During a single-topic meeting Thursday evening, the Board of Education heard a recommendation from school administrators to implement a four-day-per-week in-person schedule for all students at Middlebrook School. The BOE only heard the proposal Thursday evening and did not take a vote yet to implement the proposal.

If the BOE does approve the proposed all-school return to in-person teaching, Middlebrook’s 6th-8th graders will join Cider Mill and Miller-Driscoll Schools‘ K-5th graders in following the revised schedule. That would leave only Wilton High School on a cohort-based hybrid model, which the schools adopted to help prevent spreading the COVID-19 virus.

Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith said a target date for the schedule change has not been identified as some “logistical things have to be nailed down,” although the move could begin as early as Monday, Oct. 26 to Nov. 2.

At this point, it hasn’t been determined if all three grades would start on the same day or on a staggered schedule. Smith suggested that it would likely be easier to introduce the change to this age-group, which may find adapting to change easier than the younger children did at the two elementary schools, which took more time in rolling out the return.

Smith explained that he was making the recommendation after looking at COVID-19 transmission and infection rates across Wilton and Fairfield County, which continue to remain low, and getting support from the district’s medical advisor Dr. Christine Macken and Wilton’s Health Director Barry Bogle.

He acknowledged that the transmission data has been “tripping upwards in recent days–while they are still low they’re trending up,” and noted that both Bogle and Macken suggested continuing to monitor that.

Moreover, Smith said that as more schools around the country and globally continue to open, they “don’t appear to be the source of virus-spreading communities. Kids come back to school and we don’t see these dramatic upticks in positive cases, as was once anticipated. I consider that to be a very, very positive sign.” He noted that Macken supported this observation.

Bogle requested that the district continue to maintain at least three feet of distance between students and provide tri-fold sneeze guard barriers for every desk at Middlebrook. Smith added that the school would pay close attention to continued strong mitigation practices, including mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing.

BOE chair Debbie Low noted that the State Department of Education maintains metrics on the number of new COVID-19 cases. “Fairfield County is well below the threshold that the State Department of Education would worry about.”

However, at the risk of being what she called “a wet blanket,” she cautioned against moving too quickly, echoing Macken and Bogle’s suggestion to keep an eye on rising numbers. “That’s why I’m glad we’re not talking a specific date tonight, that we may need to be flexible on the date and watch the trends in the data.”

Low asked how the return of all students together would impact procedure should a COVID-19-positive case occur among the Middlebrook population, given how differently cohorting works at the middle school compared to K-5, where classes stay together for the majority of the time.

Smith acknowledged that it would definitely mean an increase in the number of students and others who may potentially have to quarantine. “If there’s some mixing of the cohort, that’s where the contact tracing is so important,” he added. “If there are kids who are crossing classroom cohorts, because they’re in a particular math class or music class, you just expand the potential sphere of students and adults who may need to quarantine.”

Middlebrook Specifics

Middlebrook principal Jory Higgins began his presentation by acknowledging the efforts that his staff and students have put into the school year thus far. “Teachers are being asked to do things they’ve never done before; students are learning in completely different ways now. Honestly, this is hard–for staff, for students, and for parents. And yet the energy and the effort to do as well as we can has been outstanding, the resilience of everyone involved has just been incredible.”

Middlebrook parents and teachers received a survey last Friday about the proposed return of all students. Over 680 parents (83%) responded; and of those parents, 88% said they would have their children attend full-time (four days/week). Higgins added a caveat to that data point:  “I’ve received over 30 emails from parents who requested had they been given the choice, they would have chosen hybrid as a first choice.”

Like Cider Mill and Miller-Driscoll, Middlebrook’s proposed return to all students in-person for four days means the only alternative for families that choose not to participate is full remote learning. There is no hybrid option.

In addition, about 60% of the parents responded that they were comfortable allowing students to move around as classes change, rather than continue the current procedure of having teachers change classrooms as students remain in one place throughout the day.

Over 88% of Middlebrook staff responded, and Higgins said they were evenly split on a desire to return to four-day in-person instruction. “We haven’t unpacked that, we don’t know what the ‘why’ is on that,” Higgins added. A wide majority–about 80%–were also in favor of having students rather than teachers change classrooms.

Higgins explained that there is already a moderate amount of student movement throughout the building now, as students move to and from STRIDE classes, instrumental classes and support classes.

One element impacting the teacher response on moving is how much instructional time is reduced under the current model, as teachers not only need time to disconnect, move, and reconnect when changing classrooms each period, but they also have to take attendance in a more complicated, unwieldy situation with in-person and remote cohorts.

Higgins said, as a result, curriculum units that previously took six weeks to cover now require eight weeks. “Think about a reading class, they’re only able to get about 10 minutes of reading, which is just insufficient. Same thing for writing, only about 10 minutes, again which is insufficient.”

Facility set-up to transition to more students will take time. Furniture is either in other parts of the district or stored in containers outside the school. Moreover, because over the last few years the district has been transitioning to a more collaborative learning model that used group seating at tables, Middlebrook is about 14 classrooms shy of the required number of individual desks that the school would need to use for social distancing.

“What that means is if we were to buy desks and chairs, that would be somewhere to the tune between $50,000-$90,000,” Higgins said.

Another complication to work out is how to maintain six feet of distance during lunchtimes. The likely solution–creating two lunch waves per grade–would create a staffing issue, as more lunchroom supervisors would be needed.

While no vote was taken, Low told the administrators to move ahead with their plans to adjust the schedule.