Despite Parent & Staff Concerns, BOE Approves Superintendent’s Recommendation for Hybrid Reopening

After the tropical storm twice delayed the long-awaited meeting to discuss school reopening, Wilton’s Board of Education unanimously approved Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith‘s recommendation to reopen all schools in a hybrid reopening model.

On Friday, Smith released his recommendation to reopen all four of Wilton’s schools under the hybrid model:  students would be assigned to one of two cohorts alphabetically and attend school in-person twice a week and remotely for three. In his statement, Smith said this approach would allow officials to better implement mitigation strategies and limit the potential spread of COVID-19. Having only half the number of students in the buildings at any one time would maintain social distancing at six feet, compared to only three feet maximum with everyone returning at the same time in the full-reopen model.

During last night’s BOE meeting, the members discussed the recommended plan both generally for the entire district, and what it meant on a school-by-school basis.

Despite some residents still dealing with power outages, the virtual Zoom meeting was highly attended, with 600 community members tuning in. In contrast to past meetings, the BOE received close to 10 public comments expressing frustrations, recommendations and concerns about the plans.

Hybrid Model Plan Details

The State of Connecticut’s Department of Education required the district to submit three potential re-entry plans:  full re-open, hybrid, and remote learning models.

The primary reason Smith recommended the hybrid model was, he said, because it allowed him to ensure that mitigation strategies can be implemented most effectively. Moreover, starting in a hybrid model would ease students’ and staff’s adjustment to new procedures, protocols, and daily life with fewer people in the buildings, he said.

The BOE approved this model for the start of the 2020-2021 school year, with the understanding that every three weeks Smith will re-evaluate the district’s approach based on local health data provided by the Department of Health and on the students’ and staff’s ability to implement mitigation strategies, and then make new recommendations when necessary on a school-by-school basis. If a new recommendation is made and approved for a school, there would be one week devoted to planning before it is implemented.

Though Dr. Smith was free to craft and recommend any plan, Wilton’s current low rate of COVID transmission puts it in a “low risk” category, so the state ‘strongly encourages’ the district to implement some type of in-person learning–preferably a full in-person reopen.

If Wilton were to opt for the remote learning model, the district would have to apply for a special waiver from the state in order to do so.

The main benefit of a hybrid model, Smith emphasized, was that it provides the additional mitigation strategy of allowing all students to maintain six-feet of social distance. Although a full reopen would make six feet impossible for any school to achieve, if the hybrid model demonstrates that the other mitigation strategies are successful, it would make a full reopen much more viable.

Ultimately, the board decided on a compromise of a three-week period for the district to adjust and evaluate whether the mitigation strategies were appropriate to eventually ease into a full-reopen.

BOE Debate and Poignant Public Comments

Board member Jen Lalor emphasized the potential difficulty working parents would have in accommodating the hybrid model, and asked if the district was making a “fear-based” choice. Debbie Low, the BOE chair, responded that it was not a fear-based choice, but a smart one, allowing the district to test out and refine mitigation strategies while keeping students safe.

Smith added that it will also allow for students and staff to adjust to the new protocols and school day procedures with the extra safety precaution of having fewer kids in the school. Jennifer Falcone, the principal of Cider Mill School, emphasized these sentiments for her school, adding that she thinks a hybrid is absolutely necessary for the transition.

“The reality of moving almost 1,000 children, little children, who are not used to not touching each other, not being close to each other [back in school], I think that the reality is that this is not something any of us have had to deal with [before],” Falcone said. “I do not think we’re doing this out of fear–it’s a common-sense approach to what we are having to navigate as teachers, as educators.”

In past meetings, public comments have been scarce; last night they were plentiful and reflected a wide range of community concerns and opinions, some of which were detailed at length.

