Change of Wilton school plan comes as surprise
WILTON — In a last-minute decision, Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith canceled next week’s student orientation days, pushing the student start date to Aug. 31.
Concerns from staff members about their own readiness — as well as whether all safety precautions were in place — helped prompt Smith to make an “11th hour” announcement that he said was a surprise to his own principals and the Board of Education on Thursday night during its special meeting.
“This is going to sound like a shock because you’ve had no forewarning,” he said.
“I understand for our parents and our families this may be a further setback,” he said, asking for 24 hours to consolidate a plan to orientate students — particularly those who will begin the first day in distance learning as part of “Cohort 2” in the hybrid plan.
“I apologize to our community but I do feel very strongly that that’s what’s necessary,” he said.
Smith said about a week’s worth of preparation time was lost to the recent tropical storm and subsequent power outages. Also, he said, technical operating problems with the new database the district is implementing — Schoology — as well as other software programs needed for distance learning have delayed things.
“I think by delaying the school year a couple of days we will take a lot of the pressure off,” said Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell.
In an online public comment emailed to the board just prior to Smith’s announcement, Peggy Meurer, one of O’Donnell’s math teachers, expressed apprehension and a strong desire to stall the school opening, which she said was shared by many at the high school.
“The teachers, schools and district are simply not ready,” she said, citing no sanitizer nor masks, no training in Schoology, and no understanding of how to use the new camera equipment that was recently delivered to execute the distance learning plan.
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“The stress and anxiety that this is causing teachers is palpable,” she said.
“We understand there are concerns and trepidations and anxiety and even disagreements,” Chair Deborah Low said following the reading of the comment.
“All of those concerns are serious and we hear you,” she said.
“She’s expressing the sentiment of many and she’s right,” Smith said, indicating that the bulk of the additional time next week would go toward training staff.
It was pointed out that other districts have gone so far as to push the start day for students back an additional week or two, but Smith said it would not be cost-effective to do so as staff would have to be compensated beyond their contracts.
“We don’t really gain anything with that (but) I think taking the time that’s available to us next week,” he said, would be beneficial.
“I think you’re absolutely right on target with this,” Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle said, noting he harbored concerns about issues relating to the technical changeover to Schoology.
“If we’re not ready we’re not ready,” he said. “It’s no one’s fault. We lost seven days, eight days with the storm.”
Fran Kompar, director of digital learning and information technology, explained how Schoology and other tech systems were freezing up due to nationwide overload.
“We were sinking major files over from PowerSchool to Schoology,” she said, “and I would imagine across the country that was happening.”
“I think as we go through this hybrid model we just have to keep in mind that everybody’s using the same tools that we are,” she said, noting there were similar issues during distance learning in the spring.
She said the storm also slowed the into curriculum units into the system.
“So we were behind and then we got even more behind,” Kompar.
“First and foremost, we want the schools and the teachers to be ready,” agreed member Mandi Schmauch.
Asked, however, exactly how students will receive their orientation — particularly those starting the week at home in “Cohort 2,” Smith asked the board to give him a day to work on it.
“I want you to give me 24 hours because I need them,” he said, acknowledging that they were brewing myriad questions following his announcement but that he just needed that time before answering.
“Now our building folks are going to have to scramble a little bit with it,” Smith said, noting that the district’s “favorite F-word this year” is “flexibility.”
“Somehow orientation will get baked in in some way, shape or form in the first week,” Low said.