Wilton hybrid plan put on hold for week
WILTON — All in-person learning is being delayed until Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day, the Board of Education unanimously decided in a special meeting held Tuesday afternoon.
While both the board and Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith were somewhat careful about tiptoeing around two largely publicized incidents last weekend involving large groups of Wilton High School seniors and other school-aged children — along with their families — that assembled in public parks without exercising safe protocol, this clearly played a key role in the decision.
Smith said that in consultation with Barrington Bogle, director of health, it was noted that 14 days would have elapsed from last Sunday before students returned to classrooms.
Bogle’s recommendation was to put the hybrid learning model on hold for a week or postpone the school start date of Aug. 31, which Smith said would have been extremely costly and demanded extending the calendar an additional week out in June.
In a lengthy explanation of his decision and thinking process, Smith said many amongst his teachers were expressing great fear about the new school year, in part because they need more time to embrace the new technologies being used but also because of health concerns.
More than 1,000 people tuned in to the 5 p.m. board meeting Tuesday, according to Chair Deborah Low, who refused to let “six or seven” public comment emails be read that came in before the meeting started because she claimed they included information that identified students in relation to the weekend incidents.
“I consider it personally identifiable information and so as a school board we do not read public comment that might be considered a confidential public record,” she said.
A couple of comments got through, however, with one Wilton High school teacher, Lara Fayek, stating that she is doing her part to help schools reopen safely and expects the community to do likewise by practicing mitigation strategies.
“I am keeping up my end of the bargain … My fear is that the Wilton community … will not uphold their end of the bargain,” she wrote.
“This is frightening to me,” one parent wrote regarding last weekend’s incidents.
“There need to be consequences to those who do not comply,” she wrote.
In approving Smith’s recommendation, however, other board members stressed that they weren’t voting because of direct concerns relating to health and safety, but to give teachers more time to get acclimated.
“This isn’t really a health issue because of what our kids have been doing,” member Jennifer Lalor said. “It’s really that we’re just not ready.”
“That’s what I want people to understand,” she said.
“The comfort level of the teachers, I think, is very important,” said member Gretchen Jeanes.
“We’re hearing our teachers loud and clear,” member Mandi Schmauch said.
In the overview of his recommendation, Smith did highlight concerns he wanted everyone to be aware of relating to COVID case numbers.
“The trend in Wilton right now is worrisome,” he said, noting five new cases over the last six days, which in essence doubled the town’s previous monthly average.
“Also, we have to kind of look over our shoulders a little bit at Danbury,” Low said. “Danbury’s numbers are concerning.”
Smith shared his sympathy with families and acknowledged the difficulties the change may cause, but likewise he defended the decision, citing the enormity and complexity of the situation.
“We’re in a pandemic… It’s exceptionally challenging,” he said, stressing there was no playbook for executing an ideal reopening.
“I see my role as shepherding our administrative team, our teachers, our families, toward that common goal of providing and participating in a public education experience that is, number one, safe for all stakeholders, and — number two — of very high quality,” Smith said.
“That’s been the mission from day one and that mission hasn’t changed,” he said. “What has changed is that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and there is no playbook for responding to these conditions that are on the ground today.”
Also avoiding direct comment on the recent incidents, Smith stressed there was a “shared obligation,” and noted that in order for the schools to expand to a full in-person model it was necessary that students and their families do their part.
“That’s everybody, and nobody gets a time out from that,” he said.
“It’s our civic and moral duty,” Smith said. “If we don’t, than we don’t get to have the kind of in-person schooling that we’re hoping for.”
Questions were brought up about whether the technology infrastructure — in particular the new Schoology program — is going to be ready for use and reliable.
“As a parent, I haven’t had much confidence in the technology that we’ve been rolling out,” Schmauch said.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re technologically there … Is it gonna work?”
Smith said technology is always a wild card during a normal year, and noted that teachers have back-up plans, as well as back-up technologies to use.
Still, he said in summarizing his recommendation, “This is an extraordinarily heavy lift.”
“I think it’s important to name the complexity and the challenge that we’ve placed in front of our teachers,” he said.