Much of Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting was devoted to testimony from school officials about the district’s readiness to begin school in just four days. From mechanical systems and COVID-spread mitigation supplies to technology and teacher training, administrators say every detail has been worked on, checked, and worked on and checked again.

Facilities

Facilities director Chris Burney and supervisor of custodial and maintenance services Jose Figueroa ran through details about the physical space and supplies to show the readiness for students and teachers to begin the year.

  • Ventilation systems:  Burney said that Wilton Schools’ mechanical ventilation systems surpass expectations and state guidelines. “I’m comfortable we have satisfied the guidelines from the state. We’ve got the best we can out of all the systems,” at all school buildings, including Trackside, where the Genesis program is located. He added that reports will be uploaded to the Board of Education website.

Burney credited the district’s HVAC maintenance specialist Mark Esposito with earning Wilton a glowing assessment from the mechanical engineering consultants who work with the district, who said in a report, “We can’t believe how good and how well your systems are maintained.”

He noted that over 400 components in the HVAC systems have been inspected, and “significantly less” things than he expected needed fixing. In light of COVID mitigation, Burney said that adjustments have also been made to bring in more fresh air. “We have managed to increase the fresh air in all of our buildings. We’re virtually running on 100% fresh air now, he said, noting that doing so will be more challenging when schools are ‘full’ with people, but that the district will be able to provide the maximum fresh air levels.

In addition, Burney said Esposito’s team has been able to increase the level of filtration, and will also increase the frequency of filter changing to every two months, something Burney said was not a cheap option, but necessary, adding it’s something the district will watch carefully.

  • Water systems:  Despite systems being offline for months, Burney said they’ve been tested, drained and maintained, and are in working order. However, at this point, the CT Department of Public Health has directed that schools shut down water fountains–including touchless bottle filling stations. Burney added that Wilton’s Health Director would be pursuing the question of whether they could be opened with state health officials. “We may get new direction tomorrow,” he said, and would advise of any changes.
  • Facility Readiness:  Figueroa updated on PPE supplies and other materials that have been constructed or installed for health and safety mitigation in the buildings.
    • PPE:  Figueroa said that approximately 95% of PPE supplies that have been ordered have already been delivered, with the remaining due to arrive in the next few days. Burney later clarified that this meant 95% of supplies needed for the entire school year, not just for right now.
      • Staff has been given Hand sanitizer wipes, gloves, and face shields.
      • There are 20,000 masks available for teachers and students; 1,000 have been given to each facility for distribution to faculty and staff.
    • Portable Sneeze Guards:  250 have been ordered and are due in district on Sept. 10.
    • Touchless Hand Sanitizers:  700 have been provided to the buildings. They’ve been installed in every classroom and custodians are installing in public areas and offices. In addition, the district has ordered 4,000 Double-A batteries to power the devices.
    • Sneeze Guards:  Have been installed in the front of classrooms. 1,500 small and large sneeze guards have been installed–300 of which were built by maintenance staff. Many were placed in areas where children might not be able to wear masks, for example in special education areas.
    • Six-foot social distancing:   Every classroom will maintain 6-ft. social distancing. Every student desk is spaced out; the average class size will be set for 12-14 students. Other furniture has been stored in 16 40-ft. storage containers on-site.
    • Fabric material removed from classrooms, to make facilities easier to clean with disinfectant.
    • Signage has been installed, for direction and social distancing.
    • Plexiglass guards:  installed in offices, administrative areas
    • Cameras:  a new electrician hired by the school has installed cameras and done other equipment installation, including emergency push-button notification systems throughout the district.
    • Maintenance:  WHS girls’ locker room abatement, Field House stairwell tread replacement

Board Chair Debbie Low told Figueroa how impressed she was with the amount of work that has been completed.

“What you’ve outlined is nothing short of tremendous. We owe just so much to you guys too, for putting it all together so we can actually bring the faculty back and the kids back. You are the unsung heroes and we don’t say thank you enough,” she said, adding, “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, you’ve done an amazing, incredible job.”

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Board member Mandi Schmauch asked about progress on whether tents will be used for outside learning as previously discussed. According to Smith and Burney, the process for getting approval has taken longer than expected.

“We’ll know, after the end of tomorrow, when I start to get feedback from the architects, the structural engineers and from Turner, what we think the timeframe is going to be,” Burney said, adding that the district is proceeding with the permit application process.

Board member Glenn Hemmerle reflected on what he said was the biggest issue with preparations–addressing the teachers’ anxiety over COVID mitigation, safety, PPE and readiness to bring staff and students back to the buildings.

“It seems like we are within striking distance of being where we need to be, but teachers need to know that. Hopefully, they’re watching and they’ll be calmed by what we’ve heard tonight, that we’re very close to being where we need to be because that’s still a major issue for many teachers coming back,” Hemmerle said.

Burney indicated that the district is well prepared as far as PPE goes.

