Wilton’s Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith and Board of Education were struggling last week with the State Department of Education (SDE) edict that school districts would have to reopen with a full, in-person learning model. But during Monday’s daily press briefing, Gov. Ned Lamont switched gears, saying that districts will be able to choose what fits best for their own schools–full return to in-person teaching, remote learning, or a hybrid mixture of both models.

The switch came after school districts, teachers’ unions, and residents around the state pressured Lamont and his Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona to back down from the one-size-fits-all approach.

Last week, when Wilton (along with 230 other school districts) submitted its plans for returning to school to the SDE, the document had a cover letter from Wilton’s Board of Education asking to be allowed to decide for itself which model to use. The letter explained that state safety guidelines for social distancing and cohorting are more difficult to implement at Wilton’s middle and high schools–so letting the district determine how to reopen would be wiser, and safer.

That message seemed to have gotten through to Lamont and Cardona.

“We know distance learning doesn’t make up for in-classroom learning, but health and safety will trump whatever decisions are made,” Cardona said at Lamont’s briefing. “At this point, we’re recognizing that districts have to feel comfortable with the plans they have to ensure health and safety. So ultimately, once we’re closer to the school year starting and we know where the health data is, districts will have to feel comfortable with if there’s a full, in person at the high school or a hybrid. They will be deciding.”

The governor echoed his chief education official. “As we talk about education, as we talk about how important it is to get kids back in the classroom, public health is going to be our priority 1, 2, and 3, for teachers, superintendents, and all the powers that are there.”

Lamont said it was a “misimpression” to think that the state had been mandating what districts had to do.

“Obviously I and Miguel and most of the folks we talk to … saw the advantages of classroom learning, definitely how important it was, especially for the younger grades, to get into the classroom,” he said. “But that said, every town, every city has very different metrics… We have to give them that flexibility.”

Lamont acknowledged that the ability to cohort–keeping students in each individual class together and separated from other classes–was easier for younger students, and gave a layer of safety that might be missing for older students.

“We found great interest, almost unanimous, in K-5 in-person education, easier to cohort, most important years, least likely to distance learn, have them in the classroom. and from there we’re maximizing flexibility for all of our superintendents…We heard from middle school and high school, every district has a slightly different way they want to be doing this,” Lamont said.

At the word ‘flexibility,’ Lamont called out to New Canaan school superintendent, Dr. Bryan Luizzi, who was on hand (via Zoom) for the press briefing. Luizzi thanked Lamont for visiting Fairfield County earlier in the day to discuss how return to school plans would be implemented.

Wilton’s Superintendent Smith confirmed to GOOD Morning Wilton that he was part of that meeting with the governor as well. “I was in the meeting with the governor yesterday and requested flexibility. Looks like he is honoring that request,” Smith told GMW, adding that it was a “very good conversation.”

“The governor was open to listening and seemed to appreciate the complexities involved with reopening schools. I was very pleased not only with the conversation but also the outcome that emerged through his press conference later in the day,” Smith said.

During the briefing, Luizzi described creating a plan for returning to school that was similar to Wilton’s, where cohorts would be easier to maintain in the lower elementary schools, but more difficult in middle school and even more so at the high school.

“Governor Lamont, you mentioned flexibility. It’s very difficult to cohort at the high school–some flexibility there will be a wonderful boon to us in our planning, trying to figure out how best to do this work,” Luizzi said.

Distance learning may not be the best option for all students, however, and Cardona said the goal was to get everyone back into classrooms. “We know that students with special needs, students that are English language learners, students that have been disengaged from distanced learning, are more likely to suffer if we don’t get our students back in schools–but we have to do it with health and safety first.”

Cardona also reiterated that parents in districts with full, in-person learning do have a choice to keep their children home, and the school district must provide them with remote learning options.

“Any parent in CT has the right to keep their children home to receive learning from home,” he said. He added that the SDE has partnered with Columbia Teachers College to provide support and resources to districts to help them implement remote learning successfully.