Many Middlebrook School families have been waiting a very long time to hear the news announced at Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting:  beginning Monday, Feb. 8, Wilton’s middle school would finally be transitioning to a four-day, in-person learning model.

Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith told the BOE members that Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle had approved the revised COVID-19 mitigation plan prepared by school administrators for bringing all Middlebrook students back full-time–but there were conditions attached to that approval.

The plan will be gradually rolled out next week:

  • Monday, Feb. 8: all 6th-grade students will join 7th- and 8th-grade cohort A students in school
  • Tuesday, Feb. 9: all students from both 6th and 7th grade will be in-person along with 8th-grade cohort A students
  • Wednesday, Feb. 10: remote day for all students
  • Thursday, Feb. 10:  all Middlebrook students begin attending in person

Middlebrook will join Wilton’s two elementary schools–Cider Mill (grades 3-5) and Miller-Driscoll (Pre K-2)–in following an in-person learning model, leaving only Wilton High School as the district’s sole hybrid-model school for now.

“We’re just really happy to be able to say next week, that K-8 is four days in person and that’s tremendous, that’s a great, great thing,” BOE Chair Deborah Low said.

Timeline on the Decision

Until now there have been mixed opinions among Middlebrook community members about whether students should return full-time.

Many teachers have feared an increased potential for the virus to spread with more students in the building. More students means higher density classrooms with less than six-feet required to social distance safely.

On the other hand, significant numbers of parents were eager to have their children return to in-person learning, citing social-emotional concerns as well as wanting more academic facetime in front of teachers for students.

However, there were outliers in each group, and it made for anxious times for many as district officials debated the learning model change for weeks.

The board had first approved a transition for Middlebrook to full time at their Jan. 8 meeting, with a phased-in-by-grade return planned starting Thursday, Jan. 28.

That decision was postponed when Wilton High School was moved to a remote model following an outbreak among students there. The delay frustrated families as well as some BOE members who felt the decision to hold Middlebrook back from its plan was too conservative and subjective, especially on the part of Health Director Bogle.

Following the Jan. 22 BOE meeting where the decision to delay was announced, BOE members sent questions to Bogle and First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice asking how decisions were made on which model should be implemented, including clarification on the benchmarks Bogle used, and what it would take to reopen the school full time.

Bogle’s answers, which were provided to BOE members and the public (see document below), hewed almost exactly to guidelines from CT Departments of Public Health and Education.

If the approved reopening plan is any indication, it seems school officials met Bogle’s requirements. However, there are certain conditions Bogle outlined that need to be met for the plan to stay approved.

Conditions for Plan Approval

Smith explained that Bogle approved the most recent plan submitted by Middlebrook administrators after visiting the school multiple times while students were attending to review the mitigation strategies in place and see if they were working not just in theory, but practically.

Bogle’s conditional approval is based on four things he outlined to Smith in writing:

  1. The district must develop a plan to conduct surveillance testing, as an additional mitigation strategy.
  2. Secure written commitment from parents to report any and all familial positive cases and exposure. “His interest is just in working together as a community to do everything in our power collectively to mitigate the spread of this virus,” Smith said.
  3. Staff members must maintain and increase vigilance in enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing. Smith said the staff has been “fabulous in their vigilance” and that students have “very, very high compliance,” so administrators should have “no question or concern” in that area.
  4. School officials (and community members) should be mindful that the district is operating week-to-week, and any spikes in case numbers could cause Bogle to order a change to the learning model. “We may have to pull back from the all in-person model to hybrid or to remote, depending on whether or not those conditions change and we see more significant increasing COVID activity,” Smith said.

Following Thursday’s BOE meeting, Vanderslice told GOOD Morning Wilton that the deadline for school officials to submit and begin implementing a surveillance testing plan is two weeks from Middlebrook’s return to an in-person model.

Surveillance Testing

Perhaps the most complicated condition on Bogle’s list was the one about the district creating a plan for surveillance testing, both from the standpoint of cost and implementation.

