Things take a turn for the better in Wilton school reopening

WILTON — A variety of good news was shared with the Board of Education Thursday night with regard to school facilities and general readiness for reopening.

“Last week we did have some challenges,” said Wilton High School principal Bob O’Donnell. “We are definitely in a better place.”

In the wake of some publicized concerns about teachers fearing the district wasn’t adequately prepared to reopen— especially among high school staff — O’Donnell and other principals said the mood had largely shifted and that staff was looking forward to the return.

“I think everybody’s feeling cautiously optimistic,” Cider Mill principal Jennifer Falcone said, noting her staff is “fearless and committed beyond belief.”

In a surprise announcement earlier this week, Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith delayed students’ in-person return by a week, canceling the orientation sessions in exchange for full distance learning.

Tuesday, Sept. 8, will be the official return for students, but school officials indicated teachers were making the most of the delay and opportunity for a half-day schedule with next week’s distance learning.

“We’re thankful for the shortened days to continue our training,” Falcone said.

Updates on facilities also included a slew of good reports, including a positive study of each building’s HVAC system and details on how better air quality will be fostered.

“In the last four weeks (we) have inspected over 400 components in our HVAC system,” explained Chris Burney, Wilton’s director of facilities and energy management.

“We are virtually running on 100-percent fresh air now (and) I think we will be able to provide the maximum levels of fresh air in the buildings,” he said, due to increased pressure in the system.

While he said both the potential for warm, humid air, as well as winter’s cold weather, will make things somewhat problematic at times, Mark Esposito — the district’s HVAC specialist — will be monitoring these changes and making adjustments accordingly in each building to augment fresh air.

“I’m comfortable that we have satisfied the guidelines from the state … and I just feel that right now we’ve got the best we can out of the system,” Burney said.

Jose Figueroa, custodial and maintenance supervisor at the high school, reported that 95 percent of the personal protective equipment (PPE) for the district needed to go the entire year is already in place, including a stock of 20,000 masks, 700 touch-less hand sanitizer stations, and 1,500 sneeze guards — 300 of which were built by the school maintenance department.

“We also are waiting for 250 of the portable sneeze guards,” he said, as well as the rest of the disposable glove supply. They should be in district by Sept. 10, he said.

He also said 16 40-foot storage units have been filled with the mountain of furniture the custodial staff had to remove from classrooms in order to make them spacious enough to meet the six-foot social distance standard.

“Our average class size is anywhere from 12 to 14,” he said. “There was quite a bit of furniture removed.”

“I think we’re in really, really good shape as far as the facilities,” he said.

“I think the biggest issue at this point is the teacher anxiety over all the mitigation equipment, the PPE,” noted Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle.

“From what you’ve said tonight, we are in striking distance of being where we need to be,” he said, adding he hopes it helps quell fear among the staff.

Fran Kompar, director of digital learning, also said things were looking up where technology was concerned.

“What a difference a few days make,” she said, citing teachers’ efforts to get up to speed on the newest electronic tools nothing short of “heroic and incredible.”

“They are ready to go and I think they will be ready to go by Monday,” she said, noting that the Schoology program, which has had some bugs in it the last couple of weeks, has been upgraded.

Parents can visit the school website for help with logging in and using the program, with almost 2,000 already registered and many having attended online training seminars.

“Anything as large as Schoology, there is always hiccups,” Kompar said, explaining that more facets of the program will be put into play as the year rolls on.

Chair Deborah Low expressed her appreciation for all the work and progress.

“At least one member (is) feeling a lot better about next week,” she said.

“This is awesome,” member Mandi Schmauch said during a short photo review of the school facilities, which included shots of the revamped classrooms, offices and halls.

“It’s so fun seeing pictures and the only thing that will be better is seeing all the kids,” she said.

“The custodians have been working hard and we really do look forward to having the students back and the staff,” Figueroa said.

“We’re looking forward to the school year,” O’Donnell said.

“I’m just so incredibly proud of our staff,” said Jory Higgins, newly appointed acting principal of Middlebrook School.

“They’re just trying to make everything right for our students,” he said.