[The GMW Interview] Andrea Leonardi: Extended School Year’s Success Paves the Way for School Reopening

The daunting unknowns of the 2020-2021 school year loom over Wilton. But one school administrator says there’s already a success story that demonstrates how the district can handle complications caused by COVID-19.

Wilton Public Schools’ Extended School Year (ESY) offers students with special needs extra learning support and curriculum over the summer. This summer’s ESY began running partially in-person two weeks ago. With masks on, cohorts formed, and extensive safety measures in place, the program has been running in a way in which Assistant Superintendent Andrea Leonardi couldn’t be prouder.

Leonardi virtually “sat down” with GOOD Morning Wilton last week to discuss how ESY school is working and how teachers and staff are troubleshooting any challenges. ESY does operate with some features that make adopting safety measures easier, such as having fewer students and individualized learning; however, Leonardi does provide insight into what school may look like for all students come fall.

The interview was edited for brevity and clarity when necessary.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  Tell us about ESY? How many students participate? 

Andrea Leonardi:  Extended School Year is a part of IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], the law that governs special education. Each student’s team meets annually and discusses whether or not they require extended school year as a function of a free and appropriate public education.

Every year, we put together an extended school year program and it meets the needs of anywhere between 150-250 kids, ranging from a couple times a week of reading instruction to a full day for any program for five or six weeks. So it’s a wide variety, each individual student’s program is very much individualized based on their needs in terms of where they ended the school year, and where we want to be at the start of the [next] school year.

This year, obviously, things were significantly different based on COVID-19 and buildings being shut down. We worked very hard from early spring… to think about how we could serve the population of students who continue to require extended school year services and meet their wide array of needs.

We thought about virtual, about face-to-face, about some hybrid of the two. Ultimately we consulted with all the families, we consulted with the community in Zoom meetings in the spring and we determined what we would do is continue virtual learning for the vast majority of our students…with teachers who are working with teachers and therapists, speech pathologists, counselors, OTs, and then we focused our face-to-face work on our most complex kids who really do require much more intensive instruction and face-to-face work.

We thought it would be important and imperative to meet a couple of goals. First and foremost safety for the staff and the students, but also we wanted to be able to work with students on a lot of the social distancing protocols that might be necessary should we be able to open in the fall, so that kids would be comfortable in an environment where not only were they were wearing masks and PPE, but they were seeing everyone else in masks and PPE.

We met with families in early May and talked about what we’d need to do and what they’d feel comfortable doing in order for us to bring the kids to school. We worked with the staff, with the Health Department, with our town medical advisors–we worked with everyone to come up with a plan for how to bring our students to face-to-face instruction safely for both staff and students.

GMW:  Did students have a choice to go online if they were uncomfortable learning in-person, or if they had medical conditions that would make it more dangerous?

AL:  Yes.

GMW:  What was it like preparing the physical spaces [Miller-Driscoll and Wilton High School] for a safe reopening and training teachers and staff for this new normal, and what was the expense?

AL:  Differing information was coming at us almost daily. One day it was the buildings are closed, everyone would need to be tested, and testing would have to happen every couple of days….very rigid and strict [guidelines]. In the middle of our planning for all of that, the state came out with a new set of guidelines that basically said…everybody can go to school. So, one of the challenges was all the different information coming at us every single day because it’s hard to plan in an environment that’s so disrupted and unstable.

As you can imagine, when you’re dealing with students and families and a wide variety of staff, one of the things that would be nice is to have answers to their questions, and there were very few answers.

So we just had to start solving problems. What we’ve done since the beginning of this is solve one problem at a time so as the problems come, as issues arise, as challenges come forward, we sit down, we bring all the best information to the table, we run it against all the best information from the Health Department, the CDC, and then we make decisions that are in the best interest of the safety of our kids and staff and support learning.

Where we started this in March and where we continue to be is that our number one priority is safety–safety of students and staff–and the learning experience. We want to make sure that that all the safety measures don’t get in the way of the learning experience to the maximum extent possible.

We purchased a tremendous amount and varied levels of personal protective equipment, because in special education for our most complex kids often [maintaining] six feet of distance is not going to work. We had to work with staff, with the Health Department, [and] with the guidelines to make sure everyone had a level of personal protective equipment they were comfortable with and that met guidelines for transmission prevention.

So it wasn’t just masks because, for example, speech pathologists need to work very closely with students and students need to see their mouth, so it became Plexiglas sneeze guards on the desk and face shields.

Our OTs and PTs work very closely in physical proximity to students, so they have to touch each other [and] be physically close. So we purchased disposable gowns so that could happen more safely and we could work with the staff so we had to fund and spent a fair bit on PPE to address that.

Disinfection protocols are significant. Luckily in ESY, when the buildings are all but empty, we could spread the students out. We capped all of our classes at five students and whatever staff, so we kept the number of total people in any room to 10 or less.

Each student has their own table. We bought each student a bin, and in that bin is all of their materials so that students do not share any materials…all of that needs to be disinfected every day. There’s a whole process we put in place for disinfection protocols.

