Thursday evening’s (June 3) penultimate Board of Education meeting was an upbeat one all around. One of the high points was Superintendent Kevin Smith‘s announcement that the 2021-22 school year will be in-person, full time, for five days a week.
“We can count on that,” he promised.
Smith was reluctant to release specific details about next year’s full plan until the CT State Department of Education releases its own complete guidance, he wanted to share what he could publicly without raising expectations too much.
“I’ve held onto it because I have been anticipating some published guidance from the state department of education. In the most recent call I participated in, I got the very clear sense that, while guidance from the State Department of Education will be forthcoming, it’s not going to come anytime soon, perhaps in the middle of the summer, we’ll get some information about the fall,” he explained.
Wilton schools will have a “more typical, more routine school and school day schedule,” Smith said.
One thing that has been corroborated by state education officials is that there will be no full remote option.
“We will have the capacity to be full remote, should we need to. What we’re talking about now is being ‘remote ready,'” Smith said. He elaborated that the district would have the ability to switch to remote learning if COVID-19 cases flare or if there is an outbreak in a classroom or school.
“We’ll have the capacity to quarantine and to pick up remotely. So that will be in place and ready to go,” he said, adding that remote learning is an option for weather-related closures as well.
“I think one day this year where we went full remote on a snow day, another day, was it more typical snow day? So we’ll have the opportunity to do that. Should we need to,” Smith said.
Board member Gretchen Jeanes asked whether families who are not comfortable having children return to school would have any remote options.
Smith said there would not be.
“Full-time remote option? No, there’s not, not at this point, at least, I should say. For those families, … the building administrators will be in touch with families and I would ask families also to be proactive with us. And, as those concerns are surfaced, we’ll do our best to work with them. But we won’t have a standalone option.”
Administrators are working on establishing how to respond for students who may need a temporary remote option.
“That was something we accessed quite a bit this year. So as individual students quarantined or had other circumstances in their lives that prevented them from being in school in-person, they were able to remote into their classrooms. So a lot of questions to unpack about how to manage that, how to do that under what circumstances,” he added.
Smith said teacher perspective weighed heavily on the decision to rule out ongoing remote options.
“We also heard from teachers very loudly and clearly that managing the hybrid classroom on a daily basis was just untenable. And they believed very strongly that the quality of that classroom experience was degrading in having to do that. So we really need to honor their perspective, but also find a way to support those kids who may need to be temporarily remote. And so we’re really fixated on, um, developing some plans and opportunities to do that as well as we can,” he said.
Smith has given thought to how the district will handle other mitigation strategies next year as well — pointing out that whatever final plans the district puts in place will be “guided by the COVID-19 prevalence rates locally and in the region,” and corresponding guidance from the CT Department of Public Health and the SDE.
“If all things are equal today, we may start the school year where we’re wearing masks in school. That’s something to be determined, but that’s what I’m thinking about right now. I think we will go back to having classes that are a typical size. So while there might be some social distancing, it’s not going to be a three-foot minimum,” Smith said.
He continued: “We will have typical routines as we’ve had in the past. We’ll fully utilize our buses. And we won’t likely cohort in the way that we did this year. And so our regular operations within the school day will feel like they did pre-pandemic for the most part,” he said, adding that there will still be the hand-washing and hand-sanitizing regimen kept in place along with “respiratory etiquette,” building ventilation and offering voluntary pool COVID testing.
One thing that will go away is the use of sneeze guards on students’ desks.
Smith said that visitor restrictions will be lifted and extracurricular activities will resume.
“On the whole, next school year is going to feel, for those who have been in school for some time, like school is supposed to feel,” Smith said.
One of the biggest COVID-era changes that will be kept around when needed is the use of Zoom, something that Smith noted was a “silver lining.” That was illustrated by the hybrid BOE meeting Thursday, in which almost all attendees participated remotely via Zoom, while the BOE members met in the school’s board room in person for the first time since Feb. 20, 2020, the last meeting before the start of the pandemic.
“Zoom, as annoying as it is when you’re on it all day long, actually is a gift in terms of productivity and efficiency. So we want to exploit the opportunity that comes along with Zoom. I imagine that we’ll have many meetings that are offered in Zoom simply because it’s more convenient for families. It’s more convenient for teachers,” Smith said.
Over the summer, administrators will focus on transition activities to “help our students reorient themselves to school.” Smith specifically mentioned “our little ones who have absorbed all kinds of messages about health and safety and school, and really haven’t had an experience of what kind of a typical school day might feel like.”
He also mentioned looking at opportunities to orient students transitioning between schools (e.g. from Cider Mill to Middlebrook) as well as the many new families who have never been inside the schools. Those plans included in-person meet-the-teacher days in the days leading up to the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 30.
Smith reminded everyone that the plans he’d outlined were still assumptions, “dependent on guidance that comes forward.”
“Just know that, like everything else this year, it’ll be subject to change,” he added.