “I don’t think we’re going to get much more learning (speaking Middlebrook specifically). And B, I think it’s going to be much harder on the teachers, so I don’t understand why we would rock the boat.”

BOE member Ruth Deluca had a different perspective, at least by grade level. “Perhaps the discussion should be separate for that pre-K or the K-5, perhaps than with Middlebrook and the high school, where you’re talking about transition and instructional time.”

Smith cautioned against making decisions that are different between buildings, however.

The back-and-forth comparing how much actual instructional time students would have given the extended transition time between in-person classes versus what they get remotely was followed by a similar comparison of social-emotional learning benefits for each option.

“There’s also probably education lost on a Zoom remote day as well, so I’m not quite sure if we’re looking just at instructional time, if it’s an exact equalizer. And I think there is something of importance about getting the kids back in five days and in a full school week,” Deluca said. “From a social and emotional, standpoint …I believe that in-person is more, is better even with some of the time constraints and considerations.”

Smith said school officials have “heard plenty of feedback” from parents across grade levels about the difficulties children have had engaging in remote learning.

“We know that we have a number of kids who really find it difficult. …Thinking about the need to provide instruction, to provide continuity of instruction, we need to consider the kids whose own mental health is struggling as a result of some of the disengagement brought by remote learning. We also have a special services population of children who we know for a fact do far better with in-person.”

Member Gretchen Jeanes said she felt strongly about having students return to school on Wednesdays as well.

“Having the children in school is likely more important than the learning time cut by five, nine minutes, whatever that timeline is,” she said, adding, “Five days during the week back to a normalcy of, we haven’t been doing that for a year. And I just think that’s really important just to get them back into a more routine.”

Jen Lalor added she was in “full support” of students returning on Wednesdays too.

Low asked Smith to return with the proposal at the next meeting after gathering more information on instructional time and perhaps also brainstorming creative ways to address the Wednesday schedule to make sure instructional time wouldn’t suffer if they approved an in-person return.

“We’ve always said that the more in-person learning the better, for many, many reasons… If we give you some more time to look at it, maybe there’s a way of re-examining the actual schedule for Wednesday.”

*Wilton High School students attend in-person learning for six out of 10 days over a two-week period.