When families were notified Monday that the Town of Wilton’s Parks & RecreationOn School Road” preschool program was not going to open as scheduled, many were upset at the short notice they’d been given. School had been scheduled to start on Tuesday, September 3, and yet parents weren’t notified that the school would never open until just one week before the scheduled start date.

Yesterday the town issued a statement from First Selectman Bill Brennan’s office about the decision to close, stating:

The State Department of Public Health has informed the Town that the toddler program as currently run can only be provided by a licensed child care center.  The Town is not licensed to run a child care facility, and, therefore, cannot continue to offer the current toddler program. … Parks & Recreation Department personnel are working with representatives of the State Department of Public Health to determine what toddler program offerings the Town can provide that would meet State requirements for a non-licensed facility.

Sarah Taffel, the town’s director of human resources, labor relations and administrative services explained some of the issues involved with the town’s discovery it did not have a license to operate the preschool programming as it had been doing. She said the town had never explored licensing until recently.

“The preschool program had evolved over time. It had started as a one-class sort of thing a number of years ago, and out of the popularity of the program and of Sharon and her management, the program grew over time. We were exploring whether or not the point it had reached required licensing. It wasn’t a black-and-white, definitive situation. This had been the understanding of the town.”

However, before the town could even reach that determination, the CT Department of Public Health (DPH) paid a visit to the school, on Monday August 19, and found that the program was too large and too substantial to operate without a license.

“The Department of Health had made the assessment that what was being offered did qualify for needing to be licensed. That was their determination,” said Taffel.

Because the facility had not been licensed before, the state agency’s visit was not a typically scheduled visit. In fact, both Taffel and a spokesman for the DPH confirmed the visit was triggered by the department’s investigation into a prior complaint about the school.

Taffel declined to elaborate or comment on exactly what that complaint was. William Gerrish, a spokesman with the CT DPH sent GOOD Morning Wilton a statement that reads: “Based on the receipt of a complaint, we conducted a site inspection on 8/19. At that time we determined that planned activities for this program would require that it be licensed.  DPH has an open investigation into the program.  No further details are available at this time.”

What took so long to notify parents?

The DPH gave notice to the town on Monday August 19. Yet parents were not notified by the Parks and Rec department until the following Monday, August 26, one full week later. Waiting to notify families was a difficult decision, said Taffel, who urged everyone to understand that the department was put in a difficult position and they were trying as hard as possible to come up with a solution during that time, even though they ultimately had to make a hard choice.

“For so many reasons, people are distressed—the logistics, they like the program, they’re up against a time frame… there are so many pieces that make this difficult. It wasn’t easy for the Town. We know those issues are there for parents, and we wanted to try as best as possible to respond—looking into alternative programming, speaking with everyone involved, talking to people at the state to figure out alternatives with the tight time frame. Those things just don’t happen immediately. You’re trying to make sure whatever information you put out is going to be reliable, because you’re already giving them bad news.”

She continued, “I understand from their point, it looks like we waited a week. But I also understand from the standpoint of people trying to figure out what to do with this difficult situation. It just takes time. Just being frank, there is no interest in upsetting all these parents. Who would want to do that? These poor people—[Parks & Recreation assistant director] Scott Karas, [Parks & Rec director] Steve Pierce, this is their whole life, it’s what they do, is come up with things to make people happy, you know? It doesn’t mean we don’t have a huge responsibility. People have a right to feel angry and critical of the town administration for this situation, but I can only say that there has been enormous effort, time, thought and sensitivity going into, What can we do now?”

She said the situation has been an ongoing focus of many town officials, not just the Parks and Recreation team. “I do boatloads of other work for the town on other respects, and it’s all been set aside to assist in responding to this situation. And I know that’s what a number of people working for the town are doing as well.”

She also said everyone within Wilton’s government understood what has been at stake. “When you’re talking about children and parents and the demands on people’s lives and the priority of insuring something good for their kids, everybody shares that objective. That is really what we’re attempting as best as we can, given the situation and the timing, and just knowing that people loved this program. Even the person from the state was sensitive. It’s just a challenge to navigate.

Exploring options, trying to come up with alternatives for families

Taffel wanted to reassure parents that the regulatory issue that shuttered the preschool doesn’t affect any other programs at Parks & Rec or at Comstock, especially those for toddler-aged children.

“My understanding is it’s not countering any of the other programs other than the On School Road toddler program that went out with the notice. The regulations do specifically exclude programs that offer exclusively sports activities. So something like just soccer [for 3-5 year olds] would probably be fine, independent of anything else.  Because it’s a sports activity, it’s a permitted exception.

As for trying to set up some other programming for young children for fall, the town is exploring what they can offer, but most likely it will never match the hours and curriculum that Miss Sharon once offered.

“We are looking at that. It certainly would not be what was. It wouldn’t be that lengthy or substantive a program. But if we can offer something and we have people interested in that, then we would do it. We’re trying to explore what that would be, how quickly we can put that together, is that something that there would be an interest for. It would not be offered for the same amount of time of a day. So for people who would need certain amount of time, it may not be adequate, but for others who would just like to have something available, it might be. That’s what we’re trying to speedily do.”

When and what they’re able to offer isn’t known yet, but when they figure it out, Taffel said they’ll reach out to parents as soon as possible.

“As soon as we know we’ll do some kind of email, or something on the website. We’ll try to communicate quickly whatever is determined. The last thing we want to do is complicate sooner than is advisable. We don’t want to make a challenging situation worse.”

One key question: Will Miss Sharon still be a part of whatever they can put together to offer in the way of programs.

“Certainly if she wants to be!” Taffel said. “That definitely would be the thought.”