At their meeting Thursday evening, Wilton Board of Education members voted unanimously to approve Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith‘s recommendation that Middlebrook Middle School begin transitioning to four-day in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 25.
The recommendation was made with input from state and town health experts, and taking into account community- and in-school transmission rate data, in line with the BOE’s goal of safely transitioning all schools back to in-person learning. The move was approved on the contingency that the board could amend the plan if COVID-19 cases do not remain stable, or if the school administration does not feel ready.
Smith said the most important factor in this decision is the in-school transmission rate, which he said has consistently remained low despite upticks in cases.
The transition would begin with welcoming 6th graders back to school on Monday, Jan. 25, 7th graders on Thursday, Jan. 28, and 8th graders on Friday, Jan. 29.
The move came despite intense concerns being expressed by Middlebrook’s teaching staff about transitioning to a four-day in-person model.
Wilton Education Association (WEA) president Andrew Nicsaji, who is also a Middlebrook teacher, submitted a letter to the Board of Education illustrating those concerns.
“There is no way to make the Superintendent’s plan for a full, four-day return at Middlebrook work in a way that it is safe for students and teachers and preserving instructional time,” the letter reads.
Nicsaji said that there is no plan for passing time, lunch, mask breaks, unstructured time, and maintaining six-feet of social distance in classrooms with full classes of students.
He said that a recent WEA Survey indicates that 98 out of 102 Middlebrook teachers–96%–say they do not feel safe or ready for all students to return in the month of January, specifically due to their concerns about the plan and Connecticut’s increasing COVID case and death numbers.
“The health, wellbeing, and safety of students and teachers shouldn’t be an afterthought in a hastily-put-together plan,” Nicsaji’s letter said. “Health, safety, and wellbeing should not be something we make work on the fly.”
Smith said his initial plan was to propose the transition start Jan. 19, but after talking with teachers, it was clear there was “a lot of concern and worry” that would need more time to address. He said the advantage of the new date is that the school would have two weeks to get teachers on board and prepare.
He added that Dr. Christine Macken and Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle will both visit Middlebrook school next week during lunch hours to observe how the school mitigation strategies are currently working in the hallways, and during passing times, lunchtimes and other periods throughout the day, and make any necessary recommendations for change.
As with Cider Mill and Miller-Driscoll Schools, once this plan is implemented Smith said he does not anticipate the hybrid choice will be an option for students, which he recognizes will be a disappointment to families.
A public comment from resident Beth Flavin reflected this concern, calling the four-day model “irresponsible and reckless” and suggesting that the proposal be “tabled” until the cases decrease and more information on the more contagious strain of the virus, which was just identified in the state, becomes available.
“This is not the time,” Flavin wrote. “If in-person learning is the goal, the four days [model] will severely backfire by alienating and excluding those who will be forced to give up their hybrid, in-person for full-remote. It is unacceptable to cater to a small group who will have four day in person at the expense of all other students who will be denied time at school.”
There will be a survey released to parents Friday, Jan. 8, asking about family preferences for full, in-person or remote models, as the previous survey did not have an option for a hybrid preference.
Smith said one of the most significant changes with this model is that social distancing space between desks would decrease with more students in the class, from about six feet to three feet. He assured that the Middlebrook desks would be equipped with sneeze guards as an additional mitigation strategy.
However, because the buildings are more densely populated in the four-day in-person model, Smith said the number of people that must quarantine in the event of an exposure would increase, as seen with Cider Mill and Miller Driscoll, as well as other schools in the county using a full, in-person model.
“That’s the trade-off when we’re making these plans and moving ahead,” Smith said.
Board of Education member Glenn Hemmerle expressed concern that the teachers were not on board, saying the plan “was doomed” if the teachers didn’t believe in it.
Acting Middlebrook Principal Jory Higgins and Dr. Smith defended the teachers and acknowledged the legitimacy of their fears, but Smith reiterated that their goal of giving students the best support and education possible, along with the continued success of the schools’ mitigation strategies, makes this plan worth pursuing.
“They are concerned and we do want to hear them, we also need to be very clear about why we would even be moving in this direction,” he said. “We also have a mission and our mission is to provide the best possible education and support as possible, and many of them are suffering.”
Smith added that he is in regular communication with the superintendents in Darien and New Canaan, who both adopted a similar model for their middle and high schools in October, under similar circumstances.
“From their perspectives, they were very encouraged by that move,” Smith said. “The pattern they described is the same pattern we’re seeing here, there’s a lot of worry and concern, and when students are back in the schools, some of that worry subsides.”
Another family sent in public comment pleading for a four-day in-person model for the social-emotional and academic wellness of their child, who they said had not been adapting well to the remote model.
“Our 8th grader has gone from being an A-minus student to currently being at the point of failing most of his classes,” wrote the Torres family. “Now that we are almost halfway through the school year, we implore the Board of Education [to] give the kids a chance to properly learn once again.”
The Board of Education members reiterated that their goal is to return to in-person learning in order to provide the best support and learning for students, but that the plan is “fluid and flexible.” If there is a change in health data or Smith’s recommendation, the Board of Education decided to adjust as needed at the next Board of Education meeting on Jan. 21.
Smith said he will meet with Wilton High School principal Dr. Robert O’Donnell Friday to begin discussing ideas and plans for the high school to return to a four-day in-person model as well.
