Smith Makes “11th-Hr. Change,” Cancels Schools’ Half-Day Orientations: “We’re Not Ready”

With teachers behind on learning Schoology and delivery of masks, PPE, signage, etc.delyed by the storm, Superintendent says more prep time is needed; Plus–the BOE tackles the fall sports holdup and pleads with Wilton families to "take this seriously" on masks and distancing.

At their meeting Thursday night, Board of Education members were uncharacteristically heated and somber, 10 days after initially approving the district’s hybrid plan for reopening. Discussion centered around Schoology system failures and storm-delayed professional development and PPE supply delivery, all prompted by Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith bringing an “11th-hour change” and calling for the Aug. 26 and Aug. 28 orientation days to be canceled to allow for further teacher and administrator training and planning.

“From an instructional, educational point of view we have to take the time that we need to make sure we can be as ready as possible,” Smith said. However, he said he does not see “any benefit” in delaying school past the scheduled start day, Monday, Aug. 31.

Smith asked the board for 24 hours to come up with a well-thought-out plan, as he said many administrators on the call were unaware of the change, but the urgency was clear:  “This is absolutely what we need to do,” he reiterated, suggesting that orientation would instead be folded into the first full days of school.

Smith’s surprise change highlighted the theme of this Board of Education meeting–in his words “our favorite f-word, flexibility.” The Board was asked to look at the district’s readiness to reopen, review and discuss enrollment and survey figures, as well as discuss athletics and additional FTE requests. What was ever so clear was the growing price tag the school must accept to make reopening even possible, as well as the community’s essential role in making that happen.

School Readiness:  “We’re Behind”

The meeting started off on a somber note as the board read aloud a public comment written by a Wilton High School math teacher providing troubling insight into the district’s current state of preparedness, and pleading for a delayed start.

“The teachers, schools, and district are simply not ready. There are virtually no safety protocols in the school, no signage, no sanitizer, ineffective masks… [is] what I have observed since coming back to school,” she described. “I can tell you this was very disturbing for teachers at the high school.”

An additional concern was Schoology–the schools’ new learning management system touted as being the anchor for all three models of reopening. Due to system failures on Schoology’s part–failures the board had initially feared–teachers lost a day or more of training. In her comment, the teacher stated that she had received no training on how to live stream her classes. “There were just cameras in our rooms with no instruction,” she wrote.

“We are not ready. The stress and anxiety that this is causing for teachers is truly palpable is this really who we are?”

In response, Smith said she is absolutely right. Though his recommendation to cancel orientation didn’t come in response to the teacher’s comment alone, his sudden decision was one he made after evaluating teacher training and hearing similar concerns across the district.

“We’re behind. It’s a significant setback and we have to be ready,” Smith said.

Wilton schools will keep the Aug. 31 start day the same not only to limit more changes, but because an additional day of staff work is cost-prohibitive given the already staggering COVID-19 price tag the district faces. Fine-tuning orientation for Cohort B–which starts off with three days of online school before ever stepping foot in the buildings–is among the challenges they must address. Smith also reiterated that staff comfort and readiness is key.

Though he anticipates “all teachers in America” are calling for more time, he called cancelling orientation a relatively easy change the district can make to devote more time to preparing faculty members for a successful start.

Reopening Plans–New Data and Signs

In response to the teacher’s public comment about the lack of progress on in-school setup, Smith explained that his initial target date for installing signage and sanitizer stations was students’ first day back (Aug. 31), though looking back he understands this may not have been most prudent. He anticipates signage will be complete by the weekend and said that PPE arrived late due to the storm but is in the buildings now.

This aligns with what he told GOOD Morning Wilton just one day before:

Survey data showed the “overwhelming majority” of students have opted to participate in the district’s hybrid model. Of those learners, about two-thirds (1,836) will be driven to school and the other one-third (933) will ride the bus.

Bus routes will proceed as normal and administrators anticipate the numbers will allow for ample social distancing onboard buses. The schools released a comprehensive transportation plan in their last email to parents, and Smith reiterated last night that the buses will be “thoroughly cleaned” at least twice a day, all bus drivers and riders will be required to wear masks, windows will be open (weather-permitting) and extra masks will be on-hand if needed, though students are expected to bring their own.

Smith reported some interesting trends in the district’s enrollment data. Kindergarten numbers were up by 21 students from what officials anticipated, something Smith said is likely due to the real estate boom the town is experiencing. Any decrease in enrollment is likely due to students moving, transferring to private schools, or selecting home schooling, a previously-rare Wilton choice. Smith noticed that “particularly at the lower schools” administrators are seeing a slight bump in students transitioning to homeschooling–he estimates there are currently seven or eight homeschooling requests, where in a normal year there likely would be only one or two.

