The text came through just after 2 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11, after the schools had closed for the day (for a previously-scheduled early dismissal):  Wilton Public Schools are closed until further notice. Teachers and students had departed, some leaving behind Chromebooks or gym clothes–or even curriculum materials. At the time it was ‘no big deal’–for sure everything could be retrieved in a day or two. Or so it seemed.

With a looming specter of shuttered school buildings and canceled extracurriculars, Wilton parents took to social media to gather information and commiserate on the uncertainty of the coming days and weeks, but also to troubleshoot about the prospect of eLearning at home. But for some families, it was more complicated–not everyone had devices or the digital setup to be able to take part in distance learning.

Wilton Public Schools faculty and staff were already on top of it.

On school day one of the COVID-19 shutdown, Dr. Kevin Smith, superintendent of schools, specifically recognized Chris Burney (town/school facilities director), Jose Figueroa (head custodian); and maintenance staff Matt Corcoran, Ramon Martinez, and Mark Esposito for “not only conducting deep cleaning school facilities … and supporting the town of Wilton in addressing town facilities, but for delivering technology and equipment to homes of students who don’t have materials in order to make sure they can access digital learning.”

The team personally delivered materials to 28 different Wilton Public School families on the first day and more the next. Smith said, “This is a superb, but not unsurprising, example of our staff members doing whatever is necessary to support our families. This is truly an all-hands-on-deck moment and our staff is exceeding expectations.”

It’s the Little Things

Middlebrook School teacher Dr. John Priest is trying to keep his students smiling.

“I can’t tell you how important I think the little things are right now,” he explained. “For [me] it means contacting my students on their birthday to sing to them like we did at team meeting. It’s playing Connect Four for a few minutes digitally with a boy in my team base that I played with in the mornings. I put together a video activity, Where in Wilton is Dr. Priest? where I record myself on a walk somewhere in town and kids use Google maps to answer geography questions.” He added that his wife, Culinary Arts teacher Heather Priest and he had “built a garden this week and she has been posting everything she can video related to soil, planting, cooking!”

Kim Zemo, District Safe School Climate Coordinator, has taken to social media to spread the cheer. She has asked residents to capture positive photos and videos highlighting the “things that we still can do despite our current situation.” Residents are encouraged to share photos and stories on Twitter using the tags @WPSWeStillCan and #WPSWeStillCan.

Anastasia Romond sent surprise postcards to her students to keep them engaged from afar–and a sweet moment of the personal connection, at a time when connection had been taken away.

Middlebrook teacher, Palmer Metz, wrote personal cards with messages to her students.

“I know you are being the sweet, hardworking, happy student at home that I am used to at school!” she wrote to one.

Cider Mill parent Julie Fowler shared two examples of kindness from teachers.

The first was a teacher who creatively tried to soothe the anxieties she knew her students were having.

Mrs. [Patricia] Howell, Cannondale 5th grade teacher, took it upon herself to answer an email I sent via phone call late Monday night in an effort to calm and show support for my child. She followed up with a morning meeting Tuesday to support the kids and address all concerns and reassure that they are in this together. She suggested morning meeting from their beds Friday morning so they can all stay on their pajamas! It lifted so many spirits,” Fowler related.

Her second example was a teacher who made sure to keep the closeness from afar.

Mrs. [Alyssa] Peterson, Cannondale 3rd grade teacher, had the kids call into to Google meeting for a special birthday celebration for one of the class’s students. She suggested all the kids make an e-card and the student received them and got an online celebratory song and birthday wishes!” Fowler said.

Miller-Driscoll principal Kathy Coon shared a similar story. “We have so many great things happening [here] and believe we have the perfect balance of learning and fun. One teacher (at least) is asking her students to make birthday cards for the students celebrating birthdays the next week. This way kids are getting some fun snail mail.”

Emily Mason, a 3rd Grade teacher, knew that face-to-face connection was important for her students–and for herself. Wilton mom Emily Mueller told GOOD Morning Wilton that Mason had arranged to surprise all of her students with drive-bys in front of their homes.

Mueller shared Mason’s email:  “I wanted to surprise the class tomorrow, by doing a little driveby of everyone’s houses to wave to the students. I miss the student dearly and I want to see their smiling faces!” it said, (offering an opt-out for anyone who didn’t want to take part).

“She literally made all of the kids weeks,” Mueller said.

