Wilton hybrid reopening plan gets go-ahead from school board

The Wilton Board of Education voted unanimously on Aug. 10 to reopen schools under a hybrid plan that includes in-school and remote learning.

The Wilton Board of Education voted unanimously on Aug. 10 to reopen schools under a hybrid plan that includes in-school and remote learning.

Jarret Liotta / For Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Around 600 people tuned in to hear the Board of Education unanimously approve a “hybrid” plan for school reopening, despite strong objections from at least 70 staff members at Wilton High School.

The student body will be split into two separate alphabetic groups, with the first “cohort” attending school on Monday and Tuesday, and the second on Thursday and Friday. The group that’s not in school will do distance learning from home on those days.

Wednesday will be an at-home, online shortened learning day for all, with teachers using the afternoons for professional development, communication with parents and students, and planning.

Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith said he would be making recommendations every three weeks for each school going forward for the board to vote on, which will be based on changes in virus transmission rates and the district’s success with the partial reopening.

“We know that there are lots of real challenges and real worries, but as a Board of Ed it’s our responsibility to move forward,” Chair Deborah Low said.

“We’re not necessarily going to please everyone, and as a matter of fact I’m pretty sure we’re not going to please everyone,” she said, noting health considerations were going to drive decisions.

Only one board member — Jennifer Lalor — expressed disappointment with the plan, arguing that it was “fear-based” and not in sync with the current low transmission rate of COVID-19 in this area, which she said would justify a full reopening.

“I feel like right now we’re starting in a hybrid with some of our schools out of fear,” she said.

A large part of the argument for the smaller groups — particularly at Middlebrook and Wilton High Schools — is to maintain the recommended six-foot separation between students, which officials have said could not be maintained with full attendance.

“I’m a little concerned that we are making our next determination three weeks later and that it’s going to be more of a subjective decision,” Lalor said, noting that it was very difficult for parents who have to work to organize their plans and childcare.

Yet Low said the choice wasn’t fear based, but represented a logical chance to test how things would bear.

“The state opened up in phases so I think a three-week window may not be ideal, but I think it’s reasonable,” she said, noting how many details would have to be worked out.

“We would absolutely like to have a full reopen, but we have to be ready to do it,” she said.

“I think it’s prudent that we start in a hybrid because it is brand new,” Smith said.

Meanwhile several members of the public expressed concern about any kind of an in-person reopening, including Sarah Lewis, a science teacher at the high school.

“I cannot begin to understand the risk-reward comparison,” she said, ominously noting the social-emotional impact it might have on a student or staff member to know they might be responsible for infecting someone with the virus.

“This is a burden we cannot and should not ask anyone to bear,” Lewis said, noting a full distance-learning plan was the only safe option.

Following the board vote, a letter in public comment came from “concerned members of the faculty” of the high school, which said the hybrid plan puts the community at risk and gives those staff members “grave concerns.”

The letter says there is no mechanism in place to test students and staff, nor to know if the virus is being contracted outside of school and then brought in.

Further, the letter states that not only didn’t Smith give staff members a chance to discuss the plan, he indicated that if they didn’t participate they would have to leave their jobs.

“When asked if he was truly willing to put our faculty in a position of having to make a choice between their livelihood and the health and safety of themselves and their families at his July 30 meeting with the WHS faculty, Dr. Smith gave the troubling response that he expects some teachers will have to make a tough decision in the coming weeks about their career with Wilton Public Schools,” the letter says.

“We didn’t survey teachers about what their preferences would be so I would be very hesitant to suggest where they all are,” Smith said of staff opinions, saying he thought it was a range across the district.

Low stressed that the board would give particular support to teachers in terms of their autonomy during distance learning, noting several times that parents would need to respect their roles of not interfering, watching nor taping classes that are online.

“The classroom is a special, magical place between students and teachers, and we need to respect those boundaries,” she said.

Families will receive orientation sessions about the guidelines.

Smith said more details on each school will be presented individually to parents at separate forums, and a list of answers to frequently asked questions will be posted on the school website.

“Each school is hosting parent forums and that’ll get into the very detailed specifics,” Low said.