Wilton Principals–We’re Ready for Kids to Return! Superintendent–WHS Sports Plan OK’d; Technology–Getting There; Kindergarten Parents–We’re Frustrated

Thursday evening’s (Sept. 3) Board of Education meeting revolved around ‘return’–students returning to classrooms and high school athletes returning to play.

The Board of Ed members heard from each of the building principals as well as the assistant superintendent for student services, and each one reported that the district schools are ready–and eager–for students to return to in-person learning next week.

What’s still left to be seen is how well some of Wilton’s youngest learners and their families can hold on after reports of having very difficult adjustments to heavy screen time required in the remote learning environment of the last week. With the district’s hybrid “Blended Learning” approach requiring students to be online a great deal when they’re logging into school remotely, it’s a plan that some kindergarteners–and even older students–are still struggling with.

Principals’ Assessments of Week One and Readiness

The meeting began with reports from each school’s principal on how the first week of school, conducted remotely, went. Each also reported on their team’s readiness to have students return in person, and discussed whether they still have staffing issues.

Wilton High School

Wilton High School Principal Dr. Bob O’Donnell said having the students and teachers working together has been the highlight of the first week of school.

“Our faculty was certainly elated to see students back in school, albeit in a virtual learning environment. Some of the jitters teachers felt about these challenging times, and learning new technology, and preparing to teach in the hybrid environment, were naturally reduced when they saw the students. Interfacing with students certainly was a highlight and brought some spirit and levity to the teachers,” he said.

He added that many activities this week have emphasized building connections between teachers and students, and there has been a focus on social-emotional learning and supporting students as they transition back to school. “It’s been a long time since March 11 when we all went out,” he said.

Reflecting on how WHS teachers have adapted to the new technology they need to incorporate into teaching this year, O’Donnell said his faculty has been amazing but is also still finding challenges

“They continue to be amazing in their resolve to learn, absorb and master what they can about new technologies,” including the “third screen” needed to juggle engaging with students who will be remote simultaneously with working directly with students present in-person in classrooms. “Trying to integrate all these technologies, I would describe this as both an initial success and a remaining challenge we have to face together. Although formidable, we will work through it,” he said, adding “Our teachers made a lot, a lot of progress this week.”

O’Donnell said the school is in “far better shape this week” with regard to COVID-related health, safety and hygiene measures that have been implemented.

“This week helped make progress with safety measures and signage, plexiglass barriers where necessary, and all the protocols that we need to follow. We’re really looking forward to this, but with 650 teenagers in the school at the same time, we just all need to be mindful that we all share collective ownership,” he said.

O’Donnell said that there is some ambivalence with teachers on in-person teaching starting.

“Most of them are really eager to see students in person. Others, to be real honest,  some remain very concerned about their health, and just worry about being in a building with so many people,” he said.

As for the WHS faculty’s adjustment to incorporating new technology, O’Donnell said, “overall, we have rounded a corner,” but that some teachers are “just struggling a little bit still with Schoology… and some trouble letting go of Google classroom.” He said it “remains a growth area.”

O’Donnell will be sending video PSAs on health and safety produced by students to the WHS community, and he again reminded families about needing to follow safe protocols.

“I want to request and implore the parent community to sit down and review with your student these videos so we’re all ready for smooth start on Tuesday.”

He answered the question asked of each principal about having students return affirmatively:  “We will be ready for students on Tuesday morning.”

As for staffing needs, O’Donnell said overall WHS is in “good shape.”

“We had a resignation, one retirement and a couple–two–leaves of absence based on the COVID situation,” he said, noting that vacancies have been filled with certified teachers, although there are still two science sections and one social studies section still without teachers. His team has conducted training for substitutes on Schoology. “While not ideal, we’re in a better place. “We’ve got some good hires in place to fill those few resignations and leaves of absence.”

Middlebrook School

Middlebrook School Acting Principal Jory Higgins also gave a positive assessment of his school’s progress.

“I’m trying to celebrate the wonderful work at Middlebrook, it’s been a great week of growth for us,” he said, adding there are things to celebrate as well as some challenges and “growth areas.”

