Cider Mill in Wilton reopens but COVID numbers remain high

Cider Mill School in Wilton has reopened after being closed for two weeks.

Cider Mill School in Wilton has reopened after being closed for two weeks.

Jeannette Ross / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Cider Mill School reopened again Thursday morning for in-person learning, but the district intends to hold the course on plans for the other schools through the holidays owing to burgeoning virus numbers.

Thursday night the Board of Education heard positive words about Cider Mill’s smooth transition back to the in-person model after being on full remote for two weeks.

“It’s a heck of a lot easier to teach when they’re in front of you,” principal Jennifer Falcone said, still echoing Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith’s assessment that the transition back was seamless.

Yet he also reported on how the surging pandemic has him cautious about further expanded openings at Wilton High and Middlebrook schools, which continue to operate under the hybrid model.

Though they’ve been higher in town, Smith shared that Wilton is seeing 27.6 new cases daily, with many more possibly en route according to town Health Director Barry Bogle.

“He’s expecting an uptick again as we see the results of people’s travel activities coming home,” Smith said, post-Thanksgiving.

As of Dec. 3, there were 83 students in quarantine throughout the district, with three positive cases at Miller-Driscoll School, one at Middlebrook, and one at Cider Mill.

There were also 32 staff members in quarantine throughout the district, with four positive cases at Wilton High School, one at Middlebrook, and one individual who works at the district level.

Smith noted this was improvement from two weeks ago, when 206 students and 52 staff members were under quarantine, hailing what he called an encouraging trend.

“All of the strategies we’re using continue to be effective,” he said.

Staffing

At the same time, he said, the district faces the ongoing challenge of keeping the schools fully staffed, in part because closures in other towns where staff members live have necessitated absences owing to their own childcare issues.

Others, he said, have simply taken sick days to err on the side of caution when they’ve had unrelated symptoms of illness.

“So we have a fair amount of staff out everyday,” he said.

“Although it’s not ideal,” agreed Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle, “it does make sense to stay this way — at least through December — and then look at it again.”

“Look, we would all love to have all the kids back — no doubt about it — but it just doesn’t make sense to do it at this point … I agree wholeheartedly,” he said.

Smith said that planning has already been done to get Middlebrook back full-time, so that if the opportunity comes about in the future, it can be a quick and smooth transition.

Chair Deborah Low support for the decision, calling it “the sensible, safe, most helpful approach to take.”

“I think it’s great that, should the numbers change and should the medical advice change, Middlebrook is ready … that you can do it in short order,” she said.

Smith admitted, however, that given space constraints in relation to the number of staff and students, getting the high school fully open was not as likely.

Quarantine changes

Meanwhile, he reported on new information emerging that quarantine times may not warrant a two-week stint, but could only require 10 days if a person is symptom-free, and likewise only seven days if they also test negative.

Smith said Bogle is waiting for a directive from the state before the district will sanction the change for those asked to quarantine.

“As soon as he gets that he’ll let us know … and then we can begin to utilize that shorter period,” he said.

Following the results of a parent survey at Miller-Driscoll, principal Kathryn Coon reported that “the majority of people are very happy,” but that some expressed concern about class size.

“We’re doing the best we can with the staff that we have,” she said.

“Nothing is perfect anywhere and we are still in this mode of discovery and adaption,” Smith said, noting that improving the reach to younger students engaged in distance learning is one of the areas needing attention.

“We need to continue to refine the hybrid instructional model (and) we really need to continue to ensure that we’re connecting and engaging with all students,” he said.