COVID Case Numbers and Logistical Updates
Current COVID-19 statistics, updated from the CT Department of Health on Thursdays at 4pm, have indicated a slight uptick in case data and test positivity rate, Smith said. This marks a change from the past trend throughout December, where cases were decreasing.
Smith said that the data does sometimes lag behind several weeks.
Fairfield County COVID-19 Data
- 50 average daily new cases (vs. the previous report of 43.8)
- 8.2% positivity rate (last report 7.4%)
Wilton COVID-19 Data from CT DPH
- 20.2 average daily cases per 100,000 people (last report 14.8 cases)
Earlier in the week, Smith said Bogle reported Wilton averaged three new cases daily, but as the week has progressed the number has grown to about 10 new cases.
Smith said on the more updated COVID Act Now website, the average daily new case count for the county had jumped from 56.1 to 59.4 between Wednesday and Thursday. He said the town is continuing to monitor these rates closely.
As far as school data, he had the following case and quarantine figures to report:
Smith said that these numbers make staffing challenging, but not insurmountable.
Updating on school COVID testing, Smith announced that free, state-provided antigen testing will be offered for free at Dr. Macken’s practice, Doctors’ Pediatric, for any staff or student experiencing symptoms. He additionally pointed to Our Lady of Fatima‘s PCR testing site as a resource.
He also updated the Board about his previously mentioned idea of surveillance testing for the schools, saying that at this time he did not think it was a valid option. Surveillance or “pool” testing, rather than a typical PCR test, involves testing a random sampling of the school community as one pool sample to monitor group COVID activity. If the test came back positive, each individual in that sample would get a follow-up test. Though initially believed to be a cost-effective model, after reviewing it with the state Department of Health and Bogle, Smith now believed that such testing may not be worth it given the school’s relatively low transmission rate.
Director of Human Resources Maria Coleman said that although the CDC and the Connecticut DPH have new guidance about potentially shortening the quarantine period for certain individuals, the Wilton Health Director advised the school to maintain its 14-day quarantine period after exposure as a precautionary measure, given that individuals in quarantine are responsible for monitoring their own symptoms.
As far as when educators may gain access to the vaccine, he said that the state has not yet decided who is eligible to receive it under the next planned Phases 1.b. or 1.c.
Board of Education member Mandi Schmauch commented on in-person attendance shrinking, asking if the district had any statistics about students choosing to learn remotely.
Smith said while the “why” is hard to discern, Middlebrook, Cider Mill and Wilton High School school have experienced an increase in remote learners throughout December, from about the mid to low 100s in December, to over 200.
2021-2022 Goals and Budget Assumptions
The Board of Education also approved its 2021-2022 Goals, envisioning it would be the year of transitioning out of the pandemic.
In the discussions, Board of Education members that they should strive to find a balance between creating new goals and meeting pandemic needs, as to not stretch the board “too thin,” Lowe said.
The 2021-2022 Goals were approved with the understanding that it is a “working document.” Smith said he plans to add a goal to address capital planning processing and implementation of new high school courses as well.
Hemmerle commented on the fact that technology was not included in the plan despite the expense. Smith responded that since the district’s technology goals were defined in a multi-year plan in years prior, school officials are continuing with that already-defined plan. Currently this means maintaining what already exists, such as having a fund to replace Chromebooks and Smartboards as needed and deferring longer projects such as creating more multimedia space.
The Board also addressed the new pandemic-necessitated goal of “learning recovery,” asking if the language used covers all potential needs. Smith said that this is an emergent plan that they will amend as they get more data.
The Budget Assumption, renamed from “Pandemic Recovery Assumptions” after a board member comment, listed expenses expected to carry over into the new budget, many of them pandemic related.
The document stated the student enrollment is expected to be higher than initially projected to include families that had homeschooled students or sent them to private school during the pandemic but will choose to return next year.
Other factors, like Special Education Litigation and the potential to replace ventilation systems given that they are running at maximum, could also impact the budget.
Additionally, Smith said he hopes to retain new K-5 staff recruited this year into the next school year so classes could remain at relatively lower capacity. Though it would have financial implications, Smith said class size optimally would be about 17-19 students, eliciting agreement from the Board.
Smith also addressed a final assumption, that “remote learning opportunities will persist,” as one of the unexpected bright spots of the pandemic for some students that will carry on into future years.
The Board voted to approve the assumptions.
Graduation requirements were also approved without further BOE comment.
Comment on Current Events
Deborah Lowe, Board of Education chair, began the meeting with a statement on behalf of the entire Board in condemning the storming of the US Capitol on Wednesday, and vowing to support students through this time.
“It may seem strange that our small town local school board is adding to the commentary, but yesterday’s appalling events strike at the heart of our democracy and many of our students were watching,” she said. “We worry how this will impact them.”
“As BOE members we can redouble our efforts to ensure they are provided with an excellent education. We are reminded that education is fundamental to a free and stable society within a school system,” Lowe added.
Smith thanked the staff for helping students process the events happening in Washington in school.
He also addressed Wilton Schools’ involvement in Wilton Cares, asking organizations in town to “redouble their efforts to check in on folks and remind people they are not alone in this time of such intense social isolation.” The group will create a shared event calendar, and support resiliency training efforts for adults and young people.