Offering families childcare options is something being explored by Wilton Continuing Education, to be located offsite and available both for families who need someone to take care of their children on assigned remote days as well as for teachers’ children. Administrators are currently working with Wilton YMCA officials on using their facility, but Smith says they have “run into some barriers.”

In some positive news about the district’s preparedness, however, Smith reported that the HVAC systems were in “terrific condition,” well into compliance with the CDC and DPH guidelines. The maintenance team upgraded the filters in each system and increased fresh airflow.

Smith also gave an update on the COVID-prevention and directional signage, which will colorfully and clearly articulate the protocols in a cheery fashion. Miller-Driscoll Elementary School Principal Kathryn Coon said that she loved the “adorable” look of the signs which are already installed in her building.

Smith also reminded the community of the district’s comprehensive reopening webpage and specifically highlighted the “FAQ” button as an additional resource for families.

The Board thanked administrators for their reopening orientation videos they recorded for their students. One Board member brought up a concern about technology glitches during Thursday’s virtual online orientation for high school students, to which WHS Principal Dr. O’Donnell said that he promises to make sure all students have an equal orientation experience.

High School Sports Update–CIAC and CT DPH Confusion

Smith reviewed the stop-and-start holdup with interscholastic high school fall sports, which hopefully will be resolved Friday, Aug. 21. After the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) released “fluid” guidelines in July allowing all fall sports to open as planned when implemented with mitigation strategies, a series of conflicting recommendations soon threatened that edict.

First, the CIAC Football Committee recommended that football be postponed to a spring start to lower the COVID risk of the high-contact nature of the sport, but that recommendation was rejected by the CIAC Board of Control.

But the following day, the CT Department of Health (DPH) made new recommendations in a letter to CIAC:  postpone all fall sports until late September to allow time for ample training for coaches about mitigation strategies while schools adjust to reopening; and cancel or postpone two high-contact sports, football and indoor volleyball, entirely.

The DPH letter and new guidelines were startling to athletes, as earlier this summer DPH had initially green-lighted athletics moving forward. Yesterday CIAC and CT DPH met to discuss what they called inconsistencies in the DPH letter–for instance, field hockey, another high-contact sport–wasn’t included with football and volleyball. The CIAC also planned to ask the DPH what had changed between summer sports and now.

Nonetheless, no matter the results of the meeting and decisions of the league, Smith said Wilton’s preference was clear:  once the recommendation is clarified, Wilton will follow the Department of Health.

“As I’ve been watching this sports saga my recommendation to this Board and to our community is that regardless of where the dust settles, we need to follow the Department of Health guidance,” Smith said. “We’ve been following their guidance in just about every other arena, I can’t imagine why we would depart from the DPH guidance for athletics. Whatever that guidance is, it should be Wilton’s policy to follow it.”

In the meantime, everything is “paused,” McDougal said. Football, for which players were supposed to start conditioning for the season on Aug. 17, has not begun, and athletes in sports that are set to start conditioning on Aug. 24 don’t know if they will. Athletic Director Chris McDougal and Smith said they expect a decision will be made sometime Friday.

The Board members said they understand the town’s passion for sports, especially given the letters they received from the Volleyball and Football boosters, but that they will ultimately vote to make the safest choice.

“We totally understand the passion in the community for sports, what it does for the mental, social, health of kids on lots of different levels. So we’re not diminishing that and we [are] taking it seriously, but we’re trying to put it in the context of a global pandemic and worrying about health and safety and trying to get our academic program in-person as much as possible,” BOE Chair Deborah Low said.

FTE Expenses and Community Compliance:  “If students are on this call listening…take this seriously”

In a serious note, Smith and the board members discussed their growing concerns about community compliance with COVID mitigating strategies. Specifically, Smith reflected on a photo someone had shared with him of soccer players congregating shoulder to shoulder likely after a practice, with no signs of masks or social distance. He also said he has heard repeatedly from Wilton Parks and Recreation officials that they are tired of correcting behavior of community members. No matter what town officials plan or pay, he said, it is really up to the young people and their families to make the social commitment to stay safe.

“What I’m saying to everybody and I think we all need to repeat this message:  our goal is not to get to the first day of school, our goal is to get to the last day of school. And we all know … that in-person learning is preferable for just about everybody than remote learning. The only way we’re going to be able to stay in person is if all of us do our job and practice all of these mitigation strategies. So we’re going to be working with our students, but I’m asking that if students are on this call listening, they need to take this seriously.”

