Tough Choices for Wilton BOE and Superintendent on Bringing Back In-Person Teaching on Wednesdays

In the past year, COVID-19 has forced school officials to pivot, think quickly, and come up with Plans A, B, C, and often D for just about every scenario. They’ve had to be flexible, from navigating emergency learning during last year’s lockdown to this year’s many transitions between remote, in-person, and hybrid learning models as needed.

Now, Wilton schools have returned to the closest thing resembling full in-person learning since the start of the pandemic. Miller-Driscoll, Cider Mill and Middlebrook Schools have returned 100% of their students to in-school learning four days a week (M, T, Th, F), while Wilton High School has implemented a rotating schedule that brings 75% of the student body back to classrooms for those four days.

Wednesday has been the lone day still on a remote model for all students and teachers across the district. In addition, Wednesday has been scheduled as a half-day instructional day for students, leaving the afternoon for teachers to use as planning time as they’ve had to adapt to using new tools and methods in a much different learning environment.

But now some members of the school community have asked, should students and teachers also return to the classrooms in person on Wednesdays as well?

As has been the procedure since the pandemic began, Superintendent Kevin Smith was asked by Wilton’s Board of Education at its last meeting to develop a recommendation about Wednesdays for BOE members to consider and approve. Smith admitted the question has been the most challenging one that he’s wrestled with during an already very complicated year.

The decision-making for the board, it turned out, would be just as complicated too.

Superintendent’s Recommendation

Smith simplified the decision a bit–he’d chosen to keep Wednesdays as half-day instructional time for the remainder of the school year, no matter whether Wilton schools were in-person or remote.

“That was a commitment we made to our teachers at the very beginning, and it was intended to provide them with additional planning time as they navigated a new environment and so many new tools. This time has been and continues to be invaluable for our staff,” he promised.

Smith formulated his recommendation after speaking to members of the instructional staff, meeting with PTA presidents, reading through all of the written correspondence from the wider community, and surveying both families and staff. It was staff input that Smith said drove his thinking about what to do about Wednesday.

His initial recommendation:  “Beginning the Wednesday after spring break, I would recommend that we return our Miller-Driscoll students to on-site on Wednesdays. And we return on-site on Wednesdays any of those students with complex needs that necessitate in-person support… And then we retain remote learning for students in Cider Mill, Middlebrook, and the high school.”

Smith also recommended that the BOE discuss bringing back all staff to work onsite in the schools on Wednesdays, regardless of whether students were in the buildings or learning remotely.

He also clarified later in the meeting that he didn’t intend for every student with an IEP to attend on Wednesdays while their peers stayed remote at home. “It’s a relatively small population of kids who have really, really complex needs and just have the most difficulty accessing their education remote. And so those are the kids that I had in mind.”

Smith acknowledged that there were benefits and drawbacks to every option. “There is not a single option that serves all interests. And there are certainly many competing perspectives on this question.”

Miller-Driscoll:  Smith said two factors were key:

  • developmentally these students are the least independent and they seem to struggle the most with remote learning.
  • unlike the other three schools, M-D teachers have not been obligated to teach in a hybrid model for most of the school year. All but three remote classes are fully in-person.

CM/MB/WHS:  Several factors weighed on this decision:

  • the return to in-person learning would result in a loss of instructional time, due to transitions between classes
  • WHS would lose personalized learning time scheduled for Wednesday afternoons, which Smith said staff, students, and parents all said has been time well used and relied upon
  • WHS staff use Wednesday afternoons to reach out and support about 25 academically at-risk students.
  • Some teachers said remote learning provided the only opportunity during the week that they have to work with students individually, and many staff noted the benefit for students and for themselves of not having to wear masks.
  • teachers like having one day in the week where they’re not managing a hybrid environment and find benefit in having all students in a single location on Zoom. It was also a relief from needing to be constantly vigilant over mitigation efforts (i.e. reprimanding about mask-wearing, etc.)

“Teachers reported that they feel more effective when students are in a single place, and they’re not challenged to have to manage all of the hardware and the accompanying idiosyncratic issues that crop up with cameras, microphones, etc., to effectively manage the hybrid classroom,” he explained.

  • Parent feedback revealed that some parents would have difficulty making yet another schedule adjustment, including dealing with anticipated traffic during midday pickup.
  • Survey results
    • the majority of teachers at the three upper schools favored retaining remote Wednesdays
    • the staff at Miller-Driscoll was more evenly split, while the majority of parents favored returning students to school on Wednesdays
    • Parents at the other three schools were more mixed: about two-thirds of the CM parents who responded favored a return to in-person on Wednesdays; at MB about 55% of those who responded supported to return to in-person at WHS, 49% were in favor of returning students to in-person on Wednesdays.

Advocates of returning in person stressed a desire was a return to normal and described the struggle that many of their children were having maintaining engagement in a remote environment. Others appreciated a break in the week where kids didn’t have to wear a mask or deal with all of the mitigation strategies in school.

“I’ve really kind of gone back and forth on this one because I can argue it both ways,” Smith said.

A Question of Equity

What it boiled down to for Smith was equity.

