The GMW Interview: Superintendent Kevin Smith Steers Wilton Back to School

Masks, Vaccines, Learning Gaps & Lessons Learned

Before the start of every school year, GOOD Morning Wilton interviews Dr. Kevin Smith, the superintendent of Wilton Public Schools to discuss the upcoming year. This year, we were able to meet in person when just one year ago not only did our interview have to be conducted virtually but the entire school year occurred with significant disruption and changes to learning thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Returning to school for the 2021-22 year, Smith has already disseminated information to the community about how the district is handling COVID-19 protocols and how district officials hope to return to something closer to “normal” for in-classroom learning. We dug a little deeper to hear from the superintendent what the year will bring.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  You wrote in your email to the school community about wanting this year to be as close to “normal” as possible, complete with quotes. Do you really think that school is going to feel normal?

Dr. Kevin Smith: The obvious abnormality is going to be the presence of masks, that’s where we are today. But in terms of the life of students, what we’re aiming for is to have our classrooms up and running the way they typically do. In-person instruction, all day, five days a week. There’ll be small group instruction. All of those interactions that at least our older kids are used to engaging in will be present again in the classrooms. The extracurricular activities, the athletics, all of those will be in place too.

We understand and know that school is a central place for kids and kids learn best socially. We’re really trying to ensure those pieces are in place so they can.

GMW:  You mentioned masks. The governor, Department of Public Health, State Department of Education are all requiring masks inside the buildings. The CDC is requiring masks on buses. It’s a requirement you’ve been told to follow. But some parents emphatically don’t want their children to be masked. Have you heard from families saying they don’t want masks? And how many people have you heard from if so?

Smith: We received, rough estimate, a dozen … 15, 18 emails from folks expressing a desire to either have a mask option or not have masks at all. More recently, we received probably about the same number expressing support for the mask mandate, and even a number of folks requesting that it just be in place for the entire year. So a small minority reaching out. But our first order of business is to promote the health and safety of all our kids and staff, and masks are an effective tool. And that’s the law right now.

GMW:  Is there an opt-out option if parents don’t want their children to wear masks?

Smith:  There is no option unless they meet criteria described by the state.

GMW:  What have you heard from staff and teachers about masks, or the teachers’ union?

Smith:  Nothing formally from the local Wilton Education Association, but the state-level teacher’s union supports the mask mandate. It’s still early, but my perception is the vast majority [of Wilton teachers] feels comfortable about that being in place.

GMW: Wilton has a pretty high rate of fully vaccinated teachers and eligible students.

Smith:  I’m very pleased so many have elected to get vaccinated and are fully vaccinated. Maria Coleman, our Human Resources director, and I have been looking at those survey numbers quite a bit. We have a number of [staff and families] we haven’t heard back from one way or the other.

Staff right now who are confirmed unvaccinated, for whatever reason, is maybe only about 3%. So I take a lot of comfort in knowing that folks have elected to take this proactive step, to be safe and to help keep our community safe. That will go a very, very long way in ensuring we can have a “normal” school year and maintain all the activities we’re planning.

GMW: Some CT districts, Stanford is the most recent, say their staff either has to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Has there been any discussion about something like that in Wilton? [Editor’s note:  just a few hours after this interview, Gov. Lamont issued a mandate for all CT K-12 staff to be vaccinated or tested weekly.]

Smith:  Maria and I talked about this. We ought to hold a lot of comfort in Wilton’s very high vaccination rate. Actually, I’m sure it’s greater because [some] people haven’t responded and we’ve confirmed a relatively small number of people who aren’t vaccinated. Beyond that, even in municipalities where they’ve mandated vaccines, folks have the option to get a medical or religious exemption. What are we doing if we mandate it, the folks that are gonna get the exemption are going to get the exemption. So then what benefit have we created?

On the other side, voluntary surveillance testing will be in place for us. And I’ll certainly continue to strongly encourage all of our unvaccinated folks to participate in that.

My intention is to get school up and running. We’ll monitor COVID activity. I feel pretty confident that we’ll be able to manage pretty well. But the way the Delta variant operates is scary, and, as we’ve already demonstrated over the last year and a half, we’ll adjust and adapt as we need to in order to promote the health and safety of all of our folks in our schools.

