On Wednesday afternoon, the members of the Wilton Public Schools’ Re-entry Committee held a special virtual meeting to discuss their goals, concerns and hopes for the 2020-2021 school year with one primary objective at the top of the list: open all schools for all kids.
“Per the governor’s order, our plan A is to have school reopen for all students that are willing and able to participate, with plans in place to accommodate those who need to be educated remotely, and then we’ll have sub plans that respond to the various scenarios,” Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith said.
But in order to do that as safely as possible, the committee members agreed it will require both drastic changes to facilities and procedures and a major commitment from staff, students, and families to adhere to the new regulations and guidelines–and even accountability for behaviors outside of school.
In addition to the Superintendent, the meeting featured Board of Education members, teachers, special educators, and parents. Smith started the meeting by briefly summarizing the reopening guidelines put out by the state and how Wilton will fit into that picture–where the district would go above and beyond in requirements, as well as challenges they’ll have to navigate.
Smith and the committee members emphasized that like the state’s plans, theirs too will prioritize the mental and physical well being of all students, especially those that cannot return to in-person learning. Above all, they hope to run the remote and in-person learning synchronously, with teachers teaching in-front of a Zoom camera as well as an in-person classroom.
The district must submit a formal plan to the state by July 24 outlining all of its plans for adopting state requirements and guidelines. Smith and school administrators are working on forming the plan now, and are hoping to have a draft this week.
Trust and Flexibility
Flexibility and trust are at the forefront of Wilton Public Schools’ new normal. In terms of flexibility, Smith said the plans will essentially always be in ‘draft mode’, and they will be adjusted as needed. For instance, as a requirement by the state, the district must have plans for if the COVID-19 situation gets better or worse.
“Embedded within the state plan all over the place is this understanding that we need to plan fluidly and flexibly,” Smith said at the meeting.
Another way the schools may have to be flexible is with social distancing, as a top concern Smith shared was the ability to maintain six-feet of space between students, something the district’s plan will have to outline.
“If you’ve spent life in school under normal circumstances, there’s really not much opportunity for social distancing,” Smith said. “So this is a whole new paradigm when contemplating bringing every kid back.”
He used the example of furniture, and how it reflects the district’s pre-COVID evolution from a more traditional model to small group learning. In many classrooms, desks for individual students were replaced with larger tables around which several students could gather. But in a post-COVID world, desks can be more easily distanced.
“We have to give a lot of thought to how we run our various classrooms while spreading kids out, and then how much room can we create space,” Smith said in the meeting, adding that estimating the current numbers of students in a class and the size of classrooms, it’s likely that students will only be able to be spaced out three- to five feet apart–not six feet or more.
“It has to be crystal clear to everybody that six feet in most of the day just isn’t going to be possible with the numbers that we’re talking about. So really relying on all of those other mitigation strategies is going to be really important.”
Just what are those strategies? All students and teachers will be required to wear face coverings in the school buildings, and the district will provide masks for those who don’t have one. Additionally, establishing cohorts–groups of students that stick together for much of the school day–is one piece of guidance set out by the state that Smith hopes to adopt, at least for younger grades, to limit student and teacher contact with others. They also hope to stagger activities such as recess or lunch as well as class dismissals to avoid cross-contamination of cohorts.
In terms of trust, Smith said that they will rely heavily on students, parents, and staff to monitor their health every day before coming to school.
The district currently does not plan to conduct daily temperature checks at the schools because, as committee member Deborah List pointed out, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) believes evidence currently indicates that young children and adolescents do not appear to amplify a COVID-19 outbreak to the same extent they would amplify an influenza outbreak, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus does not seem to affect them to the extent it would affect an adult. The AAP holds that kids are more likely to be asymptomatic and may be less likely to spread the virus. However, students must be taught that their role in following the guidelines and staying healthy is no less important.
“As we think about the culture of the Wilton community and the culture of the Wilton educational community, we all have a shared investment–and that’s parents, teachers, others–in taking whatever steps we can to keep ourselves safe so that way we can run a program that is designed to serve everyone as best as possible,” Smith told the committee. “So we’re going to be talking with everybody as much as possible about the importance of that shared culture and shared duty around keeping everyone safe.”
This is where trust and the honor system come in: the district will rely on parents, students, and staff members to monitor how they feel on a daily basis, preferably “the night before and the morning of.”
Moreover, school officials will count on families to follow safe precautionary practices outside of the classroom as well, and report when they cannot. For instance, an example brought up in the meeting was if a parent had to go to a COVID hotspot for a business trip, school officials would like to have that information so they can keep an eye on the child to make sure they don’t start having symptoms.