He said there were “many technological challenges this week in our remote world,” including how hard it was for 6th-grade students and their families, new to Middlebrook, for the first remote week to be their introduction to the school.

“We’re trying to get them to understand it will get better over time. Each day we’ve been building on the week and the day before, so hopefully parents are starting to see that as well,” Higgins said.

Middlebrook has worked on communicating a “plan B” for what kids can do, and what parents can do to help, when technology and connections don’t work. He said there have been questions and fears about attendance and penalties if students aren’t able to be present if there are technology glitches.

“I will clarify for families to understand, we want to make sure parents know we know your child is not there, it’s good we’re noticing–our assumption is that it likely was a technological glitch, and recognize we recognize that,” he said.

Through it all, Higgins said, teachers and students have been working through technological challenges. “I’ve been amazed and pleased with the extraordinariness our staff and kids, recognizing that, ‘Yep, it didn’t work but then I know how to do it.’ People were so great at bouncing back… I see staff members going above and beyond, making neat connections with students.”

He added that teachers are excited to see students in person next Tuesday, and thanked the parent community for being supportive.

“Every email I’ve received has led with, ‘Thank you for all the work you’re doing. Please make sure you’re telling staff how much we appreciate the effort and the energy.’ It’s filled with a tremendous support for what is going on in the building and what we’re trying to do to help families,” Higgins said.

He said there have been some staffing challenges, including a last-minute resignation and another request for a leave of absence “that we couldn’t have planned for.” He thanked district HR director Maria Coleman and district LLC/technology staff for making sure that substitute teachers are trained and understanding Schoology and other technology. Thus far, four positions are being covered by building substitutes, and at least one other open position is posted.

As for readiness to welcome back students, Higgins said, “We can’t wait for the students on Tuesday,” he said, adding, “Everybody’s clamoring for getting to see kids in person.”

Cider Mill School

Cider Mill Principal Dr. Jen Falcone called having children back learning “such a joy.”

“All the planning and time spent has all been worth it to have them sort of back. We can’t wait until next week when we really have them back inside of our building,” Falcone said.

She was upbeat about how things have been working.

“By far, having teachers with kids was the highlight. just hearing their laughter, their amazing problem solving, the way they’re able to come up with different ways of navigating the technology, to make the new learning environment work for them,” she said, adding, “We may be worried about how this is going to work, [but] they’ve got it.”

She said the building is set up and ready for students to be in the building.

“At one point we were worried, and we have passed that moment. We have sanitation, we have our signs. We’re in really good shape. For the most part, the staff feel comfortable with the physical place. There’s always going to be the worry about what’s it going to be like when we have more people in the building, but the want of having kids back is going to outweigh that,” she said.

Falcone added that the focus will be on keeping students socially distanced. “They’re young, it’s hard to keep everybody separate.” She said the first week with students in the building will be spent “going over a lot of protocols…trying to set that new normal with them, but in a nice, friendly, comfortable, safe… kind and caring way, not to scare anybody.”

She also thanked Cider Mill families for emails that have thanked teachers.

She complimented her staff as well for the “problem solving” during a “tough day” on Wednesday. She said that Wilton’s wifi, not the school district’s wifi, was the culprit:  “different families’ wifi, different connectivity to different platforms. It’s not necessarily a Schoology issue.”

She added that technology adaptation is still a work in progress. “I wouldn’t say we’ve worked out all the kinks, but we’re going to get there, somehow, someway. The teachers have been working really, really, really hard… We’ll be making adjustments, but we’ve really made use of all of this time we’ve had for collaborative, professional learning time, and we’re in good shape.”

Falcone said Cider Mill is ready for Tuesday’s hybrid plan to start. “We are thrilled and very much looking forward to having kids back in our building.”

Miller-Driscoll School

Miller-Driscoll Principal Kathy Coon was very positive about how the first week of learning had gone for the district’s youngest learners, many of them experiencing “big school” for the first time through a computer.

