additional reporting by Lily Kepner

Breaking News, Aug. 6, 3:30 p.m.–After the storm canceled Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting to hear Superintendent Kevin Smith‘s proposal for reopening schools, it was rescheduled to tonight–but with more than 70% of Wilton still without power, the meeting has again been postponed. Knowing that the school community is anxious to hear how the district will proceed, Smith has released the draft of his proposed plan.

As expected, he is recommending to the Board of Education that the district reopen school in a hybrid model for all grades and schools.

According to the email, all students would be placed into two cohorts based on last name:

  • Students whose last name begins in A-L* would participate in-person Monday/Tuesday and attend remotely Wednesday/Thursday/Friday
  • Students whose last name begins M-Z* would participate in-person Thursday/Friday and attend remotely Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday
  • Students with special needs, or who require other more intensive intervention services, would attend in-person more than two days per week.

*These are not exact breakdowns yet. Smith said administrators will work through class lists to ensure that families with students in multiple schools are in the same cohort, and that they are also working to ensure that cohorts are as evenly split as possible.

Smith explained why he is recommending a hybrid for all schools, including a greater ability to test how the mitigation strategies are working and to allow periodic review:

“While the COVID-19 transmission rate data is comparatively very favorable, I believe we need time to actually test our mitigation strategies and ensure that they are going to be as effective as we think. Having fewer numbers of students in the building at once decreases the overall density of the population on any given day and enables us to achieve 6 feet of social distance in our classrooms. As stated above, we will plan to review our model on three-week cycles with the goal of trying to return all students to in-person schooling if conditions permit.”

He added that on Friday, Aug. 7, families and staff will receive from principals the building-specific reopening plans along with dates and times for parent forums scheduled to take place beginning Tuesday, Aug. 11.

This story is developing and will be updated…

UPDATE, Aug. 6, 7:30 p.m.–
Today, after months of intense planning, superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith released an email to the community, recommending that all Wilton Public School grades and schools reopen in a hybrid model, with students learning both remotely and in person.

Under the state of Connecticut guidance, the district had created three plans for instruction models:  full reopen with in-person teaching; remote-only learning; and a hybrid model mixing both in-person and remote. The plans and their accompanying mitigation strategies were last discussed at the BOE meeting on July 23 and then sent to the State Department of Education for review on July 24.

The state is strongly encouraging districts in regions with low COVID transmission rates to open in-person in some capacity. Although Wilton currently falls into the low-risk category and therefore is allowed to open fully, Smith said he feels that the hybrid model would allow the schools to more effectively implement mitigation strategies by limiting the number of people in any given space.

“I am recommending a hybrid for all schools because while the COVID-19 transmission rate data is comparatively very favorable, I believe we need time to actually test our mitigation strategies and ensure that they are going to be as effective as we think,” he wrote.

In a full reopen model, administrators say that the schools could only achieve three feet of distance between students, to the concern to some community members. In contrast, the hybrid model would allow students to achieve six feet of social distance throughout the day, thanks to 50% classroom capacity. With more space, district officials believe they can better implement the mitigation strategies and contain any potential spread of the virus.

They have formulated a plan to divide students into cohorts based on last names:

  • students with last names beginning with A-L would learn in-person Monday-Tuesday and attend remotely Wednesday through Fridays;
  • students with last names beginning with M-Z would learn online Monday through Wednesday and attend in-person Thursday-Friday.
  • Wednesdays would operate remotely on a shortened day schedule; afternoons would offer time for intervention services, parent communication, teacher office hours, professional learning, and team planning, as well as live instruction for students with a need for a greater intervention or support.

Smith said that grouping alphabetically would ensure that siblings in different grades or schools are in the same cohort and following the same schedule. The groupings are not yet definite as administrators want to ensure that cohorts are split as evenly as possible.

During the prior Board of Education meeting, it was suggested that Miller-Driscoll‘s Pre-K through 2nd grade would use a different approach for the hybrid model, cohorting by classrooms instead of last name. Doing so would allow teachers to meet the developmental needs of young children fully–something teachers have argued is nearly impossible while managing an in-person and remote classroom simultaneously. It also aligns with public health data suggesting that young children may not be as susceptible to the virus.

