School reopen elicits across-the-board opinions in Wilton
WILTON — If there’s one thing for sure about schools reopening in a few weeks, it’s that just about everyone is unsure.
Unsure if it will be safe for everyone to be back in person.
Unsure if schools will stay open.
Unsure if remote learning will serve the children well.
These concerns have been detailed in letters parents have sent to Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith and the Board of Education, and in comments made during an interview with Andrew Nicsaji, president of the Wilton Education Association, representing the town’s teachers.
Some of these concerns may be allayed by Gov. Ned Lamont’s comments on Monday that he is relaxing school reopening guidelines. He will now leave it to school districts to decide what form of reopening will work best for them — full in-school, remote, or a hybrid of the two.
In surveys the district has done with school staff, as many as 122 said they might not return when school opens next month. The vast majority were certified personnel, of whom most were teachers, according to Maria Coleman, human resources director.
Of those who cited a reason, the most frequently given was child care. Teachers with young children are concerned they may not have child care options while they are supposed to be at work.
Nicsaji, however, said, “the No. 1 issue is health and safety” for both children and teachers.
“We’ve heard for so many weeks and months, the magic number is 6 feet of space. Now all of a sudden, we are entering schools and the state is not using that benchmark,” he said, referring to 3 feet as being the goal for social distancing in the lower grades.
“I think some teachers were taken aback by halving that number from six to three. They are concerned about the spread from child to child, child to teacher, teacher to teacher, teacher to student,” he said.
Some teachers who are over 60 are afraid to return to school.
“They are scared for their own health, some of those teachers over 60 and 65 care for or are responsible for their own parents who are in their 80s or 90s,” Nicsaji said.
Teachers are also concerned about complying with the many guidelines they will have to follow such as spacing, use of supplies, and keeping masks on, particularly for children with special needs.
“Some children read lips and that’s tough to do when you wear a mask,” said Nicsaji, who is a math teacher at the middle school. He said last year he had two children in class who read his lips.
“You just wonder how do you accommodate them when wearing a face mask,” he said. “We try to meet student needs as best we can.”
While Coleman said teachers and staff members would be receiving information last Friday on their legal rights and options regarding returning, Nicsaji said he doesn’t think there will be a great number of retirements.
“It seemed like it was a normal retirement year,” he said of 10 or so departures that were announced in June. “No one said they were getting out because of a new teaching environment.”
He said he has talked with some teachers who have expressed apprehension about the new school year and said they might retire “but they haven’t named any dates,” he said.
When he spoke last week, Nicsaji anticipated the Board of Education delaying the start of school, as it did. Everyone was expected back on Aug. 26, but now Aug. 26, 27 and 28 will be half-days. Students will go for one cycle and start full-time on Aug. 31. Teachers will use their free time during those days for professional development. There are other training days built into the calendar as well. It should be time well spent, Nicsaji said.
“I feel pretty safe they would find it helpful,” he said. “A lot of teachers are feeling they are not prepared because Schoology is new and there is so much that may be changing.” Schoology is the classroom management platform that is expected to blend in-school and remote learning.
It will be a challenging year for everyone, Nicsaji said.
“It’s a very difficult task — it’s an unprecedented request for teachers and administrators to plan for the coming year. We don’t want people getting sick, we don’t want lives lost, we don’t want people to get it and not be the same after,” he said of COVID-19.
Parents have expressed feelings across the board on reopening issues and have not been reluctant to voice their opinions to school administrators and school board members. A new email has been set up specifically for reopening questions and concerns: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some are longer, more substantive emails and some are quite succinct as the one that read, “I have full understanding of the magnitude and complexity of these issues at hand. I will not be interested in sending my kids to school if they have to wear masks in the classroom.” This parent was concerned that masks do not help with mental health.
As it stands, the state has required school districts to come up with three scenarios for the coming school year, which Wilton has done. They are a full reopen, full remote learning, and a hybrid of the two.
Pushing back on Gov. Ned Lamont’s guidelines that stress in-school participation, one parent of middle school children wrote, “I feel strongly that Wilton should continue to offer an e-learning program for families that feel it is not safe to return to school at this time. This should be open to all students, not just ones that are immunocompromised.
The mother of two children, ages 11 and 6, who acknowledged her kids sometimes slip up on COVID precautions, said, “the only way I’d feel comfortable sending them back to F2F (face-to-face) school is if school was held outdoors, perhaps at half capacity and with several vigilant social distance monitors on hand to watch and enforce all the precautions…”
Others feel in-person school is still the best choice.
The mother of a child with special needs said she did not see her daughter thriving in an e-learning environment much longer and favored an in-school experience with precautions.
“We have weighed the pros and cons and truly believe that children, especially those with special needs, benefit most from in-person interaction/instruction.”
While another parent would like her children to return to school, she questions the reduction in social distancing to 3 feet and urged an expansion to 6 feet where possible.
“I want my children to return to school,” she wrote. “What we don’t want as a community is for children and teachers to get sick and stressed because simple guidelines were not implemented.”