First she gave a “huge credit” to those youngest students. “They have worked so hard over the last four days. They’ve logged on, they came ready to participate in all kinds of activities–getting to know you, community building, even reading, writing and math within these first four days.”

Coon then lauded her teachers as “amazing humans.”

“They rose to the occasion, they came prepared, not only to build community but to connect with all of the kids as well as they could via Zoom. They engaged them no matter what it took. One teacher even dressed up in a hot dog costume,” she said.

Finally, Coon gave a shout out to the parents. “These little ones can’t log on and do these things themselves.”

She acknowledged the intense amount of screen time involved for such young students when working remotely.”We have parents concerned about screen time. we’re also concerned. We will continue to monitor it as we go into the hybrid model.”

Coon said parents will be surveyed after all students experience spending a full day in school and a full-day remote next week.

“We are hearing from parents about screen time.  We’ll continue to get feedback from our teachers. Then we’ll make adjustments as needed,” she said, explaining that teachers already plan on making changes.

“As we move into next week, there will be other things that break up the day,” including lunch, small group work, and more.

A majority of the letters read during public comment were from parents of kindergarteners, who wrote of their difficulties and concerns about having first-time learners so dependent on computers. Issues ranged from limited attention spans to boredom, to difficulty connecting socially and emotionally, and more.

Coon said that the start of any year for kindergarten students is difficult.

“Even when we’re in school and not in a global pandemic… It’s a long day for kindergarteners, no matter what. A lot of them are falling asleep by the end of the day; they might be crying because they miss their moms or dads. It’s a very big adjustment for them. It’s exhausting, they’re very tired, and we try to encourage parents, ‘Don’t do after school activities and al of that. As you can imagine, trying to be engaged on a screen where you can’t talk to your friend, you don’t have the same opporutnities for playing with your friend or doing centers.”

She reinforced how big of a challenge it is.

“Definitely for Kindergarten, it’s difficult. It’s difficult for all of the kids. We talked with the teachers, they said, ‘You can see, [when] we get to a certain point.’ They’re weaving in breaks, but it is a lot of screen time. When you’re not in a global pandemic, most parents do limit time kids spend on the computer, watching TV, looking at video games. So we’re watching it, it is definitely a concern,” Coon agreed.

Board member Jennifer Lalor asked if parents decide to have their children step away after deciding the screen time is too much, would they be penalized for letting a child log out?

Coon said, no.

“We want the kids to attend and log in, but if kids need a break,…” she said, adding a suggestion that parents reach out to the staff. “Reach out to the teacher, we have a lot of support staff, we have a lot of ways,” she said, adding that her team is looking at other solutions. “But in these beginning days, we’re not going to penalize people.”

Coon added that there will be more smaller breakout groups woven into the curriculum, as days get longer and as teachers get to know their students more.

Board member Ruth Deluca, a parent of students at Miller-Driscoll, observed that her children are doing a lot of sitting.

“Mornings are long with a lot of sitting. I’m hopeful that as academic lessons [and independent time] become longer, that will break it up. The sitting part in conjunction with the screen…”

Coon concluded by affirming that her team is eager to welcome students back on Tuesday. “We’re so ready,” she said.

Special Education/Genesis

Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Andrea Leonardi led off by saying that she “continue[s] to be extraordinarily proud and inspired to serve the teachers and parents and students with disabilities at Wilton. I’m amazed at what I’m seeing every day happens for kids.”

She said the focus for her team is on relationships, meeting needs of students, implementing full IEPs “in this strange and difficult time.”

Having worked in person with students over the summer for the Extended School Year program, Leonardi says her team knows what it will feel like to work directly with students. “We can’t wait for everyone to feel the same joy.”

She said whatever issues arise, her department continues “to work through issues one student at a time, one child at a time, one program at a time.”

“Our teachers and related service people, our paraprofessionals are all working incredibly hard to engage students, to keep students engaged, to work with families, to solve real problems in real-time. We continue to ramp up and roll out all the new technologies,” Leonardi added.

She said she is working on a proposal for some of the districts most complex learners, something that will “involve parents as stakeholders” on how to better serve those students in the current fluid environment, moving from hybrid to in-person to remote. She teased it as something “very creative for some of our most vulnerable kids pre K through 21.”