Again, because we have the whole building to ourselves, we assigned a bathroom to each class and the students could use the bathroom one at a time and those bathrooms are disinfected throughout the day. We could do more contact tracing that way. We knew there wasn’t a lot of cross-cohort work going on, so that’s another piece we put in place to make sure students and staff were safe.

Each family is providing information [via] a CDC checklist questionnaire that each family responds to every day before they arrive, and then students’ and staff temperatures are taken on the way into the building. But again those opportunities presented because we’re really talking about [small numbers]–I think we have about 25 students at Miller-Driscoll and another 25 at the high school, so we have the [ability] to really spread out and keep people safe.

GMW:  Are those the only two schools?

AL:  Yes. We have about 25 students finishing pre-K to grade five at Miller-Driscoll and [25] students finishing grade six through age 21 at the high school.

GMW:  From start to finish in the school day, what’s it like for a student and what are the biggest differences from a typical school day from, say, last February?

AL:  The primary difference–this is different every year at ESY–is the total number of people in the building. First and foremost, we’re talking about a very small group of students and staff.

One of the biggest differences is just not being as free to move as you would normally. Between PPE, assigned bathrooms, trying to keep six feet of distance and not cross cohorts or kids, kids are moving from room-to-room less and staff are moving from room-to-room more. We’re trying to limit that movement to limit contact…

Kids do go outside, they get to stretch…and move, we’re very cognizant of that, but we make sure no two classes are out on the playground at the same time, that we’re really thinking about [not] crossing paths, as much as possible.

Once kids are in the classrooms, then the big difference becomes PPE and having people covered up so much…although the kids and staff are responding to it very well. It hasn’t caused a lot of difficulty–the kids are wearing their masks, people are doing that comfortably. We haven’t had any significant behavioral challenges–only one or two students are having difficulty with the masks and we’re working with them to try to help desensitize them to the mask so they’ll be better off in the fall.

GMW:  There all scary words you just used, like cohorts, PPE, contact tracing–words we never really heard before March. For parents or students who don’t know how to picture it, what does this look like implemented in the school and how are kids responding to it?

AL:  The staff put together a little PSA video, and it went home to the kids and families before ESY started to help explain the masks, to give them a visual of what things would look like and it was kind of light-hearted…it was really, ‘We’re going to wear masks and we’re going to have fun and we’re going to learn together.’ It really set up an opportunity for kids and families and staff to understand that the focus was really to continue to learn and have fun together. The mask was just something new. I think that presented and offered an opportunity for kids not to be so afraid. And the families did a great job talking to their kids, getting them ready, teaching them to wear their masks, giving them some preparation for what to expect. The kids have responded really, really well.

The kids missed their teachers, and the teachers missed their kids. The sheer joy on day one of people coming back together in something they knew and loved–it made the masks almost disappear. The mask became less important than being together.

GMW:  Something you said in the BOE Reopening Meeting two weeks ago stuck with me, related to that. You mentioned a desire to create a culture of, ‘We’re wearing masks to protect each other.’ Can you talk more about that and how that plays into a classroom environment? 

AL:  Creating a classroom culture is everything, when a teacher and a class come together and create their classroom culture about caring for each other, supporting each other and taking care of each other. The mask becomes a part of that culture, so we’re learning that while we’re all individuals and have our own individual needs, we also have responsibilities to our community, whether it’s our community as a family, as a classroom, as a town, and a nation and a world. The idea that we’re wearing a mask not only to protect ourselves but to protect others is an important piece of that teaching.

GMW:  What can parents do to help prepare their kids at any age to accept this culture and adjust to school’s ‘new normal’?

AL:  Parents can do a lot. They can talk to their kids about why it’s important that we take care of each other, why it’s important that we consider other people…We may not like to wear the mask, but we wear the mask because we’re a part of a community–we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves and want to share the responsibility to make sure that community is healthy.

Parents can do a great deal to help temper the anxiety, to know this is going to be a year we don’t really know and we all want to get comfortable with the unknown and making decisions and being flexible, and that it’s hard sometimes–but, together we can find ways to make it work.

We did so in the spring, and we’re going to continue to ramp up and roll out and solve problems one at a time. Kids are going to see adults working well together and that’s a great thing for them to model [and] to see–adults solving real problems that don’t have easy answers, and solving them together through dialogue and collaboration and creativity and innovation. Those are all terrific things for kids to see adults do.

GMW:  To some extent in Wilton, but more so nationally, there’s been pushback saying that a lot of the precautions are to protect students, that they’re not really about the teachers. What’s your take on this? How did teachers react to coming back and what safety measures did you have in place to protect the teachers and those who might not have wanted to come back?

AL:  The work of Extended School Year services is something people apply for in the spring. No one is required. Obviously the only people who applied are people who were willing to come do face-to-face work for that. We did have folks who said, ‘You know what, I can’t do face-to-face but I’m willing to do eLearning,’ and others who said, ‘I’m really not willing to do eLearning, I want to do face-to-face.’ Luckily we had staff for both options.

Teachers getting ready before the start of ESY.