GMW:  How was the participation in voluntary surveillance testing last year?

Smith:  It was fairly low, maybe just five or 6%. As more and more folks got vaccinated that tapered off through the spring.

GMW: How were those decisions made for the protocols and procedures this year?  Who was involved in setting the COVID guidelines?

Smith: Primarily school administrators, Certainly around the safety protocols, we’ve leaned very, very heavily on guidance from the CT State Department of Education and the Department of Public Health. That guidance is also obviously reflective of the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics.

Beyond that, we’ve taken in all the feedback we’ve gotten from kids and families, staff, certainly through the spring as we were formulating plans initially. Beyond the COVID, in terms of the instructional practices, we rely on the experts here inside the district, and the expertise and literature that’s available to us. Our approach and practice is very similar to most high-performing districts like us.

GMW:  Were there any teachers that retired or left because they didn’t want to teach under COVID again?

Smith: Yes. Last year was a really, really hard year for a lot of people. I do know of some folks who just really didn’t think they could be their best professional selves and elected to retire. Less than a handful, but that’s probably true across the country.

GMW:  When you say less than a handful….

Smith:  Two that I could name off the top of my head, and there might be a couple more.

GMW:  More than what’s typical for the number of people that retire each year?

Smith: In a typical year, we probably have 3% turnover. Um, and so yeah, we definitely have more retirements and resignations this year and last year too, than we’ve had in the past.

GMW:  Has there been any difficulty in filling open spots?

Smith: We’ve done really, really well hiring. Fortunately, folks let us know pretty early on, so we started hiring right at the start of the typical school hiring season.

The positions that have been hard to fill are the hard-to-fill positions. You know, [Middlebrook’s Family and Consumer Science teacher] Heather Priest left us. She had a wonderful opportunity in the corporate world. She’s a unicorn actually, built this amazing program. So, aside from our personal love for her as a human being, the program she built is hard to staff. We’re looking for a special person and we’re challenged right now.

The others, we’ve been fortunate in math and science, we’ve hired some really good candidates. Those can be difficult to staff. The other area that’s been difficult to find the very best candidates has been Special Education. The demands are different now through COVID. Our standards are high and there’s just not a deep pool available.

GMW:  You’re not responsible for hiring bus drivers, but I understand there’s a bus driver shortage. How are things going at [the district’s bus vendor] STA?

Smith: I’m told that we have a full staff of drivers, and we’re ready to go.

GMW: Now, moving to classroom topics, you’ve explained what happens when individual students have to quarantine. What happens if an entire class has to quarantine? And what happens if many students spread out over a variety of classrooms and schools have to quarantine?

Smith: We learned some things last year. Number one, we knew and were reminded that, for the overwhelming majority of kids, in-person instruction is the most effective. It’s the social interaction, the social event of learning that can’t be as effectively replicated remotely. That became very apparent.

So we’re really doubling down on in-person instruction, it is far and away the most effective for the most kids.

We spent a good chunk of the year in a hybrid model. That was brand new for us. And we learned that, while it does have a purpose, it’s really not as effective.

Being home — and there were certainly developmental considerations, depending on your age and your readiness to learn, maturity plays a factor there too — can be very, very difficult for kids to really get the most out of lessons and learning through a computer screen.

On the teacher side, we heard loud and clear that managing that environment was super, super challenging. I don’t know of many teachers who ended the year and said, ‘That went really, really well!’ The dynamic of having to keep kids who are on the screen engaged and manage kids in person. In just about every classroom, it was difficult.

So, we’re not pursuing hybrid because we don’t believe it’s effective.

If we have to quarantine an entire class, we’re “remote ready.” We go back to everybody virtual for that class. Teachers did report to us that preferentially, while in-person would be first, their next-best choice would be having everybody remote.

GMW:  With hybrid as the third choice.

Smith:  Correct.

Now if we have [individual] kids out because they’re quarantining, we’re relying on a model we’ve had in place for some time. We have Schoology, so kids will be able to access their lessons. Some of that will be asynchronous for them. We’ll provide some tutorial support so they’ll have some in-person instructional support for the time that they’re out. Periodically teachers will check in with them and make sure that they’re up to speed. [And] we’re anticipating that quarantine periods will be relatively short.