Leonardi told the BOE members that the Genesis program is ready to welcome students back:  “They can’t wait to go back, they’re chomping at the bit. We’re ready to go,” she said.

With the program located at Trackside Teen Center, all protocols are in place for all students to come back in person four days a week, even with the increase in enrollment.

The number of students enrolled in Genesis has increased since last year’s debut. This school year will start with 17 students, and Leonardi says she anticipates the number will grow to 25 soon.

Technology

Director of Digital Learning Fran Kompar discussed the dive-into-the-deep-end nature of how quickly students and teachers had to adapt to heavy technology use. Although problems were anticipated, it wasn’t as bad as might have been predicted.

“As our first week of remote learning, and it’s the first time that we’re doing this in the way that we’re doing it, the first week of school. We had a lot of challenges that we had to overcome. After our first day and even our second day, we… weren’t surprised, but we were happy to find out that there weren’t as many issues as there were [feared].

Each day the number of problems and glitches have declined and gradually issues are getting worked out, she said.

She and her colleague Erik Haakonsen described other challenges, including the fact that in a typical year all Chromebooks have been set up on district networks controlled by their team before students pick them up, but this year, students began the year at home on home-based wifi and networks.

“We’ve had some challenges with parental settings on routers, older routers, limited connectivity in some areas of the houses that students are in. We’ve just had to work with families to try and correct some of those connectivity issues, usernames and passwords… So we had a variety of challenges getting everyone logged-in the first day. We’ve been working on those, identifying problems, and getting fixes and repairs,” Haakonsen said.

The technology team is hoping to improve response times to district requests and troubleshooting tickets.

“The first day we were overwhelmed with the number of inquiries and issues. The tech support staff was our staff in central office and the LLC team, who’ve done a fabulous job, but as you can imagine, [issues] are endless. Sometimes they require us actually making contact with the family, actually zooming with them, having them show us what they’re doing with their devices. What we normally do in a week where our LLC team is in the facility and students are going in and showing them what the problem is, and we’re able to fix that in real-time; we’ve had to do this through an online remote situation, which does take us time. So I appreciate everyone’s patience and we’re working through our list,” Kompar said.

Other Updates

When can the district evolve to All In-Person Model:  Kevin Smith was asked about indications for being able to bring back the full student body full-time in the classrooms.

Smith said his approach is to test the effectiveness of the mitigation strategy and how well it keeps students and teachers safe. That will be done, he says, through collecting a lot of data.

“We want to understand the extent to which students are able to wear masks through the day, how well do our mask breaks work? Are they able to tolerate wearing masks for the time that they’re in the school? How well can we manage the social distance parameters we’ve set up, both within and outside the classroom, as they’re moving, particularly at the secondary level, moving from class to class, or moving for lunch or recess or something. How well are we keeping up with a hand sanitizing? Certainly, alongside all of those measures, we’ll be watching very carefully community transmission rights,” Smith said.

BOE Chair Debbie Low reminded attendees that the BOE goals include reviewing the district’s approach at least every three weeks. She said the “sooner we can look at the models, review the models, and determine as soon as possible, to the extent that we can, start bringing a full open model to bear.”

Smith added that he was meeting on Friday with other superintendents in the region and would be getting an update on how other districts are handling and proceeding, and officials will examine how that could influence Wilton’s thinking–but that he didn’t want to move too quickly if it wasn’t safe.

“What’s important to me is ensuring the training is in place, especially if we’re thinking about moving to having all kids back, we need to make sure those mitigation strategies are as solid as we can make them. That will take a period of time to assess,”

Full-Day vs. Half-Day Kindergarten:  Lalor told Smith that comments from kindergarten parents prompted her to ask why the district didn’t implement a half-day, am/pm kindergarten model.

Smith answered, “There were two factors with AM/PM kindergarten scenario; one was the amount of time we’d need to clean and disinfect. cohorts on the same day doesn’t and the second was the cost of running buses

Tents:  The district had purchased tents for the schools to use in order to incorporate more outside learning (and reduce riskier, indoor time). Superintendent Kevin Smith told the board that tents the district had purchased didn’t have a wind rating. One tent that had been set one up for town officials to inspect collapsed during a windy, rainy day.

