With a maxed-out Zoom call capacity of 1,000 viewers watching Tuesday night’s Board of Education Special Meeting, the BOE members unanimously approved Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith‘s new recommendation to adjust the district’s reopening plan by having all students district-wide start with remote learning for the first week of classes. After the first week, Smith said the district would then transition to the originally-approved hybrid learning model, beginning Tuesday, Sept. 8.

The Board and Dr. Smith cited several reasons supporting the change:  recent events in which community members failed to follow COVID-related social distance and safety guidelines; teachers’ challenges with learning how to use the new technology; and delays in getting the district fully prepared and equipped with COVID mitigation supplies.

For the week of Aug. 31 to Sept. 4, all students regardless of cohort will learn remotely on a shortened, half-day schedule, giving teachers time to continue technology training in the afternoon. This recommendation was in accordance with the town health director, Barry Bogle.

Smith preferred shifting to a remote start for first week of the school year over the other options he identified:  a) make no change at all or b) delay school entirely for a week. He noted that adjusting to remote-only for the first week would allow students and staff to start the school year on-time in a safe and productive way.

The first option–no change–became unfeasible given the staff’s concern about their safety as well as their readiness to teach using the district’s recently-adopted learning management system Schoology. Smith emphasized the importance of the district demonstrating a commitment to listening to faculty concerns. Moreover, the town’s health director also advised against continuing with the original plan.

Smith explained that delaying the start of school one week would not only prevent teachers from continuing their training and slow momentum on what they had already learned, it would mean extending the school year by a week at the end. That would require paying staff for an extra week, something that would be “genuinely cost-prohibitive” and a cost he did not want to incur.

The school has also encountered some pipeline issues with delivery of some supplies, including moveable plexiglass barriers to protect teachers, document cameras and furniture, although much of the PPE and sanitizers have been delivered already.

But Smith said equipment isn’t the issue–rather it’s the staff’s safety and comfort. He added that the district is committed to doing its part, and his recommendation will ensure that the staff will feel comfortable given the circumstances and actions outside of their control.

“My recommendation is rooted in the information I gathered this week. The health and safety concerns that our staff harbor we have to pay attention to. Many of them, particularly our high school staff, are saying very clearly, you’ve seen the communications to the board–they don’t feel comfortable in the building,” Smith said. “I don’t know what number of plexiglass shields are going to change that.”

Community Responsibility and Safety

Tuesday’s Special Meeting came just two days after a viral photo of 44 Wilton High School senior girls on a non-socially distanced scavenger hunt took the community by storm. The GOOD Morning Wilton Facebook post about the story alone garnered nearly 200 comments and over 20 shares, not to mention further press coverage by state-wide news agencies and rumors the photo would prompt the cancellation of fall sports for WHS.

However, while the photo may have shined intense light onto the discussion, Smith’s new recommendation came after months of Wilton teachers expressing their serious concerns about any in-person model and town-wide appeals for young people to take the pandemic seriously.

Board Chair Deborah Low repeatedly emphasized that this week’s viral event was not the only reported unsocially distant gathering they had heard about, nor was it the only reason the BOE members approved the change. No one in the meeting ever mentioned the scavenger hunt by name, and the BOE rescinded six or seven public comments from being read aloud for fear they would reveal the identities of the students involved.

“We, as a board and as a community, we’re hearing teacher voices, parents voices concerned about our readiness to start school. We have also heard reports of behaviors that were not particularly in-line with our protocols for social distancing or wearing masks. But we as a board are not limiting that to any one event, or one group of students, or one date or one time. There have been multiple concerns that were voiced about behavior of groups of students in public and unfortunately not making the wisest or most mature decisions,” Low said.

Nonetheless, this meeting was the first time Dr. Smith had spoken publicly on the issue of community responsibility since the photo was circulated, though he never mentioned the incident by name.

“I don’t know how to say that any differently to anyone who is listening–it is a shared obligation. It is our civic and moral duty. If we don’t, then we don’t get to have the kind of in-person schooling that we are hoping for,” Smith said.

Smith referenced the event, noting that one benefit of his recommendation to begin the year remotely and move the start of any hybrid instruction to Sept. 8 was that more than two weeks would pass before any in-person learning would take place–a time frame in which any COVID-19 cases linked to last weekend’s events would likely appear.

Smith reinforced that he had seen no new “hard data that recent events would lead to an increase, but there is concern about that happening,” adding that Wilton’s COVID-19 data will be tracked very carefully, especially given the recent surge in cases in Danbury. Smith said Wilton’s Health Director Barry Bogle also said waiting to open until the two-week window from this weekend had passed was a “smart move.”

Noting that there is “no playbook” for how to respond to these “conditions that are on the ground today,” Smith called on the community to acknowledge that there is still an ongoing pandemic. He thanked those residents who have followed safety guidelines for their commitment but said that the responsibility rests on everyone.