“When Jose said we almost have everything we need, he was talking about the year–everything we need for the year. He already has everything he needs for the next few months. When this [COVID] started to break down [last spring], Jose was out buying 10,000 masks here, 10,000 there… So when we say we almost have everything, it’s we almost have everything to get us through June. In terms of availability and accessibility of PPE [now], we’re good.” 

Hiring Campus Supervisors

District HR Director Maria Coleman followed up on a discussion begun at a prior meeting regarding hiring additional employees to serve as campus supervisors. With the prospect of having more students permitted in outdoor spaces, officials hoped to hire additional personnel to enhance exterior security. But an original proposal for seven additional hires to the tune of $440,000 was something some BOE members balked at.

Coleman reported negotiating a lower starting rate for only four new personnel as they would have a more limited set of responsibilities. She created a new position called safety compliance supervisor, “focused really on compliance with all of the different protocols that we’re going to be instituting for the upcoming school year,” Coleman said.

As a result, the initial estimate was halved to $220,000, as a “worst-case scenario,” depending on insurance electives. However, with the three positions the board declined to fill does leave Cider Mill hanging, according to Coleman, and will be something she’ll bring to the BOE with a new proposal at a later date.

Childcare

Coleman also updated the BOE on Wilton Continuing Education’s plan to offer a program for childcare during the days of remote learning, for both staff and residents. This would be a program in addition to the existing before- and after-care programs already established for Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill Schools.

Despite coming close to the start of school next Monday, the district still has not finalized details, although Coleman is hopeful the plans will be in place by the end of today.

“We felt like it was really important to try to offer that service for families. And particularly for staff members who are facing a lot of challenges with childcare at this time,” Coleman said.

The district has started looking at alternative locations outside the school buildings. Coleman said the district is very close to signing an agreement with the Wilton YMCA, and she is very hopeful that will be set by Friday, Aug. 28.

Enrollment will be limited because space is limited to approximately 20 students per day, and the program has to be limited for social distancing and space.

Technology–Equipment and Facilities’ Upgrades

Erik Haakonsen provided an update on improvements and equipment that has been installed.

  • Classroom technology:  For hybrid classrooms, have deployed nearly 300 classrooms worth of web cameras, tripods, and sound fields; wiring is being completed; document cameras were delayed to Sept. 15.
  • Door access control system has been consolidated across the entire district.
  • Chromebooks:  brought in nearly a thousand for grades 1, 3 and 6, and units for the high school, and will be going to students on Friday, Aug. 28
  • Teacher laptops:  on-site at Cider Mill and Miller Driscoll, and installation of teacher laptops and docking stations for the start of school are ongoing.
  • Power school parent portal:  updates implemented over the summer. New forms and contact information will be introduced and report cards, transcripts and testing data will be integrated.
  • Switches and Internet Connections:  upgraded to support Schoology rollout and hybrid classroom learning model

Technology–Schoology

Fran Kompar, Wilton’s director of digital learning, talked about the extensive plans and preparation that she and her team is implementing.

  • Teachers

Following reports of teachers frustrated with implementation and training of the new Schoology learning management system, Kompar said there’s been vast progress made.

“What a difference a few days make essentially in last few days. We’ve been speaking with folks in the schools. Our LLC and technology instructional leaders teams learned about the amazing progress all our educators have made in the past week and a half,” Kompar explained. She noted this was both in classroom setup–implementation of the new equipment as well as integration of learning materials.

She described the complexity of what teachers need to be able to do and adapt to with the changes required to now teach in a hybrid learning environment:

“There’s a need, as you look at what is instructionally sound, to have screen-sharing, annotation, being able to share on the SMARTboard, being able to write on the SMARTboard, being able to record, being able to see students that are at home in the Zoom session, as well as in front of you. So the complexity that our teachers have been dealing with and trying to get acclimated with is absolutely incredible. And all of this in a mask; and all this in a physically-distanced classroom. And all of this in a classroom that looks different than anything that they have actually taught in in previous years.”

But, she said in the last week, with more professional development, teachers have come together to problem-solve around issues, are and beginning to translate ways they previously taught into this new environment. They are collaborating, helping one another, suggesting strategies. “[It] has been short of heroic and incredible.”

Kompar said that curriculum coordinators and coaches have demonstrated full demo lessons within the classrooms using the equipment for teachers to watch.

“We’ve done a great amount of work, and we’ve gotten to where we wanted to, where the systems, technology, equipment is now turning into a conversation about how to best teach with it. That’s where we wanted to get to, and I believe we’re there,” Kompar added.

She later praised the teachers for what they have already begun setting up and doing in the Schoology system.

“I’m amazed, they’re heroes. The things I’ve seen in the past several days is going to be really impressive to students, serving their needs, and the parents will see their efforts. They’ve been flexible and adaptable, and they’ve been creative problem solvers,” Kompar said.

Defending against some complaints that issues that may have occurred during initial training, incuding “backend concerns and issues,” Kompar said some of that was to be expected–and that what the district has accomplished in such little time is actually laudable.