As a result, the district will be returning all the tents that were purchased and is trying to source tents that are “the safest, most affordable tents we can, whether it’s rental or purchase,” Smith added.

Substitute teachers:  Coleman said there is a concern about being able to hire enough qualified substitutes. She noted that there is a shortage of substitute teachers statewide, in particular this year as many are older and at higher risk of COVID. In addition, because the district recently changed its hiring practice and no longer commits to hiring for a full year, many substitutes have taken positions elsewhere. She noted that one neighboring district has even offered full-time health benefits to lure substitutes this year.

“We’re going to need to change our strategy as it relates to hiring and retaining subs. We have looked at what the going rate is in the DRG, and we are consistent with that. However, again, I think it might be important for us to consider looking at ways to make the position more appealing to people,” Coleman told the board, adding she will present a proposal on how to do so at the next BOE meeting.

Chartwells/Lunch Purchases:  Smith said it was important for parents who intend to purchase lunch through the schools for their children to create a Nutrislice account and utilize the Nutrislice app. He added that information is on the district’s website on how to do so.

WHS Athletics

Smith spoke with Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle on Thursday morning, and Bogle approved the plan to restart sports. Smith said that means coaches and athletes can return to play for first phase activities, including conditioning and skill development.

“Some teams will get back [Friday], some will start Saturday, the remainder will pick up Tuesday. That’s just getting our athletes back into conditioning activities again, so that’s really, really good news for us,” Smith told the BOE.

He added that the district at the time did not have updates from the CIAC on whether football and volleyball would be able to proceed, which depended on the CT Department of Public Health informing CIAC of its final recommendation.

Editor’s note:  Since the meeting, the CIAC has announced that full-contact football will NOT proceed this fall. For details, see our story here.

New/Updated Policies

The BOE approved several new and updated district policies, including:

Policy:  6141.321, Student responsible use:  The policy was updated to include realtime video expectations as well as blended learning.

Policy:  5115, suspension, expulsion and removal from class:  The update expands the reference of school and classroom to include virtual educational environments, whether synchronous or asynchronous. It also expands the standards governing suspension and expulsion to include acting in any manner that creates a health and or safety hazard for staff members, students, or the public,… including, but not limited to violating school district health and safety protocols developed in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, such as, but not limited to physical distancing and mask wear.

Policy:  5113, attendance (NEW):   This recommendation came from district attorneys Shipman and Goodwin. It asks for any absence due to illness, that excuses include specific symptoms.

“The purpose there is really to just monitor the spread of COVID-19. The policy committee discussed this earlier this week, they also noted that sometimes parents will call and email, so we’ll ask parents to the best that they’re able to, leave a description of symptoms. Our nursing staff… may call parents back if they need some more information, just so we can continue to track symptoms,” Smith said, adding that the district will be flexible with attendance.

BOE member and policy subcommittee member Ruth Deluca retierated, “We wanted to ask the community and to say that in light of the current health situation, if your child is not feeling 100%, but can do sschool, it’s best to keep them home. You can keep them home but let them participate in a remote fashion. But so we’re able to track what’s going on with illness in the community, it would be helpful if you would call your child out.”

She added, “the communication piece is always important, but in this specific domain, it’s especially important.”

It was noted that while the policy might raise privacy issues, it was reviewed and written by district lawyers.

Policy:  1351, Visitors (NEW):  In light of COVID 19, the district needs to restrict visitors “to the extent that we can at this time,” Smith said. It would require among other things that all visitors comply with applicable building security procedures, including but not limited to health and safety protocols and COVID screening steps, among a list of others.

Policy:  6114, health and health and safety protocols (NEW):  This was also recommended by the district’s attorneys, and guidelines include language about the specific kinds of masks that are recommended and not recommended. Among those on the list (which families will be told about) are neck gaiters and bandanas. This follows DPH guidance.