Smith said he and Bogle need to discuss specifics further, including how frequently the district would need to test and whether both students and faculty would be included in the testing plan–and if it would be conducted at all four schools or just Middlebrook.

In an email to GMW following Thursday night’s meeting, Smith explained some of the considerations involved in implementing testing in Wilton’s school district.

“My understanding of surveillance testing is that the more individuals that participate the more effective it is. Surveillance testing can be conducted in a few different ways.

    • “Many colleges and private schools are using standard PCR tests to conduct surveillance testing. Many of these schools test weekly. There are some that test twice per week. The costs of those are $50-$60 per test.
    • “A more cost-effective approach is referred to as “pooled” testing in which individual samples are combined and tested as a single pool. If the pool comes back positive then the individuals in the pool have to have a follow-up test to locate the positive individual. These tests run $12-$13 per person per test.
    • “A third option is referred to as matrix texting. It is a type of pooled testing where individual samples are tested in two pools. The benefit of this approach is the ability to identify a positive individual and avoid the need for a more expensive follow-up PCR test. These cost about $25 per person per test.”

During the meeting, Smith estimated the cost of surveillance testing at $12,000 per week, something he told GMW is a rough estimate assuming 1,000 people participate–and which would cover pool testing for one week for both students and staff at Middlebrook. There would be many logistical considerations to make it work, as well.

When the district had initial conversations last spring about how to reopen schools, officials began exploring testing, and Smith said he had expected that testing would be one of the mitigation strategies promoted and supported by the state.

While it was not included in the State Department of Education‘s initial reopening guidelines, it was something that CT Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said he supported during his U.S. Education Secretary Confirmation Hearing with the U.S. Senate earlier this week.

Could that open the possibility of finding financial support outside Wilton for testing?

“I am hoping to learn more today about that and inquire whether the state will be moving forward with any plan,” Smith wrote.

Community Responsibility

The board spent some time focused on Bogle’s condition of a “parental commitment.”

Smith doesn’t know yet what that parent pledge will say specifically, but “the spirit of what Barry is asking for, what is probably most important, is just this understanding that we really are all in this together and have a shared commitment to keep each other safe,” he said.

Middlebrook Principal Jory Higgins too emphasized that families needed to be active participants in keeping the school safe.

“We don’t want to pretend that this is going to be school February of 2020 and before– this is going to be different, it’s going to look different. We need parents, we need students, we need staff to please come together to make it work… That written commitment from parents, it’s really going to require a continued commitment from everybody involved,” he said.

Smith said while Bogle’s recommendations had been specific to Middlebrook, his assumption was that the parent commitment would be something he’d implement for families at all four Wilton schools.

Officials stressed that, in addition to signing a commitment, parents will need to ‘walk the walk, not just talk the talk’ to prioritize the safety of the community.

“If you have the slightest hint you think your child is not well, please keep them home. Because that’s one way that we’re going to keep the spread down. Make sure that you are checking their temperature regularly. You’re asking them and checking for those symptoms, no matter how mild, and making sure that if they aren’t well or that you’re not sure that they’re feeling well … keep them home,” Higgins said. “We’re not in a place now where we can risk sending them to school and then find out later that maybe they’re not feeling well. That’s another part of the partnership that needs to continue.”

Teacher and Parent Feedback, Student Adherence

In his remarks to the BOE, Higgins echoed what he said the night before at a parent forum to walk through the proposed mitigation plan in detail.

“The mitigation strategies are working. The hybrid [model has]… been a great dress rehearsal of next week. The students have been fantastic. They’ve really been such troupers about following the regulations we’re throwing at them to make sure that they wear their masks, that they sanitize their hands, that they stay apart from each other as best they can,” he said.

That includes when students would possibly be at the highest risk–during lunchtime in the cafeteria and gym, the designated spaces for eating. Higgins said they make sure to keep their distance, especially when they take their masks off to eat, and they are good about cleaning up there and in classrooms as well.