Dr. Jennifer Bendl, a clinician and mother of four, submitted a public comment arguing against any remote learning. She wrote that for students who are not personally at risk or have a family member at risk, and who follow mitigation strategies and stay home when sick, “forcing them to engage in online curriculum for an indefinite amount of time is unwise, unfair, and not based on any current medical guidelines.” She cited advice from the American Pediatrics Association encouraging an in-person school approach and suggested there be an opt-out for staff or students who do not feel comfortable.

Conversely, Wilton High School Science teacher Sarah Lewis wrote a public comment insisting that remote learning is the “only option” for Wilton High School. Lewis argued that no one’s life should be risked for something WHS faculty can complete online effectively. She added that the social-emotional toll of being “fearful of every person around you” and the potential stigma, guilt, and trauma someone could endure from unintentionally infecting classmates and teachers with the potentially fatal consequences is “a burden that we cannot ask anyone to bear.”

Other pubic comments reflected more nuanced concerns, such as the implications of the increasing popularity of “small learning pods” among some Wilton parents who are arranging private, in-person instruction at home for small groups of children in place of remote learning. The comment reflected concern that small learning pods would result in cross-cohort contamination, which “seems to expand exposure exponentially.” The question raised the point about what the district’s role can and should be in advising small learning pods on how to operate without increasing the risk of infection for students or staff learning in-person at school.

An additional round of public comments followed the board’s approval of the plan. Parent Zach Schiller raised questions on three areas of concern he felt were not discussed enough in prior meetings:  1) whether the district could conduct “pool testing”–a single test of 25 community member’s saliva samples, in which case a positive test would result in each person sampled being tested individually–to determine the efficacy of the schools’ containment efforts; 2) if the district could create clearly-defined requirements for the types of acceptable masks based on research about their effectiveness; and 3) whether the district has assessed if the HVAC or ventilation system in each school is sufficient. The BOE and Smith do plan to craft a policy regarding mask-wearing (though it is unclear if they will detail which types are acceptable). Additionally, the district plans to investigate and, if necessary, update ventilation systems in the buildings, as detailed in the plan the BOE submitted to the state.

Perhaps most notably, Lisa Hibbard, the vice president of the Wilton Education Association–the teachers’ union–submitted a letter for public comment on behalf of 70-plus WHS staff members who have “grave concerns” about any plan in which teachers and staff return to in-person learning. [Editor’s note–the letter is also published in GMW today.] The comment said that at a July 30 meeting with Smith, members of the WHS faculty vehemently reflected their concerns about in-person learning increasing COVID exposure, making faculty and students more susceptible to the virus.

“While it is true that Dr. Smith did not get any significant pushback from the faculty and staff of Wilton High School regarding the 2-1-2 model, it is not because we support the model itself, it is because it was never discussed in any detail at said meeting for one simple reason:  we have grave concerns regarding the implementation of any plan that involves a return to in-person instruction rather than a continuation of fully remote eLearning,” the comment read.

The letter explains that teachers must choose:  either return to work and put their health and lives at risk, or potentially quit their jobs. The letter pleads with the BOE to consider a model in which no one’s health would be risked and everyone would be safe.

Low reiterated that while the Board of Education listens to public comment during meetings, it doesn’t respond publicly but instead provides “appropriate additional follow up” outside of meeting sessions. However, following the reading of the WHS staff letter, Low reinforced that health and safety is at the forefront of any of board decision.

With that, the meeting concluded shortly after the solemn plea.

Hybrid Breakdown School-By-School

Though specifics of how each school plans to implement the hybrid model will be discussed in more detail at corresponding parent/teacher forums, Smith provided a brief overview of what the hybrid model would look like at each school.

All schools will divide students alphabetically into two cohorts–Cohort A (A-Le) and Cohort B (Li-Z)–so that siblings across schools would be in the same cohort days. Under the current plan, on Monday-Tuesday, Cohort A would attend school in-person and Cohort B would attend virtually; on Thursday-Friday Cohort B would attend in-person and Cohort A would attend online. On Wednesdays, all students would attend remotely on a shortened day schedule, with the last half of the day devoted to professional learning, teacher office hours, communication with parents, and individual learning.