“On the health and safety front, we all have an obligation to participate in the mitigation strategies that are being proffered from the CDC, the state department of health, by the local department of health. That is a community responsibility, whether you’re an adult or a student you must, in order to ensure that we are going to be able to operate in school effectively and safely, you must and that’s [on] everybody and no one gets a time out from that,” he said.

Smith implored the community to treat the situation with the seriousness it deserves. “I’m watching the global pandemic, and the death toll is sobering.”

He cited First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice‘s recent update, which noted that Wilton’s current six-day case average is double the last 31-day average, and called the recent trend of five cases in the last six days “worrisome.”

A public comment by Lara Fayek, a WHS teacher, reflected teachers’ concern with reopening and frustrations with the community.

“Those of us who [didn’t] retire [did so] with the understanding that our lives would be protected by communal adherence to strict health protocols. I am keeping up my end of the bargain as I am in the midst of preparing to teach in the hybrid format. My fear is that the Wilton community is not and will not adhere to their end of the bargain by following these protocols at the risk of my health,” she wrote.

Middlebrook teacher John Priest also issued a public comment, saying he too was concerned about “recent community events” despite his excitement to return to school. However, Priest said that the overwhelming outcry over this event should not distort the case data and the facts–that many students are acting responsibly and eager to return. He absolutely feels the community should act based on health and safety and the infection criteria they had previously laid out, not “pressure from an understandably concerned public.”

One parent also submitted a public comment saying that they are “frightened” to send their children to school given the recent events. Another public comment suggested that perhaps the school could best keep everyone safe by requiring that everyone get a COVID-19 test before entering the building.

Teacher Preparedness 

Though the recent events may have in part prompted the meeting, officials reiterated they were in no way the only concern prompting them to support the switch to a remote start.

In fact, Board of Education member Jen Lalor stressed that she personally was voting for the remote start to help teachers better prepare, not necessarily because of this weekend’s events. Concerns about teacher adoption of Schoology at the prior BOE meeting had already prompted the cancellation of the school’s half-day orientation days, and both Smith and BOE members stressed doing everything in their power to make sure teachers felt prepared.

“The teachers are stating first they’re nervous about being in person with kids in this current COVID environment, so there’s a sense of fragility there; second naming the heavy lift that it is to learn all of these new technologies in order to successfully deliver curriculum; [and] third they are committed to doing it and doing it well,” Smith said.

Smith said a “significant benefit” to the remote-week is that it allows teachers to focus solely on remote learning and the tools that come with it instead of handling the challenges of navigating an in-person and remote classroom at the same time. Smith used the example of watching Middlebrook teachers having to keep track of three screens–their laptop, their desktop, and their Smartboard–and the competing challenges of being visible to remote students, seeing the remote classroom, and engaging with the Smartboard to teach both groups. Smith said they were having “real difficulty” using the interactive Smartboard while managing everything, and although they figured it out, he said they need time to work through all the other possible concerns that could arise.

“My strong takeaway from that experience was that we need to give them as much time to figure out these things [as possible],” Smith said.

Since the first week of remote learning would be run on a half-day schedule, teachers would devote the first half of their day to building community with students and spend the second half of their day to further Schoology training. Smith suggested that because all technology can fail sometimes, teachers will have back-up plans, such as using Zoom calls and Google Hangouts.

As far as community concerns about remote learning, he again emphasized heavily that it will look very different from the emergency eLearning of last spring. In fact, Smith said the largest concern he heard from parents was about students not getting enough synchronous learning or live instruction, and he anticipates the first week will heavily involve Zoom interactions and synchronous instruction rather than Schoology to better facilitate orientation activities.

Moreover, as the first week of school is typically reserved for classroom orientation, if teachers have to troubleshoot errors they will not be taking away from curriculum time as “they’re not going to be jumping right into their academic content,” Smith said.

Smith said teachers were committed to “getting this right,” and the district is committed to supporting them. When asked if he thinks one week will be enough time, Smith said that he is personally confident it will be.

“We can control what we can control…Honestly, the earth shifts so fast in this environment. Here we are the second week in a row and I’m coming to you with a proposal to change. [But] I personally feel confident after the conversations I’ve had with the staff and what they were up against a week ago and how they came in so resolutely this week… and were just nose to the grindstone just working things through.”

As far as preparedness, Smith said everyone in the district is dedicated to learning these new technologies and protocols.

“Everyone is committed 150% to doing the best they can as much as they can as soon as they can but we have to name honestly the complexity of the environment we are in.”

Other BOE Agenda Items

An hour before the meeting was called to order the BOE held an executive session to discuss “attorney-client privileged memorandum providing legal advice regarding school reopening,” according to the agenda online. They did not specifically review the details of that legal advice at the public meeting.

The BOE will meet Wednesday, Aug. 26 at 1 p.m. to discuss “policy, communications and alignment,” including tackling Policy 6141.321, responsible use, and policy 5114, suspension, expulsion and removal from class.

At the regularly scheduled BOE meeting on Thursday evening, the Board will discuss athletics and reopening updates, as well as “policies on behavior.”