We did a lot of training with staff–we brought them together, reviewed protocols, and talked to them about that discomfort, and that the number one priority was staff and students. We wanted every human being who came into the building to be safe and protected and know we had protocols in place for disinfection, that we’d be providing all of the PPE they wanted, and a range of PPE so that they could try different things to make sure they were safe, that we cared about their safety and the environment they were going to be in and we worked collaboratively with them. We brought in our Health Department and our town medical adviser to make sure they weighed in on what we were doing and felt we were providing a safe environment for everyone. I think we worked collaboratively to solve real problems and we’re continuing to do that, day-to-day.

When something comes up, we’re addressing it or dealing with it. We have new students who we don’t know very well, who are presenting with some behavioral challenges. We’re working with the staff to make sure they feel safe and comfortable with…how to manage that and maintain safety.

Now our focus is working together. We’re going to err on the side of safety and make sure safety is our number one priority and within that we’re going to solve real problems, in real-time, one at a time.

GMW:  In a situation where a student or teacher did appear to have COVID-19 symptoms or there was a positive test, what would the protocol be?

AL:  First, we have doubled up our nursing services, so both schools have two nurses available. One handles day-to-day operations that a nurse does, and the other is there to address any COVID-related issues.

If symptoms appear in a student or staff member, then we’ve set up an isolation area where the nurse would address their needs until the student or staff member could be taken home. We would ask that they be tested, or that they quarantine at home for 14 days. If a positive test came in…our first thing would be to consult with our health people to see whether or not we needed to shut down ESY and quarantine everybody for 14 days, which would likely be the outcome of a positive test. Our first consultation would be with the Health Department and our school medical advisor, but likely a positive test would result in a shutdown. And then we would move to eLearning for the remainder of ESY.

GMW:  ESY has been happening for two weeks now. How is it going and how did it compare to your expectations?

AL:  It’s going great. The kids and staff are doing beautifully…The kids have adjusted really well, the staff has done an extraordinary job at focusing on the learning and not necessarily on all the COVID-related stuff. COVID-related stuff is there, for sure, but the real focus of ESY is back to learning, and to our relationships with our kids and our families.

The staff is really doing a masterful job at engaging kids, the kids are responding beautifully, they’re engaged, they’re participating, and they’re learning again. That’s been really great to see and great to experience. The staff, the leadership, the teachers, the related services people, the paraprofessionals, they’re really doing an extraordinary job under extraordinary circumstances, and I owe them a great deal of gratitude.

GMW:  Another thing we hear a lot is, ‘Why is in-person school such a priority, why is it something that needs to happen?’ In your opinion, what does in-person school give this group of kids and what do they gain from being able to see their teachers and friends again in-person?

AL:  Human connection is an important thing, [and] learning is something that happens in community. Bringing students, teachers, and paraprofessionals together creates opportunities for that human connection and that opportunity to learn from each other and with each other, which is very powerful. It’s why we do it.

For students with more complex disabilities, it’s imperative, because technology can sometimes become a barrier. Many of our students with the most complex needs really do need very direct instruction done in very close proximity. They need teachers to be able to facilitate their learning, often by…engaging with them in close physical proximity. [For instance with] speech pathologists, you need to see the mouth.

That being said, we’ve seen a lot of success with doing teletherapy, doing eLearning therapy as well, so I don’t want to downplay the successes we saw this spring. We anticipate, should we need to continue that in some way, shape, or form at any point during the year, there was a lot of positive there. So I don’t want it to sound like it’s an either-or.

We’re also working very hard with the new learning management system Schoology and there’s so much possibility there that we can even further improve the eLearning experience. Should we experience times this year where the buildings are again shut down…

But it’s really the community of learning that’s so powerful–bringing people together, whether in a virtual environment or physically. That’s important. We’re very lucky in Wilton to have the support of the community, the technological resources, the human resources with technological skills. Our IT department, our Library Learning Commons staff, they’ve been so extraordinary in helping us reframe how to do this positively, whether it’s in school, in person, face-to-face teaching, or eLearning.

What teachers have been able to do has been extraordinary and I know we’ll continue to improve and be even better as we move into the next year.

GMW:  What advice would you give to students or parents that are feeling uncertain or nervous about the future and unsure how to picture what the school year is going to look like?

AL:  Right now, the greatest advice I can give everybody, is to breathe. The ground under us is shifting; every single day we’re getting new information, some good information some two-steps-forward-and-one-step back information.

I’d say, right now enjoy July. Stay in July, stay present, enjoy your summer, and as we get closer to the start of the school year things will become more specific and solid. Anything you’re hearing right now could change tomorrow. Enjoy July, and when August comes and we start to put forward…multiple plans–and those plans are going to be based on the parameters of COVID…the frequency, the testing, all those things–when you get the information, if you have specific concerns, specific questions, unique needs of your family, then communicate that back to your school, let them know what your concerns and questions are, let them know what your unique circumstances are, and people can help talk you through so parents can make the right decision for their children and their families.

GMW:  Thank you so much. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AL:  The more you can sing the praises of the teachers and the kids, [the better]–they are again the pioneers who took a risk. They took the risk and they’re doing the work. They’re the unsung heroes right now–those kids and those teachers who are out there trying new things. I couldn’t be more proud of them and more proud to support them.

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