Families could opt for remote-only learning; for all students, attendance during remote days would be required.

Miller Driscoll Elementary

Unlike the other three schools, Miller-Driscoll Elementary will accommodate the developmental needs of young learners by keeping class sizes the same as any typical year. Instead of splitting class sizes in half, the school will cohort by class and regroup classes alphabetically (keeping students in cohorts aligned with siblings). Even though each classroom will be full,  the entire school will only be half-full each day, and the M-D administration has identified enough large-space areas to maintain six-feet of social distance between students.

Administrators at M-D said that keeping class sizes the same would allow students to build “community connections” while having the same teacher in-person and remotely. Teachers would be in pairs, according to the plan, “to enable short term remote learning for students who need to be out for small amounts of time.”

In addition to the larger learning spaces, teachers would have a remote learning space where they would teach on their remote days. In the event of a full re-open, classes would use the remote learning spaces as classrooms instead of the larger spaces.

Cider Mill Elementary

At Cider Mill, students will be paired with three teachers (or in some cases four) to form a grade-level team. One of those three teachers would be their team-base teacher who, in the event of a full re-open, would become their classroom teacher. Cider Mill principal Falcone explained this utilize the teacher-team model to best support students.

“We’re trying to optimize the team structure that we’ve spent a lot of time building over the last few years to really reach both the on-site and the remote learners without needing additional staff,” Falcone said.

These groups would consist of about 65 total students (85 students if grouped with four teachers). Two teachers would be teach in-person to two cohorts of 12-14 students each per week, as detailed in the below example. The third team member would have a blended learning focus, with the purpose of figuring out how to best integrate remote students in the class. All would engage in remote learning. In the event of a full re-open, all teachers would teach their “team base” class.

Middlebrook Middle School

The Middlebrook Middle School schedule accounts for 38-minute classes, with two ten-minute mask breaks, a 10-minute checkout, and a 3-minute team-base check-in built in. The typical Cohort A and Cohort B alphabetical split will be utilized. Lunch breaks are staggered among the different grades and a stride block is built in.

Wilton High School

Wilton High School will follow a block schedule both in-person and remotely. On the shortened schedule on Wednesday, advisory will be held remotely. The cohorts will be split alphabetically.

One of the public comments asked if maintaining six feet of social distance would be possible for students in hallways passing between classes, as unlike the other schools, high schoolers would likely have to move from class to class throughout the school day. Per the BOE’s rule about not directly responding to public comments, the question was not answered.

Transportation and Technology Concerns

Officials once again reiterated that remote learning would look very different from the emergency eLearning students and staff endured last spring, largely thanks to the new learning management software, Schoology. Grades will be given, assessments will be planned, and a curriculum will be followed.

However, according to the BOE goals listed in the plans Smith released, teachers and administrators will have discretion on how much learning is live-streamed. In other words, while the BOE emphasized that live-streaming is “the cornerstone” of remote learning, it was not and will not be the only strategy.

One public comment said this statement seemed to be “backpedaling” from Smith’s previous commitment to live-stream learning, and questioned the effectiveness of online learning if the amount of live-streamed instruction would be at each teacher’s discretion. However, Smith, administrators and BOE members promised that this was not the case.

First, Smith said he consulted with a curriculum expert who has worked internationally to reopen schools, who emphasized that remote learning should not simply be a stream of the class where remote learners are treated like a “fly on the wall.” Rather, remote learners should be actively engaged in the class through a variety of different methods.

In fact, Smith said, teachers will actively look at each lesson to determine where live-streamed instruction is necessary versus where it can better be supplemented with activities or other tools to engage the class. Regardless, engagement, accessibility and creating a community of learners is at the heart of the district’s goals.

Secondly, in their goals, the BOE emphasized its commitment to ensuring the privacy of teachers was protected and respected, given teachers’ concern about live-stream instruction across schools. At Cider Mill, for instance, Falcone said when her staff considers live instruction, the “reality is [that] there’s a lot of trepidation.”