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The drive-bys weren’t reserved for just the younger kids. The Genesis program’s teachers formed a car caravan to visit the students at home (with everyone keeping good social distance). “Genesis loves their kids! Social Distancing positive vibes,” emailed special education teacher Eileen Wheeler, who took part with her colleagues Tom Koch, Brett Amero, and Allison Hourani.

At Wilton High School, teachers are working on organizing drive-bys and other special projects to express how much they miss being with the students. Guidance counselors and support staff have called and emailed to let the kids know that they are available via email, phone, Skype, or Zoom. Dr. Robert O’Donnell, the WHS principal, shared that the staff wanted to “let [students] know we are really, really missing the reason we went into this work–to work with kids.”

Families Get Into the Act

The drive-by seems to be the safest way for the community to keep connecting. With birthday parties on hold for the foreseeable future, the wider school community has come up with a way to make sure kids celebrating birthdays still feel special. Miller-Driscoll parents have organized “drive through birthday parties” for students who are celebrating while schools are closed.

Mom Alex Ralph wrote, “My daughter, Eloise, turns 7 [in early April] and was upset to learn that not only would she not have a birthday party this year, but we won’t even be able to celebrate with friends or family. I started to ask friends to make and mail her birthday cards, but then one of my friends shared an idea that was happening in her hometown–car birthday parades.”

She continued, “Parents were loading up their kids in cars, and driving by the birthday kid’s house at a designated time to honk, sing, wave, and say happy birthday. The birthday child stands out on the lawn and waves. I posted this idea on the Miller Driscoll PTA Facebook page, and so many parents were on board with the idea. We now have a running list of upcoming birthdays and will start the birthday car parades at 3:30 p.m.”

Kelly Chapple‘s daughter Jules had the honor of being the first recipient of a birthday car parade. “It was an awesome idea and she really loved it,” said Chapple. “Obviously we couldn’t have her party or do anything too fun today but this really made her happy.”

Kinley Welly echoed the sentiment. “It was just the best. Some of the cars went all out!! The whole event kind of restored my faith in the world and completely made my daughter’s day. She said this was the best birthday ever! After having to cancel her party, her school celebration and her dinner with extended family it made me so happy to hear that she felt like she had a special day.”

It’s turned into such a hit that Cider Mill families are now organizing birthday parades and Middlebrook and high school friends are holding them too.

Humor is the Best Medicine

Sometimes the kindness was comical in order to lift spirits. Even Smith got into the act in the early stress-filled days of planning for eLearning, from his home-office-slash-dining-room. During a video conference call with faculty on St. Patrick’s day, the normally staid superintendent earned more than a few smiles from his hardworking staff with a very different look, complete with green wig.

photo credit: Smith Family

Cider Mill teacher Heather Redin knew a similar trick would work with her students, as she planned some costume changes for April Fool’s day.

And some teachers pulled out all the stops, even arranging for a celebrity guest appearance from actress Melissa Joan Hart, who was a Mystery Reader for Nicole Ryan‘s Cider Mill class.

Kids Being Kind

Wilton schoolchildren have not only been on the receiving end of acts of kindness, they have also originated them, even the youngest grades. Miller-Driscoll instructional leader Jamie Devivo initiated a project for kindergarten students to make posters for “people who are still working and doing a great job in Wilton helping and keeping safe and healthy–police, grocery workers, pharmacy workers, doctors, nurses, etc.,” wrote parent Carolyn Lyon. Lyon’s son went one step further, mailing his picture to the police department.

Lest anyone think it’s just the public school district doing good deeds, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy also got into the kindness act. Students and families of OLF organized a “thank you” to hospital workers and emergency responders for their difficult work during the COVID-19 pandemic. They partnered with Letizia Pizza to provide the ultimate comfort food to Norwalk Hospital and Wilton police, fire and EMS workers, delivering dozens of pizzas.

Fatima Helps with Financial Kindness

The kindness has taken other forms too. Understanding the financial struggle some people might feel in the current situation, OLF has taken steps to make its program as accessible as possible.

“In light of the current situation, there is an anonymous donor who has pledged to pay for the registration fees of students who enroll NOW (or re-enroll) in Our Lady of Fatima for the fall,” school officials wrote in an announcement. “Trying times like these are when people need to be able to rely on the support of family. We want everyone who might be considering a Fatima education for their children [to know] that they have a family—a Fatima Family—waiting to welcome them with open arms.”

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