The assumption at the moment is we’re not going to have vast numbers of kids who need to quarantine. If that changes, then we need to look at some kind of different remote option. [District Technology Leader] Fran Kompar is developing a framework for a virtual remote academy. We haven’t brought that forward yet because we’re still looking at curriculum and operations. We don’t honestly think we’re going to need it, but in the next coming weeks, we’re going to refine that. And if we have to fall back to that, then we’ll fall back to that, we’ll have an option.

And if we need to pull teachers to create remote classes, then we can always do that too. Last year we had the benefit of the experience. We had some people who did that, I’m thinking specifically at Miller-Driscoll who did it very effectively.

GMW:  So Schoology is coming back?

Smith:  Yes.

GMW:  There’s been some time to get more comfortable with it. 

Smith: What did we ask folks to do last year? Thinking first about our staff and then about our kids and families…

We asked them to learn in an environment that was very uncertain. We didn’t really understand how COVID works. There was a lot of fear and psychologically, that’s a problem for everybody. Then we asked them to use this platform that they didn’t know anything about, in a very short time period.

Beyond the platform, teachers had to take all of their course content — some of it was on Google classroom, some of it was other places, for some teachers it was all paper — and they had to digitize it and organize it in a way that kids can access it. That’s another tremendous time and focus challenge teachers had to engage in.

Then, we also added the remote [learning] and the hiring piece on top of that.

So I stepped back and looked at what our teachers did, and I understand the concerns and the challenges that were expressed, but to me, contextually, they just did an incredible job.

It’s that year’s experience that we have. That we understand the environment better, from a safety perspective — because of the vaccines, because of mask-wearing, we’re in a better place. They’ve got the wisdom from all of last year’s lessons. So I think we’re in a much, much better place this year.

GMW: I’m sure in a lot of ways you’ve been able to start to quantify and qualify where learning losses happened. How is the district going to address it, start to catch up, get on track and then get ahead of the track?

Smith: It’s a question of focus and intensity for us. We have good learning data through multiple measures that we’ve been looking at this summer — our SBAC data, our MAP data, we have our SAT and PSAT data. On those standardized measures that are all standard aligned, we can see very clearly where learning hasn’t been finished.

That’s really how we’re talking about this, as unfinished learning. Learning is always evolutionary anyway, and on a continuum. But we have a very clear idea of the standards that have yet to be addressed or need to be revisited because of that learning data.

The framework that we’re using is referred to as an accelerating learning framework, and there are a couple of key components to that:

  • First, really being clear about the priority standards and essential skills and understandings that kids need to have at each grade level. So we’ve done that. We did that work a year ago, so that’s in place.
  • [Second], we have now our most recent round of standardized assessment data and we’ll revisit standardized assessments again with a MAP [test] when kids get back to school. So we’ll a clear idea of where those gaps are.
  • And then our instructional approach really intends to focus on teaching grade-level standards, grade-level content to kids, and then supporting them through responsive lesson planning. That really means paying closer attention to kids’ achievement, those standards, in each classroom through daily and weekly lessons, through units, and then revisiting where the gaps are.
  • The next layer beyond the classroom teacher is the intervention work. Through the ARP [American Recovery Plan] grant, we’ve hired additional interventionists at each of the schools. So for those kids that need some more targeted support instruction, they’ll have access to those interventionists.

GMW:  How many interventionists were you able to hire with that?

Smith: We’re at like nine or 10? They’re not all placed yet, but primarily in the areas of language arts and mathematics, at Cider Mill, Miller-Driscoll and Middlebrook primarily.

The kids’ schedules will be reorganized. Some of that time will be pushed into classrooms. Some of it will be pull-out. The other part of that work with the teachers is really refining and strengthening our practices around data analysis and data usage. Really doubling down on some of those efforts to make sure that consistently across grade levels and teams we are routinely looking at student learning data and making sure we’re following up and then tracking every two weeks, every three weeks, every six weeks, whatever the appropriate cycle is.

I feel pretty confident that, we’ll be able to get our kids to the levels of performance where they really ought to be.

We did see in the data, for obvious reasons, our scores aren’t necessarily, across the board, where they were two years ago. That makes sense because we lost a ton of time, and the time we did have, because of hybrid and remote, it just wasn’t as effective.

