Reversing Course, District Defers Return to Full-Time at Middlebrook as COVID-19 Numbers Rise

At Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Kevin Smith changed course on a recommendation he made just one week ago, telling the BOE members he now would like to defer a return to full-time in-person learning at Middlebrook School and remain in a hybrid model. He explained that the change of heart was based on a change in COVID-19 case data, both in Wilton and across Fairfield County.

Moreover, Wilton’s health professionals–district medical advisor Dr. Christine Macken and Health Director Barry Bogle–both agree with Smith’s revised recommendation.

“What I’d suggest to them is that internally we would continue to plan to have students return. So we’ll get the facility ready, but we don’t bring students back and they both thought that was a prudent recommendation,” Smith said.

Rising COVID-19 Numbers

Smith pointed to changes in the public health data indicators used by the district as well as by the State Department of Education (SDE).

“In the preceding couple of weeks, the trends started to tick up slightly. So if we were at 4.3 [average new cases per 100,000 people] four or five weeks ago, that moved to 4.5, average new cases per day on a seven-day rolling average. Today, the [Connecticut] Department of Public Health (DPH) just published brand new data. And Fairfield County is now at nine new cases over a 14-day average, not just a seven-day average. So we’ve seen a substantial jump in just a single week,” he explained, adding that other supporting indicators used by the SDE are also trending upwards.

Other sources are also showing similar trends. Medical advisor Macken refers to a website called COVID Act Now, which tracks daily case rates. Smith said that he’s seen the numbers jump from hovering at 9.3-9.4 new cases/100,000 for multiple days to 11.7 new cases/100,000–over the threshold of 10 cases/100,000 used by the CT-DPH in its guidance for learning models schools should use.

In that guidance, the DPH recommended more in-person learning at 0-10 cases/100,000; hybrid instruction at 10-25 cases/100,000; and more remote learning for anything over 25 cases/100,000.

Smith also said that the infection rate is also increasing. “So not only are there more infections, it’s spreading more rapidly. So that’s really the, um, the fundamental concern and the concern driving the recommendation to wait.”

Referring back to the DPH’s three-tiered guidance, Smith said that state officials have made some revisions.

“They’ve updated the calculus. So it reflects a rolling 14-day, not a seven-day. But then they’ve really softened the lines between what do you do when you’re moving beyond 10 into that 10-25, beyond 25,” he said. “Really the recommendation is, as it has been, to go back to consult with your local health officials, health director, medical advisor, director of nursing, and review strategies, review mitigation efforts, and then propose a course of action,” he said.

“COVID is increasing all around us.”

There have been other red flags for Smith, including what’s happening in surrounding towns. He said that not only has Westchester County (just across the town and state border) seen a significant spike in case numbers, but neighboring towns are now in what the state refers to as “red zones,” including Danbury, Norwalk and Fairfield. Wilton itself is elevated to yellow on the state’s dynamic map. (Data represented in the map lags slightly, showing the period from Oct. 4-17.)

Smith acknowledged that Wilton’s school district hasn’t seen the same types of rising case rates as the wider community.

“We’ve had two cases reported in our schools, both at the high school–one on Sept. 11, another one two weeks ago; we haven’t had any other positive cases in our other schools,” he said, attributing that to good mitigation practices (mask-wearing and hand-washing) both inside the school and across the community.

Concerns about Curriculum and Learning Lags

Earlier in the evening, the BOE members heard a report on the impact on learning that the lockdown has had, including new data that shows unsettling lags for student competency and performance in math, predominantly at the middle school grade levels. [Editor’s note:  GMW will publish a separate story on that report.] 

Board member Mandi Schmauch pressed Smith on her concerns about how far behind Middlebrook may be on delivering curriculum. Changes in the way the schools operate now–with split cohorts, reliance on screen time digital learning, and strict COVID-19 protocols–actual time spent on curriculum delivery has been reduced.

 Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Chuck Smith said changing to a full-time in-person model may not make up for those deficits.

“When the children come back full-time, we’re still having a lot of difficulty getting through the curriculum at the pace that we normally are because we are still constrained in the ways we can deliver the curriculum, even in person. So there is more difficulty in grouping kids for instruction; there’s time taken up with the technology because we still have remote learners. So I don’t think that bringing the kids back full-time is necessarily going to accelerate the pace of the curriculum implementation,” he said.

Board Chair Deborah Low suggested considering possible changes to the schedule in order to prioritize core subjects, asking if the district needs to examine if it’s allotting time where it’s most beneficial and needed.

“I would only say this in a COVID environment, but are there some subjects that we ought to be spending just more raw time on than other subjects in order to get to where we want to academically? So it’s a question I know there’s no answer for tonight, but I really think, can we look around and just double check that we’re doing the best with our schedule?” she asked.

Chuck Smith agreed:  “We do need to take a very hard look at the schedule, particularly at Middlebrook, because we’re simply not devoting enough time to certain curriculum areas. It’s something that we need to address.”

He specifically pointed this out with math.

“Remember with math, we were trying before the pandemic to increase the amount of time. Now that we’re in the midst of the pandemic, we have drastically reduced the amount of instructional time. And personally, I think we’re putting our math teachers in a difficult position,” he said.

Disagreement with Recommendation

Not everyone on the Board supported Kevin Smith’s recommendation. Board member Jennifer Lalor read remarks she’d prepared in advance to explain why she disagreed. [Editor’s note, they’ve been slightly condensed here…]

 

“Last week we were really excited to hear the schools are not sources of community spread. That data is showing very little infection rates across the country for schools that opened early. Today we’re saying there’s an uptick in our county, but from what I’m hearing, it’s really not within our school district. We’ve had two cases and I think that we’ve done pretty well. And at some point, I think we need to trust what we have in place. And there are a million reasons not to do something. I recognize we’re in a pandemic and need to consider health and safety. I also recognize disruptions are not ideal, but at some point, the disruptions have to be weighed against the significant downsides of remote learning for many households and students, including those that are unspoken and undetected. But those students who can go to school and whose parents want them to go to school, they should be in front of a teacher for as long as we possibly can.

“We are losing ground academically. And while one can argue, that doesn’t matter right now, it does matter that our kids are in front of a screen for six-plus hours, and their primary way of learning is through a screen, despite years of research that suggests children learn best through multiple modalities. There’s nothing healthy about our kids dreading school in the morning, and getting upset about having to log on, struggling with technology more than usual, or feeling ignored because they are at home. I know some are doing fine and some are not. And I know some say they’re fine, but the behavior after remote days suggests otherwise. Our teachers are doing the best they can. With the hand they’ve been dealt, it’s impossible to be in two places at the same time. … It’s a lot of work and a lot of lost instructional time.

“If we truly can’t bring these kids back within the next couple of weeks, there needs to be some sort of interim plan. Maybe sixth grade goes back; maybe we alternate having a full week in with the three grades; maybe we alternate cohorts on half-day Wednesdays–some way, we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how we can improve academic and social-emotional outcomes.

“We have significant academic challenges. And to Debbie’s point, if that means we have to look at the schedule again, look at the schedule again. But the hybrid is–I’m not sure that’s really the solution. And if we really can’t get our kids back in, then we need to think of something else.”

Kevin Smith countered that relying on what the medical advisors were saying was paramount.

“We have the advice of our health professionals that we’ve been relying on throughout, and I think it would be unwise to deviate from their recommendation,” he said.

And while he acknowledged that the schools are not the “driving factor” in spreading the COVID-19 virus, Smith said Dr. Macken emphasized keeping the wider community in mind.

“When we spoke earlier this week, [Dr. Macken] also did … say, ‘But we also have to be mindful of spread in the community.’ So how we balance that out, that’s really beyond me and my purview as a superintendent. I’ll try to figure it out, but I need reliance on our medical and health professionals to do that,” Smith said.

BOE member Glen Hemmerle agreed with a more cautious approach, referring to the neighboring red zone communities.

“Norwalk, it’s right next to us, and they’ve got a real problem–and they border us. Fairfield has a real problem, and they’re not that far away from us. We’ve been very, very fortunate, so far, that the things that we have done, the cautious approach that we’ve taken, has worked wonders for us. And no one would love to have the kids back in school more than I would. But I think Kevin’s approach is the right one.”

Low echoed that as well. “We said that health and safety would be the first priority.”

If numbers improve, Smith said at the earliest the district could potentially revisit the idea of bringing more students back would be Monday, Nov. 2, although he called the possibility “highly unlikely.”

Low said that the BOE would be able to meet outside of its regularly scheduled meetings if he would want them to consider approving any plan changes.