While it is unclear if Miller-Driscoll administrators will take the classroom cohort approach, Smith said that each school will distribute its individual reopening plan tomorrow with the differences outlined.

Officials will discuss and review the model every three weeks during the first half of the school year based on new health data and research, according to the statement. Any changes will be made on a school by school basis, taking into account the different research regarding transmission rates for younger versus older children.

In addition, families can still opt to learn remotely only. As stated at the last meeting, the district is actively working to ensure online and in-person learning are equitable and engaging so that there are no barriers to those who wish to learn remotely.

Meeting BOE Approval

The BOE originally planned to meet Thursday evening, Aug. 6 to review the proposal but couldn’t due to widespread power outages. Instead, the board will consider the plan Monday evening and possibly vote on it then–but the four Wilton schools are still moving ahead with plans to prepare families now.

Smith said the plans were created to balance health and safety with academic and social-emotional needs of students and staff.

“We are challenged to educate in an environment that is completely new. This necessitates that we attempt new models and adapt as well as continue to learn. What is unchanging is our commitment to deliver the very best educational experiences to all of our students as possible.”

Remote Learning

In recent meetings, Smith and school officials have stressed that remote learning will look much different from the emergency e-learning the schools were thrown into last spring. At the last BOE meeting, Director of Digital Learning Fran Kompar and Assistant Superintendent Charles Smith walked through the district’s new learning management program, Schoology, and new curriculum guidelines.

Smith included in his Thursday statement the Board of Education’s goals for a successful school year during the COVID pandemic. For remote learning the goal is to “actively engage students in learning and in interaction with their teachers and peers when they are offsite.”

That would include making sure:

  • All teachers and staff are provided with the necessary tools and training
  • Families understand their role is to support their children in remote learning, helping them gain access to digital tools and to stay focused while online; but to “understand classroom boundaries” and not insert themselves or intrude into the classroom; and that recording classroom activities is strictly prohibited
  • Students follow an online daily schedule close to what an in-person schedule would look like
  • Schoology allows students to access all assessments, assignments, live streaming, resources, and anything else students would need when online
  • Teachers will be allowed to use a mix of options to reach remotely, not just live streaming. This would vary on the lesson, objectives, and students.

Given privacy concerns brought up by the teachers’ union at a previous meeting, the goals also say that although live streaming will be essential to remote learning and will be used, “live streaming does not equate to an understanding that cameras will be on in classrooms all the time.” In other words, teachers and schools will be allowed to use their discretion about how they integrate remote students into the classroom.

The technology acceptable use policies will be updated to reflect the new learning model and must be signed by students and parents.

Students and parents will also go through an orientation to better understand remote learning.

Catching Up and Learning Supports

Given that last spring’s emergency learning was focused more on maintenance than acquiring new knowledge, there’s a certain amount of catching up and seeing where students have curriculum gaps. The BOE goals also state that students will be assessed at the start of the year in order to see where they’ll need support.

Administrators plan to have support teams that will help meet students’ changing emotional needs during this difficult time as well.

Review and Approval

The BOE will meet next Monday evening, Aug. 10, to discuss and potentially act on Smith’s recommendation.

Each school will send school-specific plans to families on Friday, Aug. 7, and then hold parent forums next week:

  • Tuesday:  Cider Mill, 5:30 p.m.; Miller-Driscoll, 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday:  Wilton High School, 6 p.m.
  • Thursday:  Middlebrook, 6 p.m.
  • Friday:  Special Services, 9:30 a.m.

According to Smith’s statement, principals ask that parents review the plans on their own and email questions before each meeting.

In their goals, the BOE stressed the unprecedented challenge that planning for school reopening has brought on the district and asks for the community’s patience as they move forward in selecting the safest and smartest option for Wilton.

“The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated development of new and as-yet-untested models for school reopening. The success of this year’s new models rests on the commitment, skills, and attitudes of teachers and families. Thoughtful and careful planning has brought us to this point. Moving forward requires willingness to innovate and take instructional risks together, flexibility to adapt in a fluid environment, shared responsibility, and support for one another. Moving forward requires sacrifice of some former practices and resolve to build for the time ahead remembering that our students get one chance at each school year.”