“If we’re going to require that our Miller-Driscoll teachers be in the classroom and be on-site, then it seems to me to be fair to ask that we have all of our teachers onsite,” he said. “I just personally struggled with asking one segment of our staff to do something and then allowing another segment of our staff to remain at home. So I’m stuck on that one.”

Equity was a student issue too. “Wednesdays provides equity for those students who are fully remote. We also heard from a few [fully-remote] students who feel like they’re most part of the class on Wednesdays.”

He acknowledged that there are only nine more half-Wednesdays remaining in the school year. “If we were contemplating this decision earlier in the year, I’m sure I would most likely be making a different recommendation,” he added.

Wednesdays as a day for cleaning and allowing air to circulate in unoccupied buildings was key for maintenance staff as well, although Smith said schedules could be rearranged to accommodate a shift.

Several BOE members commented on the question of equity.

Jennifer Lalor spoke first.

“I’m still in the camp that all of our kids should go back. I understand that’s kind of been taken off the table and that we’re focusing on something different right now. Going back to those students–we already know they learn differently and making that more apparent is not what I want to have happen because of this change. If it became a situation where they’re going to be the only kids in the building, if there was a way to redirect their services so that they are getting one-on-ones or getting whatever they need and removing them from the classroom for that shortened day, I’d almost rather see that. Just so they don’t feel different.”

She also gave her opinion about staff equity.

“I don’t think anything’s been ‘fair’ this year. We had some teachers in a hybrid and some not in a hybrid, and we had some teaching four days and some not teaching four days. If I thought bringing back all the teachers would make it equitable, and everybody would think that was fair, I’d be in favor of it. But what we’re hearing is that teachers don’t feel like things happen equitable all year long. So why throw this in there and make them go into the building if you know the students aren’t gonna be there anyway. So if that’s really what we’re thinking about, then I would be in favor of just letting them stay home.”

Both Mandi Schmauch and Ruth DeLuca agreed that nothing has been fair or equitable all year.

“Nothing about this year has been equal across the board and there were teachers who came back sooner and did four days sooner than others. And if you look at the continuous cycle of a year, there are different modes of operation that reflect different needs of different kids in different buildings. I would be okay saying to the teachers that if they want to stay home, they can on Wednesdays. If their students aren’t coming, they can stay home as well,” DeLuca said.

Board chair Deborah Low echoed the idea that the year hasn’t had equity up to now.

“It fits our model, that we have all along said where we would differentiate school-by-school based on the needs,” she said, adding that she’d be comfortable with bringing everyone back on Wednesdays at Miller-Driscoll.

She also said she realized that the more hectic pace and transitions at Middlebrook and the high school would have a negative impact. “Anything that has people lose instruction makes me nervous.”

The BOE members did take a vote on a motion of bringing back M-D students on Wednesdays while keeping the students at the other three schools in a remote learning model for those half-days. The motion passed unanimously.

But then it got muddier when they turned to the question of teachers. Low asked Human Resource Director Maria Coleman if she’d spoken with any of the unions, particularly the teachers’ union.

“The union’s position–the teacher’s union–continues to be that they believe in full remote for everyone,” Coleman reported. “While I presented the possibility that some might be in and others may not, really the expectation is that remote remain for everyone for the remainder of the year.”

She added that there “could be potentially a union issue if we require essentially a quarter of the union to come on-site and then we give the remainder of that union the option of being home,” noting that there are other unions impacted, including paraprofessionals.

Coleman also added that there have not been formal conversations between her and any specific teachers, “but we have heard from people more informally who’ve said, ‘If we’re coming back in the spring, we should all be coming back.”

As the principal of the school most obviously impacted by where the discussion had gone, Miller-Driscoll’s Kathy Coon gave her opinion first. Earlier she had affirmed that her students would benefit from being back on Wednesdays, but she didn’t think her staff would want to be the only employees required to come in on Wednesdays.

“No matter what model the schools were in, all of the staff [at all four schools] came in on the four days and all of the staff worked remotely on Wednesday. So it wasn’t school by school. And I think my staff would be very upset,” she said.

Back to Dr. Smith

At this point, Low turned back to Smith, and suggested the question might not be one for the Board members to answer. She noted it was “not a programmatic or a policy or a financial, or even a what’s best for kids kind of question, or what’s best for the district.”

“I think you’ve heard us say that we trust your judgment. And the idea of fairness versus differentiation, based on instructional needs of the teachers being on-site, is there a requirement, is there anything to be gained by a Board vote or can we leave that to be an administrative decision?”

Smith chuckled as he told the BOE, “You’re now walking in my shoes a little bit and understand the complexity around the challenge here,” but added that he was happy to take the decision. “I can handle it.” He did say he would take a bit more time to decide.

But Low acknowledged the Board’s earlier vote on Wednesdays for students, which would inevitably impact staff, would stand.

“The school schedules for kids are set. Obviously the requirements will follow for the staff and then, the other staff, Kevin, you’ll make your best judgment. And I’m not sure maybe it’s an all or nothing thing. If we go back to investigating whether assessments should be done on Wednesdays, maybe that will require some staff to come in for that, to deal with those kinds of things. So it maybe it’ll end up being more of a flexible kind of Wednesday, who knows. But we trust your judgment.”