However, many of the participants weren’t sure if relying on volunteered information would be enough. Board of Education member Ruth Deluca suggested that maybe the school could use an app by which each day parents or students would have to complete a simple questionnaire about how they feel and where they have been. Deluca added that this might help families get into a routine of always checking how they feel before entering the school.
Moreover, List, who works in higher education, brought up the idea of having high school students sign a behavior contract similar to ones the district already uses before school dances–but now promising that they would not congregate in large groups or break the safety rules, even while outside of school. List added that this idea could have farther reaching implications and benefits as well, as many high school kids work in town and interact with the wider Wilton population.
Andrea Leonardi, the assistant superintendent for student services, said that it’s important to empower kids to take care of each other, which could help avoid masks becoming a behavioral issue.
“We want to help kids understand why the mask is important not only for them but for others in the building who may be more vulnerable than they are,” Leonardi said. “Unfortunately the world has told them that children don’t get sick and children won’t die; the problem is we do have kids who are vulnerable and we have adults who are vulnerable who are going to be coming to the building.”
Teaching them how to use masks–and why–will be critical, she explained. “We want to make sure we stress the importance of community, and the idea that we take care of each other here but if you need a break here’s a way to take one, so that it doesn’t become a behavior issue,” Leonardi added.
The meeting also went over the concerns officials had. For instance, transportation poses a unique issue both because of traffic flow and the inability to maintain social distancing on a bus running at passenger capacity.
Smith says where the guidance gets “especially funky” is with buses, in which the capacity and requirements change as community transmission does. The state says buses can run at full capacity if the community transmission rate is low enough; however, Smith considers social distancing and a fully packed bus competing ideas and he is not sure how it would look.
However, a solution is not as simple as having all parents drop off or pick up their children. Smith said managing the logistics of the flow of traffic, and the capacity of school bus loops and pick-up/drop off areas, is going to play into their decisions.
“If you’ve been to an arrival or dismissal, just capture that mental image for a second: you have hundreds of kids moving in a single direction in a 20-minute time span,” Smith said. “Those things we have to really think differently about.”
Smith said that they hope to send a survey out to parents by the end of the week asking if they would be willing to drop off or pick up their children.
In terms of internal school traffic flow, the guidance proposes that schools plan to have teachers move from class-to-class rather than students move whenever possible.
Another concern Wilton High School health educator Roseann DeSimone expressed was to make sure school nurses are not being overworked, as monitoring for COVID-19 would add an additional layer to their regular daily work. She said there must be a point-person to communicate with families and conduct tracking and tracing of people who may have been exposed, in order to take the burden off school nurses.
Moreover, staffing the isolation room where students who begin to experience COVID-19 symptoms would go would need to be separate from the nurses’ office. Who staffs that room and how often it is staffed needs to be defined.
However, along with concerns come plans to go above and beyond to make the transition as easy as possible. One idea that was brought up was for teachers to wear masks with transparent panels to make the situation feel more normal for students, and to enable children with hearing impairments to lip-read and understand better.
Additionally, Smith said that the schools have been working on creating a Learning Management System to help the schools manage “very fluid situations [and] fluid populations” by increasing access to remote resources. The system will provide a “remote opportunity” for children who cannot come to school and individuals who may have to quarantine, and will help teachers quickly adjust if the district has to go back to a blended learning model.
Smith emphasized that the district will rely heavily on technology, and he hopes to make sure learning still can be interactive and real-time for remote learning.
Smith said district officials will also be sending out numerous surveys to teachers, staff, students, and parents to shape their plans.
The group will meet again on July 15, and the Board of Education will meet the day after to further discuss plans and better define more of the guidelines’ specifics.
Success Already Offers Hope
Despite all the unknowns of the new normal, Leonardi said she is “incredibly optimistic” about the ability of everyone–especially students–to adjust. Despite everyone’s worries, starting the in-person Extended School Year (ESY) services just this past Monday was nearly seamless, with students willingly following the rules.
“From preschool all the way to 21, they’re wearing their masks, they’re wearing them, they’re adjusting them when they fall below their nose… and it really has been much less of an issue that we were concerned about going in,” Leonardo said. “We have just not seen a problem.”
Leonardo added that she hopes students will become empowered to advocate for their needs in this new normal, telling their teachers when they do need a mask break, and noting that the kids have been “rockstars” so far.
“They’ve adjusted, they love being with their teachers [and] there has been a lot of joyful tears, mostly among the adults, teachers, and parents,” Leonardo said. “The kids are just getting right back into the swing of things.”