Low agreed, saying that a classroom environment between a teacher and student body is “magical,” but that magic “can be broken” when shared with the community. As detailed in the list of BOE’s goals, while families should support their children in remote learning, they cannot and should not intrude, disrupt, or interrupt live instruction in any way.

Smith’s recommended plan suggests revising the Technology Acceptable Use Agreements to protect teachers under the new procedures. For instance, recording virtual sessions will be strictly prohibited. The BOE said they will stand with teachers and advocate for them, and they plan to hold orientations to help families and students better understand the new expectations.

On a different note, unlike emergency eLearning last spring where it was difficult for schools to monitor which students were learning synchronously versus asynchronously, Smith said that will not be the case this fall. The expectation is that live-streamed instruction will be worked into the school day, with more group check-ins after activities or lessons so that remote learners can actively engage in the classroom. In fact in many of the school-specific schedules presented, check-ins were built into the day.

Smith clarified that despite the state’s earlier statement, remote learning days will count towards the year’s total number of school days.

Regardless, except on shortened Wednesdays, in the hybrid model remote learning will follow the same schedule as in-person learning. Attendance will be mandatory.

Low assured that although remote learning might not be the same as in-person learning, “it will not be a loss.”

In regards to transportation, Smith said there will be staggered arrival times so not all students arrive at once, and will be detailed in building-specific plans.

Staffing Update

On a different note, Director of Human Resources Maria Coleman provided an update about the staff following the most recent staff survey asking who may not return. Coleman said “several” staff members have resigned while an additional few have retired. There currently is one teacher asking for a leave of absence.

Nine teachers said they would return for a hybrid reopening but not a full reopening; eight said they would not return for either option. The survey will close Tuesday morning.

Coleman said teachers are expected back to work next week, so she anticipates knowing for sure very soon how many teachers won’t be coming back. However, she said that the district has placed out open inquiries about job openings to prepare if additional staff decide not to return.

Moreover, Coleman said that the district is “actively pursuing” childcare options to better accommodate staff. When polling staff, the district found “considerable interest” in childcare, with results indicating as many as 50 children would attend.

Coleman explained that the district has identified possible spaces it could set up childcare with proper social distancing and mitigation strategies and would partner with Wilton Continuing Education to help. Next steps include better defining the program and configuring staffing needs.

The cost would be covered by teachers, at about $12 an hour per child (with possible deals for multiple children enrolled); there would be no additional cost to the town.

BOE Solidifies Goals

In addition to approving the hybrid model for at least the first three weeks of school, the BOE also approved its goals as outlined in Dr. Smith’s statement. Aligned with those goals, the BOE members promised to make decisions based on current research and public health data, as well as on input from teachers and students/families. They also promised to ensure staff and students receive adequate training and information about the new systems.

Low emphasized that the situation requires flexibility and patience, and although they cannot please everyone, they will make decisions with the school community’s health and safety at the forefront.

“The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated development of new and as-yet-untested models for school reopening. The success of this year’s new models rests on the commitment, skills, and attitudes of teachers and families. Thoughtful and careful planning has brought us to this point. Moving forward requires willingness to innovate and take instructional risks together, flexibility to adapt in a fluid environment, shared responsibility, and support for one another. Moving forward requires sacrifice of some former practices and resolve to build for the time ahead remembering that our students get one chance at each school year,” Low read aloud from the statement.

Looking Ahead

Parent forums, discussing the nitty-gritty of each school’s reopening plan, will be held at the following times:

  • Tuesday, Aug. 11:  5:30 p.m.–Cider Mill; 7 p.m.–Miller-Driscoll
  • Wednesday, Aug. 12:  6 p.m.–Wilton High School
  • Thursday, Aug. 13:  6 p.m.–Middlebrook
  • Friday, Aug. 14:  9:30 p.m.–Special Services

To get a more detailed look into the district’s planning process and requirements, please see GMW’s past coverage, linked below: