[VIDEO] The GMW Interview: Tough Questions for Dr. Kevin Smith on Reopening Wilton Schools

Following months of discussion, the rapid introduction of a new learning platform, tropical storm delays, and a million different perspectives–are the Wilton Public Schools ready to open?

In an exclusive video interview with GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve and reporter Lily Kepner, Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith said yes, his district will be ready to get back to business.

But the first day of school is in less than two weeks’ time, and executing the innumerable logistical details essential for reopening school is coming down to the wire. As Wilton wakes from its summer slumber, it’s busy in the town’s schools, as signage, plexiglass, personal protective equipment, hand sanitizing stations and furniture are being shepherded into the building while teachers busily prepare their classes for the “new COVID normal.”

With tough situations come with tough questions. Yesterday, GMW spoke with Smith to get the answers in a thorough, hour-long interview.

The questions spanned numerous topics, including the logistics and safety of the hybrid model, safety and security, crowd control, transportation, and curriculum, as well as teachers’ concerns and just how many students will be remote.

While detailing each decision, Smith emphasized that while the district cannot please everyone, school officials are continually striving to select the conservative, safe choice to best ensure the sustainability and success of in-person learning.

“We all need to celebrate the fact that Connecticut, and Wilton in particular, have done a very good job in adopting mitigation strategies and really reducing the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “We need to continue that because our goalpost isn’t getting to the first day of school, it’s getting to the last day of school. And that’s going to require everybody’s continued behavior in a way that promotes public health.”

Smith also said this was why the Board of Education has been meeting online since March, even though students and staff soon will be asked to take the riskier step of in-person, in-school learning. We asked him whether that dichotomy will continue.

Though Wilton itself does not have a set threshold for how many COVID-positive cases it would take before moving to shut down, Smith said prioritizing staff and students’ safety will guide all decisions. He added that all plans remain in “draft” mode to ensure administrators will respond to concerns and adapt as needs arise.

Smith discussed the intricacies of planning the complex nuances of mitigation strategies, even where pitfalls–like crowded hallways in the high school–may occur. Given the Department of Health’s guidelines, Smith said that “mask-wearing is going to be our first priority” when it comes to these strategies, and that student conduct policies will be updated to ensure student compliance.

Planning for a huge operational shift had to account for radical changes in school safety procedures, not only in regards to the pandemic, but in terms of school security, technological security, and safety preparedness. He shared how lockdown and active shooter drills will be approached, and how he anticipates whether fire drills will still be conducted. Smith told GMW that he will approach the Board of Education with a request to add seven additional campus supervisors to ensure students are kept safe when learning outside.

Perhaps most notably, Smith spoke candidly about responding to teacher concerns, specifically the letter signed by 70-plus Wilton High School staff members detailing their “grave concerns” about any in-person model. He discussed the “heartbreaking” emotional toll it took to watch teachers make the difficult choice of either leaving a job they love or putting themselves at risk, and said the school absolutely respects and will respond to teachers concerns. However, upon seeing teachers back in the building, Smith said he also sees hope.

“If you’ve hung around schools, you know that magic happens when kids and teachers come together,” Smith said.

“I do detect a sense of optimism. Again, in light of all of the concerns, teachers want to be with their kids.  It’s what they know, it’s what animates and energizes them and gives them purpose. And so there’s a real strong desire that they want to do it and they want to do it well.”

Below is both a complete version of the interview straight through as well as individual clips of each separate question and answer.

The Board of Education will meet tonight, Aug. 20, at 7 p.m. in a special meeting to discuss reopening.

Complete Interview

Question 1:   You’re asking students and teachers to come back into the buildings, face-to-face, working in enclosed classrooms while you meet virtually, with people in different places. How can you say to the community, “We’re comfortable bringing the students and teachers back face-to-face, even though we’re not doing that ourselves?”

Question 2:  How many teachers or students have to get sick for the district to determine if it’s time to change the model and go remote versus tough it out?

Question 3:  Have you calculated how much cross-contamination may happen at the high school? You have scheduling issues where every child goes into different places, four times a day with lots of different students. How many students are going to cross other people and how are you going to possibly contact trace at the high school?

Question 4:  Parents are concerned that some students may not follow mask-wearing rules all the time, Is there a protocol to make sure that students are following the guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing, what are consequences if a student does break the rule and how will it be enforced?

Question 5:  One of the other mitigation strategies that you’ve talked about, um, layering in on top of that is, um, opening up the hardened shell and the hardened boundary of the school and bringing intense. So the first question of a couple of them that we have, um, presumably it’s safer to be outside rather than inside. Um, how is it going to be decided which classes get to go outside and which ones will stay inside?

Question 6:  The school has to undergo a certain number of lockdown and active shooter drills, but during those drills, students and teachers usually have to cluster together in one part of a room for up to an hour at a time. What it’s going to happen with those drills?

Question 7:  Logistics for crowd control–evacuation drills, entering or exiting the building, students getting on and off buses at the bus loops, drop-offs… how are those crowd-control logistics being handled? How do you expect students to keep six feet apart during those busy times?

Question 8:  There is an endless list of logistics–it’s unimaginable, how many things you have to think about, but we are 10 days away from kids being in the building. I’ve heard from some teachers who are concerned about whether or not the district will be prepared and what’s not yet available. Are you comfortable saying that the schools will be ready for the first day?

Question 9:  Is there a way to describe for people just how many logistics and how many things you had to think about to get ready to reopen?

Question 10:  There was a letter from over 70 Wilton high school faculty with grave concerns about reopening and called for a remote option. It’s still seemed up in the air about whether teachers will return–how many will? Will there be a heavier use of substitutes?

Question 11:  If you were sitting alone in a room with Gov. Lamont, what would you say to him about his “You need to be back in school” edict?

Question 12:  Given teacher concerns about returning, some may choose to give up their jobs. How are you actively working to address and respond to their concerns? On the flip side, for parents concerned about who will be teaching their children and about the possibility of having teachers that will be substitutes?

Question 13:  Do you have data on how many students are going to be returning for hybrid in-person versus staying completely remote? Do you know that yet?

Question 14:  What’s the policy going forward at all schools about full classes being on camera.

Question 15:  After remote learning last spring, parents are worried about the curriculum needs not being met. How will teachers be monitored in the classroom to make sure they will be?

Question 16:  This is going to be a very different first day of school than any before. How are you anticipating that it will be?