But even that being said, our kids still learned last year. That’s very evident in the data as well. That just speaks to the quality and the strength of our educators and the quality and the strength of our curricular program.

GMW: How much extra do any of this year’s COVID precautions and modifications cost? And was that built into the budget for this year?

Smith: Last year the assumption that we built this current budget on was that we would be mostly beyond COVID. That was based on all of the scientific data coming through January, February, March when we were building the budget.

What we set up and agreed to with the Board of Finance was we will have what we refer to as our “ordinary costs.” Included in our budget are things like additional hand sanitizer, additional masks, cleaning materials, things like that.

But anything extraordinary that we might need to add — if we had to hire extra custodians, buy more sneeze guards — those kinds of costs wouldn’t be included in the current operating budget. We would go back to the Board of Finance for our supplemental appropriation. I see no need to do that today. What we built into our budget, we’re utilizing.

In terms of extra instructional costs, we knew we were getting funds from the federal government. The first round of funding came through the ESSER grant. What we dedicated those funds for comes in two parts — this current fiscal year and next, we’re dedicating those funds toward the hiring of an additional full-time math interventionist at Cider Mill and a half-time social worker at the high school. That was outside of the operating budget, funded by ESSER II,

[From] ESSER III or ARP, the American Recovery Program funds, Wilton Public Schools was allotted $834,230. So, we had to put a plan together, which we did (it’s up on our website). Based on what we saw and are expecting instructionally, we built the use of those funds around supporting additional intervention.

So we ran some summer activities for kids who were receiving intervention at the end of last year. We are hiring those additional part-time interventionists with that fund.

I’ve also been very mindful of class sizes at our elementary schools. And we know that Wilton has had all kinds of housing sales — 20 a week? So we’ve had quite an influx of new students. One of our goals was to keep our class sizes on the low end of our average. We built into the operating budget funds for one additional teacher if we needed it. And then if we needed additional beyond that, we would tap into the ARP funds. And so we’ve done that.

We saw, particularly in kindergarten and first grade, those numbers well exceed what the projections were. It’s not surprising. So we’ve hired three additional classroom teachers [for Miller-Driscoll]. Two of them are funded out of the ARP funds. So we’re keeping our class sizes somewhere in the 18, 19, low 20, maybe 20 in second grade.

So we have smaller class sizes. We have additional interventionists. There’s going to be a lot of adult instructional support funded through ARP, to make sure that we’re addressing the needs of our students as best we can.

GMW:  What kind of growth in enrollment have you seen?

Smith:  We are looking at a kindergarten enrollment of about 255. So that’s a difference of 40 more kids than we projected. We have 267 enrolled in first grade. The projection was 239, so that’s 28 more. Second grade we have 232, the projection was 205, so there’s 27 more there. Third grade is 21 more than projected. And then the numbers begin to taper. … We’re looking at about 169 students beyond the projection we got last November.

GMW: Do you have classroom space over here?

Smith: We do.

GMW:  Clearly, you’re putting an emphasis on social/emotional learning. What are you anticipating for students when they return with regard to mental health?

Smith:  I was very encouraged by the results we saw when we conducted the social emotional learning screener back in the springtime. The overwhelming majority of kids noted they were feeling safe and feeling comfortable and feeling connected, which is great news.

We’re still in an uncertain time. The way that Dr. Gerber explained it to me, which makes a lot of sense, if you were a little bit anxious before the pandemic, you’re more anxious during the pandemic; if you were very anxious before the pandemic, you are extremely anxious now. So that’s exactly what we’re anticipating this fall, that people are just more elevated. Even among the adults, we see that some of those anxiety-type behaviors are more elevated.

Consequently, now we have good structures and systems in place that we’ve been developing for some time, even before the pandemic, to help kids feel safe and connected in school, to foster that sense of community. That’s absolutely what’s most important. So teachers will be working right from the first minute of the first day to establish those community protocols and practices in their classrooms.

Beyond that, we’ve hired a half-time social worker for the high school, because we’re expecting that we’ll have some kids who in this large complex environment are just going to have more difficulty navigating. so they’ll need some additional support.

We’ll have a contract with Family & Children’s Aid out of Norwalk, so we’ll have additional staff provided through them, as front-line support. The other benefit we get with that agency is if we need to refer kids out, now we get to go to the front of the line for those kids and families.