He pointed out that the district had the ventilation in those spaces measured “to make sure that the airflow was what it needed to be … based on occupancy. And what was nice to hear was that the occupancy that we have in the gymnasiums and the cafeteria, where we have the kids having their lunches, it’s set for greater than the number of students that we ever have in those spaces,” Higgins explained.

Administrators are also confident about how well their plan mitigates movement patterns as students transition around the building–something teachers and parents had been concerned might increase virus transmission risk.

“I likened it to a railyard when you see a whole train pull out, one pulls in and that sort of thing. It’s orchestrated quite carefully, our kids are quite practiced at it. We would imagine that when we bring all the kids back that we’re just going to continue that practice,” Higgins said.

He also addressed how BOE members had heard concerns from Middlebrook staff at previous meetings about returning to in-school learning full-time, acknowledging that teacher concerns stemmed from not knowing what the plan was before.

Now, Higgins said administrators have made sure to be very transparent in explaining and involving staff members in creating the re-entry plan, something that’s been beneficial.

“They are committed to making sure that this plan is right and that it’s going to work… that everyone’s going to be safe,” he said, adding, “Now that they’ve had an opportunity to hear about the plan and talk about specific details I think that’s appeased some of the concern.”

Smith added later that teachers were able to interact directly with Bogle and district medical advisor Dr. Christine Macken when the two visited the buildings to see the protocols in place.

“To have both Barry and Chrissie Macken come through and share just how important it is that we adhere to those strategies and that they are working reassured folks quite a bit,” he said.

Middlebrook teacher Janet Nobles confirmed those accounts to GOOD Morning Wilton, explaining she was one of the staff members who had those same worries until administrators were active in addressing them.

“We make these protocols, but if no one comes and actually sees how they’re working, it doesn’t work. We were very insistent–’If you want the teachers on board, you have to make us feel confident. We need Barry Bogle in here. We need Chrissie Macken in here.’ And that happened right away,” she said, adding that she even helped tour the health officials around.

“Having it really approved and seen by people who understand the science of the disease, it just made a huge difference. If Barry says it’s okay, we have all seen him in action… that boosts my confidence because I know how conservative he is and how much he doesn’t care about parental pressure or BOE pressures. He just does what he thinks is safe. And I’ve seen that in action now. So I trust that,” she said.

Board Feedback

The BOE members didn’t have to approve Middlebrook’s change in model by vote, as it had already approved the concept of reopening pending approval from the health director.

They did ask some additional questions.

One was whether any Middlebrook parents were on the fence about having their children return. According to Higgins, approximately 15% indicated they would go all remote if the school changed learning models, but that was before officials shared their detailed re-opening plan and had Bogle and Macken review it in person.

He also reassured BOE members with concerns about whether teachers with more students attending in person could adequately attend to any students who stayed remote, saying Middlebrook teachers make it look effortless.

Smith told the Board that he knew they were wondering about the rest of the year. “There is really no way to project for the entire school year. It’s kind of a week-to-week, ever-evolving environment.”

BOE Chair Low said she understood how difficult the situation has been for everyone, students, teachers and families.

“I know these have been tough times recently in an already tough year … they’ve all been frustrating. As a board, we are anxious to get our kids back to in-person as much as possible because nothing replaces the live interaction between students and teachers. … Let’s also remember that the ups and downs we have been through this year will probably continue. We just don’t know what’s around the corner with this virus. Let’s also remember people experienced the decisions about learning models differently. For some we’re not moving fast enough; for others, we’re moving too fast. So when we experienced the next series of challenges, let’s remember we’re a community that’s at its best when we work together.”

She spoke in support of the administration, singling out the superintendent.

“Dr. Smith has done an amazing job in the midst of this pandemic. His clear communication and ability to listen to all constituents have inspired trust. His careful planning and attention to detail have ensured the smooth implementation of our learning models. In addition to academics, his concern for the social and emotional needs of students during this crisis has ensured an emphasis on building relationships, no matter what the learning model. So we thank you, Dr. Smith, again for your leadership.”

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