Over 100 Wilton school staff members might not return due to COVID concerns

WILTON — Close to 20 percent of Wilton Public School staff surveyed last week said they may not come back if school reopens completely in-person next month.

Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith reported to the Board of Education that 112 of the 318 respondents to the survey sent to 600 staff members said they would not be back because of virus-related concerns for in-person instruction.

The survey did not collect individual reasons behind each response, though respondents as a group were prompted with general potential reasons that included health concerns of individuals or family members, and child care issues.

“I guess the biggest question is, if that came anywhere near fruition, what do we do?” Board of Education Chairwoman Deborah Low asked.

“We’re looking at a number of different options,” said Maria Coleman, director of human resources and general administration who said not all of the survey results were collected as of Thursday night’s meeting.

The district is considering certain paraprofessionals and substitutes employed in the district who already have their teaching certifications if a large number of those who did not return were among the certified teaching staff.

“Currently, the state has not changed its requirements regarding certification,” she said, in terms of who can teach classes, but there’s a possibility that certified teachers may be able to direct staff in certain pedagogical tasks.

“We’ve been trying to think a little bit out of the box,” she said.

“It’s definitely a concern. … If we had 30 percent of our staff not returning to work, that would be a significant concern in terms of being able to run our courses,” Coleman said.

Smith said he and Coleman met with Wilton’s union president and representatives from the Connecticut Education Association.

“The concerns that some of our staff hold are not unique to our staff,” he said, pointing out the fears are shared in other districts as well. New Canaan Superintendent of Schools Bryan Luizzi announced last week his district is looking to hire more substitute teachers to make sure they have enough people to teach students.

Smith said there was no “drop-dead” date when staff members need to notify the district about returning, but said he hoped the information would become available as reopening plans are solidified.

“There’s a lot of complexity to the questions and concerns around this, and so we’re going to try to the best extent possible to have as much in place over the next three weeks so we can have a clear understanding,” Smith said.

“There’s a lot to unpack here,” he said.

Coleman said a previous survey showed that 78 staff members were specifically concerned about their own child care in the event they had to return to school.

Toward that end, the district has been investigating the possibility of having on-site child care available for staff.

“We have lots and lots of staff members who have more generalized concerns. … It’s just a conversation we have to have,” Smith said.

Parent concerns

Like staff, Wilton parents are expressing different opinions of whether they’ll feel comfortable sending their children back to school, despite a general edict from the state that hopes to urge everyone back.

Smith said that as of Thursday, 2,996 people had responded to a survey on what they would likely decide to do next month.

“Within that, 65 percent of our families are choosing to have their children participate in full-time, in-person instruction, 12 percent suggested they would opt for the remote learning option,” he said, while 22 percent said they were “unsure.”

“Obviously, those numbers have serious implications for how we’re scheduling, how we’re structuring,” Smith said, noting that later in the summer they would reach out to those 300-plus families that are choosing to opt out.

Smith said the families who have expressed interest in opting out so far represent children at all grade levels.

The board heard other details on the evolving school reopening plans from Smith, including early cost estimates for COVID-related needs, including the addition of seven new custodians.

“There are significant financial considerations as we are making modifications,” he said, noting he would soon begin providing some rough numbers.

“The school building that causes me the most concern … is the high school,” Smith said, “and just thinking about the logistics of managing that … how we navigate all of their very complex schedules as well as the movement through the hallways as they transition.”

Social distancing

Based on burgeoning information about the spread of the virus, Smith said the rule of thumb will be a 3-foot social distance barrier between students, since he said young children are apparently less prone to transmit or contract the virus at shorter distances.

Older children, however, could be more susceptible, so the administration — based on feedback from local health officials — is still considering the plans at Middlebrook and Wilton High School.

Glenn Hemmerle, BOE vice chairman, said one constituent suggested the high school meet alternating weeks between two different student cohorts, with each group using distance learning every other week.

“It was a very thoughtful message and to some degree it does address your concerns about moving kids through the high school,” he said.

“There are benefits and drawbacks to each of the various models,” Smith said.

He said he continues to examine the latest research, but noted the 3-foot buffer rule might need to be expanded at the high school.

Low said the scenarios raise hundreds of questions, but stressed their plans would center on health and safety.

“We know that the plans will contain elements that not everyone will agree with,” she said, but noted the district would follow “the health data and the best scientific thinking at the time” of the reopening.