Our team of mental health staff, they’re at the top of their game and are really tuned in to our kids, and also well connected to resources here in the community and in our region. They’ve been pretty effective at providing resources and support.

We’ve always had good connections and relationships with [Wilton Social Services Director] Sarah Heath in particular. She and [Safe School Climate Coordinator] Kim Zemo interface quite a bit.

GMW:  What would you have done differently last year and what big lessons did you learn from this year?

Smith: We laid out as our number one priority the health and safety of our students and staff. We made decisions with the best information available. We leaned on our experts. I wouldn’t change any of those things. This year, health and safety are our first priority. We’re going to lean on our experts. And we really have a lot of practice in being adaptable and flexible.

The piece that’s probably different, we know more now with respect to how the COVID-19 virus operates. With that understanding, with such a high level of vaccines among  staff and students that are in middle school and high school, I’m really committed to trying to make sure that the life of school, that experience for kids, is as safe, healthy, constructive, and positive as possible. We’re doing things like letting go of the sneeze guards. We are committed to running all of our activities and, I hope that people will appreciate the effort it took to get here.

GMW: Is there anything else you want to say about the start of the school year aside from all the COVID things we just talked about? Anything else you want people to know is happening in the district?

Smith:  We have a great school system and our focus is always on continuous improvement. I work with professionals here, certainly our Board of Education, our teachers in the classrooms always have an eye towards what can we do better? And I would just remind the community that we think we have a good system in place, but we also know that we can always be better and we’re going to be better and that’s our commitment and that’s our interest.

The other piece I’m really excited about, in 2018 we started in earnest this work around the Portrait of the Graduate. [We held] community workshops where we asked people about what is it that we value what’s important to us. We had some really rich conversation about our values and the skills and attributes that we want our kids to leave our schools with. As a result of that, we developed this Portrait of the Graduate that speaks to things like kids being self-navigating expert learners — what does something like that mean? We want kids to have all the skills necessary to be independent and to solve problems and to engage with others in constructive ways that serve our society well serve themselves in our society. I’m excited to re-engage in that work.

Also, the ideas around race and equity and inclusion have been ever-present across this country and here in this community. It’s an opportunity to revisit, what are the things that we do, and what are the things that we could do better? And underneath that, what are our core values? Having an opportunity to restate our core values in a way that may be more meaningful for some is a good idea.

When we talk about wanting every kid to feel safe and welcome and seen and heard in our schools, we want every kid. We know we have some kids and some of our minority students who don’t necessarily feel safe or welcome, or they don’t see themselves in the curriculum, and we need to pay attention to that and we need to respond to that. The conversations that we’ve had and some of the curriculum adjustments we’ve made that have opened up our curriculum and given voice to some perspectives that weren’t always represented is a good thing. Because it’s going to help kids feel like they see themselves in the material that they’re learning and that’s worth celebrating.

I know there’s the whole political question around “critical race theory” and all of that. I would just ask people who have those concerns to really just look open-eyed at what it is we’re actually doing and what our values behind that are. There’s no ideological agenda in play. We are teaching and preparing kids to be in a world that is increasingly diverse, and there are actual skills and attitudes and practices that kids need to be equipped with. We’re engaged in that. That is good, worthy work. It shouldn’t be scary and it’s not threatening. And honestly, it’s not altogether different than what we’ve done for a long time. It speaks to what we value as a broad community, what we value as a school community.

GMW:  Awesome. Anything else?

Smith: The last few weeks, just watching the COVID activity has been slightly depressing. In June I was so hopeful and optimistic that we’d be beyond masks. We’re not and I suspect that the numbers will continue to climb. But I have a lot of confidence in our community and our school community that we come together in hard times. We’ve proven that.

And so we’ll continue, even if we have moments where we’re not all in agreement, at the end of the day we have a track record as a community of doing what’s best and what’s right for kids. And sometimes it’s painful to get there. But we’re going to continue to do what’s right and best for kids.

And so, even in the face of these growing concerns around COVID activity today, I’m really, really optimistic about the kind of year we’re gonna have for our kids. I’m excited for our class of 2022. I’m excited for the work that’s underway.

I’m telling you right now, we’re gonna have a great school year.