Board of Ed pushes back at Wilton school model

Wilton's Board of Education expressed frustration with the decision to continue the hybrid model for Middlebrook Middle School.

Wilton's Board of Education expressed frustration with the decision to continue the hybrid model for Middlebrook Middle School.

Jarret Liotta for Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Board of Education members reached a tipping point Thursday night, voicing considerable frustration to the superintendent about delays in getting Middlebrook Middle School open in-person fulltime.

Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith was peppered with concerns and questions, most of which were aimed at the reasoning behind Health Director Barry Bogle’s recommendation to push back the planned four-day in-person reopening to at least Feb. 8.

“To say I’m disappointed and sad and frustrated is an understatement,” member Mandi Schmauch said. “I guess I don’t understand who’s driving this bus right now.”

“It’s super frustrating that we’re relying on the subjective opinion of someone who’s not a scientific expert,” she said, referring to Bogle.

She noted that New Canaan’s Saxe Middle School, only three miles away, has been open full-time since October, with students participating in athletics as well.

“I would like to second Mandi’s comments,” member Glenn Hemmerle said. “I guess I’m just at the point where I just don’t understand.”

While he said he’s been fully supportive of erring on the side of caution up to this point, he has begun questioning the rationale, as Smith continues to affirm that Wilton’s virus rates are comparatively lower than surrounding towns and only one COVID-19 transmission has been confirmed within Wilton’s school environment.

“I’m frustrated,” he said.

As he has so often done this school year in reporting to the board on pandemic-related teaching models, Smith began the explanation of his reasoning for the delay by emphasizing the reliance on health officials.

“It’s frustrating for me too,” he said.

“We are acutely aware of the importance academically, socially and emotionally of having children in school,” he said, at the same time noting the threat of the virus, which is now presenting itself in new mutations.

“We have prioritized health and safety,” Smith said.

But board members questioned the juxtaposition of Bogle’s opinions in relation to the school system versus the community at large.

“I think Barry is attuned to the science and the data, but we’re looking at it from different lenses,” said Chairman Deborah Low, who sought to soften the pushback from board members by suggesting they prepare questions for Bogle regarding his reasoning.

“I hope we’re not coming off as trying to ignore (or) usurp his expertise … None of us has a medical background, or a public health background,” she said.

“I hope no one listening is taking this to mean (we’re) ignoring or downplaying the health and safety … That’s still our highest priority. It’s got to be,” Low said.

They asked Smith to invite Bogle to attend a Board of Education meeting—an offer he said he would extend.

He suggested he would first have Bogle view the recording of this particular board meeting to understand the members’ concerns.

Smith switched Wilton High School from the hybrid model to remote learning Thursday after several social gatherings resulted in an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among students, with 11 having currently tested positive and more expected to do so.

“We’ve seen how quickly the virus can spread,” he said.

Earlier, one school administrator was reportedly frustrated by several parents apparently refusing to offer information that would help with tracing who may have come in contact with infected students.

“I couldn’t fathom that, that he was getting pushback from parents,” Hemmerle said, calling it “incredibly disappointing” and “mind boggling.”

Smith noted, however, that more parents had been more forthcoming as the day progressed, citing “a very high degree of cooperation” according to administrators at the high school.

Among the questions board members want to see answered are why the district is using a 14-day quarantine period for its guideline, while other agencies—including the state and The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Schmauch—are recommending shorter periods.

“We’re not aligned with health and safety at this point,” she said. “We’re not even aligned with the state.”

Smith tried to explain that it’s not always easy to compare districts, with varying factors coming in to play. He also said that while nearby districts, including New Canaan and Greenwich, have brought middle school students back to fulltime in-person models, those are exceptions rather than the norm.

“There’s a perception that somehow Wilton is an outlier with the way we’re doing things with respect to our learning models,” he said, noting that others continue with the hybrid plan of operation.

Member Jen Lalor voiced her agreement with others, calling it “an incredibly frustrating week, to say the least.”

“I think we’ve all been a little perplexed,” she said, noting that there will never be a perfect time to return. “At some point we need to jump in and give our middle school a chance.”

“At this point it’s not the virus that’s hurting (students),” she said. “It’s the fact that they’re not in school.”