Wilton Schools’ Re-Entry Committee Tackles Logistics of Reopening for In-Person Learning

Classes held outdoors under tents. Three-foot vs. six-foot social distancing. Million-dollar bus monitors. Technology upgrades.

These were just a few of the multitude of new logistical concepts and ideas being discussed during Wednesday’s meeting of the Wilton Public Schools Re-Entry Subcommittee by school officials who are trying to chart the path for a safe return to in-person classroom learning for the 2020-2021 school year despite the threat to the community from COVID-19.

Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith reviewed the draft of the plans in development for the 2020-2021 school year with the subcommittee members, including Wilton Board of Education members, parents, teachers, health professionals, and public health providers.

The plan being put together by school administrators is a fluid document, as it incorporates not only feedback from parents and teachers on surveys about whether they’re comfortable returning to in-person classes but also CT State Department of Education requirements and guidelines that are still in flux, as public health officials continue to monitor changes in case data in the state.

The subcommittee members continued to pose questions and concerns to Smith, following up on their first meeting last week covering the many challenges and concerns of implementing state requirements.

Smith presented the current drafted plan to the committee, which details the protocols and plans for learning, communication, and cleaning; daily procedures such as sanitizing; community responsibilities such as daily health checks; set up and maintenance of facilities; and logistics of transportation. Questions and suggestions were occasionally interjected during his presentation, which Smith received with welcome.

Who’s Coming Back? 

All planning allots for three different scenarios:  Full Open, Hybrid or “Semi-Remote” Model, and School Closure (with online learning). Case data and community transmission rates in the state and town will play heavily into which model the school will adopt and adjust to if needed during the year, giving new potential meaning to Wilton’s recent surge in cases linked to younger residents and team sports.

At the meeting, participants expressed concern that state officials have left it unclear just how many cases match “low” “moderate” and “high” community transmission rates, which correspond to the three models, and what would warrant switching between the models. While this is still to be determined, the committee expressed that more guidance is needed from the state on what these levels mean. Moreover, Gov. Lamont said Monday that he will wait to announce a final decision about reopening Connecticut schools for another month.

Although the current plan is for all students to return to school in the fall, as of now not all are planning to. According to data from the family survey (still being gathered), as of Wednesday morning, 11% of families plan on not returning to in-person learning. At the same time, 67% of families plan to send children back to classrooms and 22% are unsure. The tallies are from 2,895 responses thus far, which Smith said is a “more than representative” sample.

For students working remotely full-time or temporarily because of an exposure or needing to quarantine, Smith reiterated that his current preference would be to have students work remotely by watching a live stream of their classes via Zoom to maintain a “community of learning.” This aligns with one of the committee’s main goal, which is to protect the social-emotional health of students.

However, administrators at Miller-Driscoll Elementary School (pre K-2nd grade) are planning to implement a remote classroom for students at home through Schoology, the new learning management system, instead of having Wilton’s youngest learners participate via livestream. Committee member Jessica Garcia, a teacher at Middlebrook, said this model should be extended to older students as well, saying that teachers likely would find managing and being responsible for both an in-person and online classroom simultaneously “very, very challenging.”

Speaking of teacher concerns, some Wilton educators have made theirs known in their responses to the teacher survey, which included a “checklist of considerations” that may make it difficult or risky for them to come back. As of Wednesday, 71 teachers said they would have trouble participating in person. Committee member and public health professional Deborah List told Smith that she heard from one teacher who pointed out one important concern missing from the district’s list–”trying to get pregnant.” List suggested that reason should be added as many teachers in the district are young and it would likely apply.

At the same time, the need for available staff is greater than ever. Smith said that an initial proposal to separate classrooms into smaller groups using paraprofessionals is not possible,  for two reasons:  the State Dept. of Education is still requiring that all instructors must be certified, and the schools don’t have enough classroom space to make such an idea realistic.

Even beyond teachers, however, current estimates say the school will have to hire seven additional custodians to allow for stricter new disinfecting procedures–for instance, cleaning each bathroom twice a day. In terms of transportation needs, Smith said a current estimate to add bus monitors is upwards of $1 million, which he called “impractical” for the school to achieve.

Social Distancing and Mitigation Strategies

As the first line of defense, all students and staff who do return in person will be required to complete mandatory, daily health checks at home each morning and will not be allowed to come to school if they have COVID-related symptoms or a fever over 100 degrees. Additionally, if they are feeling ill at all or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, they should not return to school.

Committee member Roseann Desimone emphasized that there should be one person who has the sole responsibility to monitor absences, possible case exposure, or COVID-related student health, as it should not fall on teachers or nurses to do so with their existing workload.

At the committee’s previous meeting, Smith emphasized the difficulty in enforcing six-feet of social distancing between students all the time, given the size of most classrooms and the state’s guidance to plan for all students returning. He followed up with more specifics during Wednesday’s meeting, saying that while maintaining six-feet of space would be required for adults in the buildings, K-12 students will likely be positioned within three-feet of each other in classrooms.

