Wilton Board of Ed favors returning Middlebrook students to four days in-person

WILTON — Despite overwhelming objection from staff members, the Board of Education is unanimously supporting a fulltime in-person return for students at Middlebrook School, contingent on COVID-19 case numbers.

On Thursday, Jan. 7, Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith explained his rationale for proposing the return beginning Monday, Jan. 25, for grade six, Thursday, Jan. 28, for grade seven, and Friday, Jan. 29, for grade eight.

As in other schools, Wednesdays would remain a remotely taught half-day.

“It’s predicated on a stabilization or a decline in the average daily case count of COVID-19, at least here in Wilton,” he said, describing that while the numbers dipped down last week, it’s expected they will rise through mid-January.

Both Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill Schools began the new year with a return to fulltime in-person learning four days a week, while Wilton High School and Middlebrook are currently in a hybrid model.

Smith met with high school principal Robert O’Donnell on Friday and said he would be making recommendations to the board on its possible full-time return in the next couple of weeks.

Along with facilitating the best opportunities for teaching, school officials argue that the precarious social and emotional well-being of students as a body is being jeopardized with the current hybrid model, moving them to push this plan forward.

“It’s become increasingly evident (that) most students do better with the structure of full in-person learning,” Smith said. “We’ve heard that from them, we’ve heard that from families and we’ve heard that from staff as well.”

Vice Chairman Glenn Hemmerle was the only board member to push back on the question.

“There’s no doubt that it’s the right thing to do (but) I’m just concerned about the attitude of the teachers at Middlebrook,” he said.

“They clearly are not supportive … They don’t think we’re doing the right thing at all and that bothers me,” he said.

Hemmerle’s statements were prompted by a letter from Wilton Education Association president—and Middlebrook math teacher—Andrew Nicsaji, which was read during public comment at the top of the meeting.

“There is no way to make the superintendent’s plan for a full four-day return at Middlebrook work in a way that is safe for students and teachers, while preserving instructional time,” he wrote.

He said that 98 of 102 staff members surveyed at the school opposed the plan for the reopening, implying that they’ve simply been forced to make this year work despite many difficulties and ongoing concerns.

“Make it work,” he wrote. “This has been the unspoken mantra of this year.”

Yet he said there is no plan in place to address issues that include passing time, lunch shifts, mask breaks and more.

“There is no plan for how nearly 25 students—some bigger than teachers—can be made to fit,” he said, in classrooms where social distance will be restricted to no more than three feet.

“Frankly, folks are scared,” Middlebrook principal Jory Higgins said, “and they’re feeling very vulnerable.”

“They’re worried about a life and death struggle that is very real, about the possibility of bringing that disease into their home,” he said, noting there are staff members who have loved ones with high-risk health issues that could be affected.

Smith acknowledged that their concerns are valid and, after meeting with them this week, plans to bring both Barry Bogle, Wilton’s director of health, and Christine Macken, district medical consultant, in for visits to try and quell concerns.

“We do want to hear them,” Smith said. “We also need to be very clear about why we’re moving in this direction.”

He noted that staff members at the elementary schools had similar concerns prior to bringing students in full-time, indicating some outlooks have changed.

“Teachers in those two schools also expressed a lot of very similar kinds of concerns,” he said.

Like those two schools, he said protective sneeze guards are being installed around each student’s desk to augment safety.

He said parents largely favor the return, as evidenced by survey information and some outreach.

“There are families who would prefer the hybrid,” he said, but when the change is made it will no longer be an option.

“If we bring students back to four full days in person, I’m anticipating parents are going to have to choose between four days in or fully remote,” he said, because the district doesn’t have resources to offer all three options at once. “I’m expecting that will be a disappointment for some families.”

“I hope everyone understands how seriously and thoughtfully we’re trying to work our way through this,” Chairman Deborah Low said, citing the “crazy, pressured, surreal environment” in which everything is taking place.

“Our goal is as much in-person learning as possible because we know that is the best way to learn,” she said, but also emphasized their reliance on safety and the outlook of the health professionals.

“We’re trying to do the balancing act,” she said, noting the board would have another “full discussion” at its Jan. 21 meeting regarding the plan.