Anticipating that schools will have to continually enforce protocols led Smith to make a hefty FTE request:  authorizing $441,000 to be set aside for the year to hire seven additional campus supervisors, three of which would be placed at Cider Mill Elementary School, two at Middlebrook Middle School, and two at Wilton High School.

Smith initiall made FTE requests at a late July meeting, but the Board deferred action until last night’s meeting. He reiterated that none of the FTE requests he was proposing are luxuries–instead, they all reflect serious, well-thought-out school needs, he said.

The requested campus supervisors would be in addition to the existing campus supervisors the school already has in place (although Wilton High School recently reduced the number of campus supervisors). Their responsibilities would include enforcing the COVID-19 protocols around the building and supervising students at drop-off, pick-up, and lunch due to the increased number of spaces around the buildings where students will be eating, including in hallways and by bathrooms.

After a heated debate that dragged the meeting long past the two-hour mark, administrators repeatedly emphasized that such intense supervision was necessary, especially at the high school level.

“The request for two at the high school is a very modest request… we are very diligent and conscientious of cost… but I think we need to be cognizant that we’re talking about health and safety here. So envision already some additional supervision ensuring that students are socially distanced, that they are even sanitizing their hands upon arrival…to really get that culture we are trying to create,” O’Donnell said.

Given the expanse of the high school, Dr. O’Donnell said fulfilling this “modest” request is essential to students’ safety.

“Students, they just tend to want to gravitate together, they aren’t wired to stay apart and we just really, really want to keep them safe.”

Where the debate centered was on cost that would be incurred by the request. Smith explained that because the campus supervisor role is an existing one, it falls under union work and thus must be done through the union. Though district officials can negotiate pay, it will likely not change much from what was quoted. He said that while the $440,000 estimated figure is on the higher side and includes benefits, the district may not have to pay that much depending on the success of the negotiation and how long the extra personnel are needed.

Because the roles fall under union work, they could not be filled with volunteers. Nor could volunteers be used because the district is limiting who enters the buildings. Additionally, administrators feared that students would not listen to volunteers–most likely parent–as much as they would a paid employee.

One bright spot was that the district would likely not have to pay the total expense–75% of any unbudgeted cost, including FTE requests, are eligible for FEMA reimbursement. After FEMA, the district could go to the state for funding. Regardless, adding new personnel would not be completely free.

One board member made a counter-argument–why should the town incur these significant expenses when students will continue to disobey the guidelines outside of school? Another member added that the fact that the district can’t control students’ behavior outside the class is even more reason to act in school, as “more risk is just more risk.”

This point was strengthened by Director of Human Resources Maria Coleman‘s comment that staff members have a serious concern about how student compliance would be enforced. Without hiring the campus supervisors, they believe enforcing will fall, andwould put them more at risk.

“It’s going to take everyone’s efforts to ensure that students are following the protocols but we can’t do it alone,” Coleman said.

At Smith’s recommendation, the Board decided to approve four of the seven campus supervisor positions, acknowledging that Coleman is actively working on lowering the expense. They will revisit the proposal for the three other campus supervisors at Cider Mill at the next meeting.

Among the other FTE staff requests approved by the BOE last night included a Middlebrook world language teacher and a 0.5 PE teacher. Both of these approvals would allow Middlebrook to effectively cohort each color instead of having to cross-contaminate. It also supports the school’s new STRIDE model. Hiring two cafeteria aides for Middlebrook was approved as well to help supervise lunches in classrooms there.

The most enthusiastic board member response came with their quick approval of hiring two building substitutes per school in anticipation of teachers’ increased cautionary absences. The board believed that having building subs on staff would not only create continuity in the classroom when absences do arise, as they receive the same training as staff, but it would also make teachers more comfortable taking an absence whenever they feel slightly under the weather which would help keep everyone safe.

The board also retroactively approved Smith’s hiring of an additional Kindergarten teacher, which he had done to support additional enrollment needs.

As un-budgeted costs, they are eligible for 75% reimbursement from FEMA, after which the district can appeal to the state for additional funding.

Looking Ahead

With teachers in the building and students to enter less than two weeks from now, the Board and Smith’s plea to families rings with more relevance now than ever.

“We’re going to be asking all the young people in this town to do the right thing and we’re going to be asking their families to really reinforce that,” Smith added. “It matters, the stakes are high, the stakes are really high for our staff, and we just can’t say it enough.”

The BOE will meet next on Aug. 27.

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