“With any new implementation, anything as large as Schoology, there is always hiccups. Imagine implementing a large robust learning management system during a pandemic; imagine doing that within two months’ time; imagine coming up with where you need this for the pandemic in June and getting as many teachers as we have in the system, trained; students on; parents on; curriculum in there,” Kompar said.

She mentioned “localized issues” they continue to fix, and added that the district will continue working on making the system better. “Schoology is scalable. We’ve only rolled out a small portion. We’ll be able to roll out more and more to really address the needs of our students,” Kompar added.

  • Parents

This past week, Kompar ran three parent-training sessions. More than 700 parents participated and were walked through how to register, look at grades, and find all the information on courses and more that parents now have access to through Schoology.

Almost 2000 parents are registered for Schoology accounts. “We’re doing quite well with our parent population and we’ll continue to have ways for parents to access support and have their questions answered,” she said, adding that a website has been created with a button on the front page for support, as well as tech help specific to devices, wifi, and any technical issues. There will be a virtual help desk that will be manned all week next week.

  • Students

A letter will be sent to families on Friday, Aug. 28 with info on how students can log in to Schoology. However, Kompar said many students have already figured it out. “They’re clever and they’re enjoying being able to see what their classes are and what it looks like,” she said, adding that schools will also send building-specific info and age-appropriate tutorials.

Also, lessons are planned for next week on learning how to navigate the technology:  Schoology 101, getting in and navigate, see courses, submit assignments, link Google Drive, have discussions, “all things children will need to be successful in learning in this online world.”

Board member Jennifer Lalor asked for confirmation that the district will be ready to go for in-person hybrid learning to resume on Sept. 8.

“Like I said, in just a short period of time, our teachers have done a fabulous job and… they are ready to go. A lot of them are ready to go and I think they will be by next Monday, [Aug. 31], not by the eighth,” Kompar replied.

Both Kompar and Haakonen affirmed that the infrastructure will handle all the users on the system at the same time. “Yes–we have redundancies… to support users both on- and off-campus,” Haakonen said.

Principal Updates

Each of the building principals provided updates on their individual schools.

Miller-Driscoll:  Kathy Coon said over the last two weeks her staff returned to school with a “can-do attitude.” They’ve been taking part in a lot of Schoology training, and they pivoted quickly to get chromebooks and materials ready for families to pickup when the decision was made to transition to remote for the first week.

Parents have also received communications from classroom teachers, who, Coon said, are excited to see their students. “You can expect that your classroom teacher is going to be there with a big smile on. They were ecstatic after they did Meet the Teacher. They just had a whole different look to them. So they are ready for Monday and they can’t wait to see the kids, even though it’s remotely right now. They can’t wait to do that and then they can’t wait to welcome them back,” Coon said.

Cider Mill:  Jen Falcone reported that her staff is “feeling cautiously optimistic and more ready every day to welcome back the students and have them back in the building.” She added that Cider Mill teachers “are so dedicated …the amount of energy and time and commitment that they are spending each and every day. It’s amazing to watch, they are fearless and committed beyond belief.”

Middlebrook:  Newly-named as principal, Jory Higgins said he is proud of the staff and their tireless efforts “to make everything right for our students.”

“They really did an incredible amount of work in terms of just getting the school ready in general. There’s already a lot of hard work, and …a lot of moving parts and a lot of people doing some incredible work there. As a teaching staff, we’re just really excited to get back to work, and that is to work with students,” he said.

Higgins noted that teachers are writing and rewriting re-entry units, “to create that positive and learning environment for our students because…they’re going to be working really to make sure that our students feel that welcome to Middlebrook… So much of it is going to be about building relationships.”

Wilton High School: Bob O’Donnell said that there has been “great progress” at the high school, and that the teachers there “have a desire to really do the job well,” acknowledging some “challenges and frustrations with technology,” but commending the teachers for their perseverance.

“We are definitely at a better place this week, that has improved. The teachers have been diligently learning the program. There are multiple examples of teachers collaborating within departments and in course-based team. Some of the teachers this week have actually said, ‘I feel as if I’ve gotten over the hump.’ Regarding readiness–they’re in different places, but we have differentiated support for them,” he explained.

Teachers at the high school have had heightened concerns over health and safety following stories of teen students who haven’t followed social distance guidelines.

“In order to be effective teachers, they need to be comfortable, they need to feel safe in their environment, so that’s been one of the areas of focus,” O’Donnell said. He added that the school has conducted some social-emotional activities to get them more comfortable, and added that his administrative team has told teachers they will give them as much time as possible to focus.

During next week’s remote learning week half-days, WHS teachers will focus on specifics around being able to conduct hybrid learning.

“We really are looking forward to next week, and …even if it will be remotely, just seeing our students again is going to be a very powerful experience,” O’Donnell said.

Editor’s Note:  A separate article will be forthcoming about the policy discussion. There was no vote taken on any proposed policy changes.

Correction:  An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified the frequency filters will be changed. They will be changed every two months, not every six days.