Smith said this would be the result of maximizing space in the classroom while still allowing normal class sizes of 20-24 students to continue. He added that the three-feet figure aligns with data from health agencies and officials including the World Health Organization, particularly when it applies to children, and that wearing masks would be an additional mitigation strategy for this closer contact. However, List, citing her own recent conversation with a contact at the American Academy of Pediatrics, emphasized that the evidence of the effectiveness of three-feet of social distance is different depending on a child’s age.

“The evidence is clear for the elementary-age children, but much less clear for middle and high schoolers,” List said.

The district’s health advisor Dr. Christine Macken agreed, but said that older students are more likely to wear masks, adding that, “That’s going to be [their] mitigation strategy when you have to be less than six feet apart.”

Smith agreed that evidence was absolutely important to consider, especially as the nature of the high school makes it a uniquely challenging place to contain students.

“Contemplating a full reopening, the high school is absolutely the most vexing, given the way the schedule runs, the way students move through the hallways. So I think as plans become more finalized, we really need to take a hard look and assess [if] we really think we can do this reasonably well and safely with everyone back or not and if the answer is ‘or not,’ we need to be willing to pivot. That’s true for all schools, but especially the high school,” he said.

Creating cohorts–groups of students that remain together throughout the school day–will be another mitigation strategy to help students. But again, it will not be easy for Wilton High School to implement cohorts given the range of classes and schedules for students–something the state guidelines anticipated. Smith said while high school administrators are investingating, using cohorts there seems doubtful. For Middlebrook School, Smith said there will be two levels of cohorts:  on a team level, and hopefully on a classroom basis as well. Smith said administrators there are exploring schedule changes with fewer classes in the day to help minimize moving around and staggered STRIDE or “special” classes. For Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill School, a cohort will likely be one class.

One concern about cohorts was raised for special education students, who may have to be pulled from class for other activities. Smith answered that nothing will be perfect, but school officials hope these strategies will mitigate risk to the fullest extent possible.

Beyond cohorts, masks will be required for all students and staff, unless they have a medical condition or other reason that would make wearing a mask impossible. Committee members asked questions about the “unless” clause, such as what would be required from students to exempt them–a doctors note, or other evidence; how far in advance notes would have to be submitted; and what protocols would be implemented for anyone who is uncomfortable being around a student permitted to forego a mask.

Moreover, state guidance now suggests that all students will eat lunch in a classroom, with Chartwells delivering food directly to the classroom door. This prompted a concern over students eating three feet away each other without masks as a protective barrier. Smith suggested that it may be necessary to install sneeze guards at all desks or tables to separate students and implement cleaning procedures to clean the desks after students eat. Desimone also pointed out that eating in the classroom may be difficult for some children with food allergies.

Facilities and Transportation 

In terms of facilities, another major change will be that no lockers or cubbies will be assigned to students; rather they will have to keep their personal belongings with them. Leonardi explained that for Extended School Learning, which is currently happening in-person now, students have been discouraged from bringing items from home whenever possible and are provided with their own individual materials that are not to be shared.

Moreover, as another mitigation strategy, hand sanitizing stations will be installed into all classrooms and students will be encouraged to use them often. Two teachers on the committee emphasized that they should be placed at a height accessible to younger students, a suggestion Smith said he will relay to custodians.

For room set-up, the district is working with furniture consultant firm Strategic Spaces to explore the possibility of creating larger classrooms and assessing furniture needs. Desks will be spaced out at least three feet apart and all students will face forward, while a six-foot buffer will be created at the front of each classroom so the teacher can move around. Wilton teacher Jennifer Felipe asked if teachers will be permitted to move around the room, to which Smith said they do not yet have a simple answer.

Students will still be allowed to have recess to ensure they don’t stay confined inside all day. Moreover, the district is exploring the possibility of purchasing tents to encourage outside instruction as another mitigation strategy, though a concern was raised about how sometimes fall allergies can present like COVID symptoms.

Beyond that, transportation was still a large topic of discussion. According to the recent parent survey (still ongoing), currently 76% of parents said they would be willing to transport their child to-and-from school. Smith said this will be greatly encouraged, as it will allow students who must take the bus an opportunity to better social distance. Students will be required to take the same bus to- and from school, which raises a concern for students who rely on transportation to destinations other than home, including after-school care at locations like the Wilton YMCA.

Conclusions

At the end of the meeting, BOE member Mandi Schmauch praised the committee, administrators, and superintendent, saying she was “proud” to live in this town where all the details were being discussed so intensely. Smith said the district will continue to send out surveys and make changes to the plan as new information arises, and that he welcomes feedback and questions from the community.

The Board of Education will meet on Thursday, July 16 at 7:00 p.m., and virtual parent forums are expected to happen later this summer.