WHS Students to Return to 75% Full-Time In-Person Model–With a Caveat; District Reviewing Wednesday Schedule

District also re-examines remote Wednesdays

Editor’s note:  The district has changed the parent forum to Tuesday, March 2, from 6-7:30 p.m.

At Thursday evening’s (Feb. 25) Board of Education meeting, Board members enthusiastically approved a plan for Wilton High School students to return to an in-person learning model that brings students back at a 75% occupancy level.

The plan proposed by administrators structures a schedule where the student body will be separated into four cohorts that will attend school on a rotating, two-week schedule that puts them in-school six out of 10 days a week, and attending remotely via Zoom on the other four days–effectively having only three out of four cohorts in the building on any given day.

Week One

Week Two

Administrators plan to begin implementing the new schedule on Monday, March 8–with a caveat:  the plan must be approved by Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle.

According to WHS Principal Dr. Robert O’Donnell, the plan already has the support of the district’s medical advisor Dr. Christine Macken, but Bogle has been involved in setting up town COVID vaccine clinics and hasn’t been able to sit down with school administrators to give his final approval.

“But given the way that the plan has been laid out, and given the concerns that he raised when we were looking at other schools, I suspect that he’ll be in support of this plan just with the various levels of precautions that are in place and the amount of social distancing we’re affording kids,” O’Donnell said.

With more students in the building than there are now, the district will have to implement additional mitigation strategies as part of its COVID response plan. The concern with bringing more students back at the same time has been whether the school can maintain CDC-recommended safe social distance guidelines.

“I think we need to be realistic. We need to recognize that there will be students who will be closer than six feet. But as Dr. Macken emphasized to us as a staff, with proper mitigation factors–including the masks and the shields–we will be healthy and safe. There is still six feet between the students and the teachers,” O’Donnell said.

However, with different classes and sections varying in size, he acknowledged that there will be times that six feet of distance can’t be maintained between students. “In some cases, like in science labs where the configuration that lab stations require students sometimes to be maybe three or four feet apart; when that happens, there will typically also be a plexiglass barrier between students if they’re closer than six feet. So there are layers of protection built into the plan.”

Similar attention to safety will happen when students won’t have masks, such as during lunch waves in the cafeteria and other spaces now used for eating.

“Our premise remains that the health and safety of our students has always been and will be paramount in our planning. That is our top priority, but we do also believe firmly that it really is important for students to be in school and to attend in-person and benefit from live instruction as much as is safely possible,” O’Donnell said. “I do believe we need to continue to follow the science that has been our mantra as an administrative team and as a leadership team. And so we want to follow certainly the health and medical advice as we move forward.”

Parent and Staff Input

The move follows a strong push from parents to increase the in-person time for students. Many families have pointed to neighboring communities that have brought their high school students back full-time.

Several letters were read during the public comment time at the beginning of the meeting in support of more in-classroom learning time, both to increase the quality of learning and instruction as well as for students’ mental health and social-emotional needs.

During the discussion, board members and administrators acknowledged that teachers have been concerned about the possibility of virus transmission in school, which has been one major reason why the district has remained at a 50% hybrid learning model.

O’Donnell said school administrators surveyed both parents and staff about the proposal, and found that the staff is almost equally divided in the hybrid model that they prefer, while the majority of families prefer to shift to the 75% Hybrid Learning Model.

“The 84 responses that you see, not surprisingly, they are primarily teachers. The vast majority of teachers who responded and from my perspective, I think it’s encouraging right now to see that we have nearly half of the staff in favor of the 75% model… which I think bodes well for where we’re going right now,” O’Donnell said.

While the other half of responding staff want to remain in the 50% hybrid model, there were outliers:  four staff members reported that they would like to be 100% in-person and four staff members who would prefer to be 100% remote.

O’Donnell did acknowledge that “Frankly, all of our teachers and staff want them all in school. They just want to do it in a safe manner,” and he added that the administration was addressing any individual teacher concerns on a case-by-case basis.

For the family survey, the district received 710 responses which showed “on an encouraging note, the vast majority of our families want to support the 75% hybrid model,” O’Donnell said, adding, “It is important to note that 43 students/families that opted for the 50% model would opt to go all remote, and 78 students/families would choose to move to the 75% model.

O’Donnell explained that the 75% model was preferable over other options that were considered, including returning to full-time by grade level.

“It’s very difficult to make a value judgment that we should bring in one class over another. There’s a lot to be said about this particular model here, and why we’re recommending it. It increases the number of students physically in school, it is equitable across all grade levels and it does not introduce cross-cohorting, which is to say that on any given day alphabetically, all members of the same family would be in school at the same time,” he explained.

The school will hold a parent forum next Tuesday, March 2, and will begin soliciting questions from parents in advance on Friday, Feb. 26. “We welcome any questions that parents may have and also students and parents can anticipate a very thorough communication from me early next week, just further clarifying the model, the proposal, measures that we’re taking, because we want to be inclusive and ensure that we’ve got good two-way communication,” O’Donnell added. [NOTE:  This is a new date, changed from the previously scheduled Wednesday, March 3.]

The Question of Wednesdays

The BOE members asked about whether the administration had a district-wide plan to adjust its current model on Wednesdays, which has all students across Wilton’s four schools attending on a full-remote model for only half a day.

The schedule was originally structured with the mid-week day as a remote option so the school could be deep cleaned, but as many members of the public have pointed out, evidence shows that viral transmission is predominantly airborne and such a deep clean of surfaces is no longer recommended by state or federal health and education officials.

Board member Mandi Schmauch made the distinction that there are parallel discussions about Wednesday–one regarding the question of whether remote learning is no longer necessary, and the other regarding half-day versus full-day instruction.

Superintendent Kevin Smith addressed both issues.

First, he explained that the district has an agreement with the teachers’ union to provide teachers with “additional time” on Wednesdays, which will almost certainly continue through the remainder of the school year.

“That was really a result of an ongoing conversation about all of the logistics and challenges and the things that they had to learn and manage while having kids both at home and in person. It would be my intention that for as long as we are maintaining some type of remote cohort, the teachers would need that time to manage a hybrid environment,” Smith said.

However, Smith said the district is looking at a plan to return students to in-person learning on Wednesdays on a half-day schedule.

“We’ve got a group that’s working on it as we speak,” he said.