Wilton plans to return youngest students full time by Oct. 5

The first day of the 2021-22 school year will be Aug. 30.

The first day of the 2021-22 school year will be Aug. 30.

Jarret Liotta / For Hearst CT Media

WILTON — Elementary school students in Wilton are heading back full time in the next several weeks, or are at least being invited to do so if their parents choose.

On Monday night, the Board of Education gave unanimous support to Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith’s recommendation to phase in the full-time return, starting with kindergarten and first grade at Miller-Driscoll School, and third grade at Cider Mill School, on Monday, Oct. 5.

Second grade at Miller-Driscoll, and grades four and five at Cider Mill will return for a four-day-a-week in-person schedule on Tuesday, Oct. 13, the day after the Columbus Day holiday.

Wednesday will remain as a shortened remote learning day for all students throughout the district.

By switching the current operating plan at the elementary schools, the district will be abandoning the hybrid option for students, so parents will have to choose whether they want their children to return to in-person learning or be fully remote.

“We may have some families who are currently in the hybrid and are not comfortable in sending their kids back four days a week and kind of, by default, have to opt for the remote option,” Smith said.

In order to get a sense of how many will be choosing which option, the district is sending out a survey Tuesday, which he hopes will get a quick response and help determine what numbers to plan for.

“Clearly getting our students back in school is a priority,” said Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle, stating that nothing can take the place of a relationship between a student and a teacher.

At the same time, he emphasized that the change was contingent on the guidance of health officials, and that the district needed to continue monitoring virus trends.

“The recommendation (is) anchored by a need to continue to assess mitigation strategies as we more fully occupy both buildings,” Smith said.

Bringing back the entire population of students to Cider Mill in particular will mean that in some cases it’s likely that not even a three-foot separation between students will be possible.

“There may be some classrooms where the space is less than three feet,” Smith said.

“It’s unclear what adjustments may need to be made,” he said, though the district will continue to make use of sneeze guards, masks and others mitigation strategies.

“This is the fundamental concern for our health director, Barry Bogle, and he asked for floor plans of all those classrooms,” he said.

Smith also listed several other concerns, including the additional time that will be required for parents’ drop-off and pickup of children, the numbers of students in the restrooms at any one time in relation to social distancing, and how hallway transitions, lunch and recess would be handled with double the population of students back in the buildings.

“Their natural tendency is to congregate, so that recesses with entire classes will add to that challenge,” he said.

Smith noted that while the economy of scale for operating some of the largest elementary schools in the state was traditionally beneficial to the town, size works against them with COVID-19.

Following a question from one board member, the principals of the two schools explained that it was virtually impossible to maintain the hybrid operating plan alongside the full-time in-person and the remote learning plans, largely because of staffing restrictions.

“We would basically have to redo all of the classes,” said Jennifer Falcone, principal at Cider Mill.

As it is, exactly how the district will arrange the staffing for the full-time remote learners is yet to be determined.

Smith said he’s received a lot of feedback from people citing surrounding districts in terms of having full-time returns, but he said it was entirely accurate.

“There are other districts that don’t have plans at all,” he said, instead maintaining hybrid models indefinitely until more assessments can be made.

“We are all clamoring to bring kids back as soon as possible… but we have a very, very strong desire to do this right and to do this well… And so I’m asking for a little bit of extra time to phase that in,” he said.

“We are working to provide education in the most challenging of circumstances,” he said.

Board member Mandi Schmauch acknowledged that some people were “feeling jilted” by changes being implemented, as some people — parents and staff — were under the impression more time would go by before an in-person return was even planned.

Chair Deborah Low noted the board had taken criticism for this and asked that the school administration strive to “calendar the dates and get it better on paper.”

“We’ve all seen the emails, particularly from some of the staff, saying this is a surprise … and that’s unfortunate,” she said.

Hemmerle noted that the caveat for approving Smith’s recommendation to begin the return process was advisement from the state and local health departments.

“This may be our best-laid plan, but it is all subject to (Bogle) and our health advisers as to whether or not it’s doable,” he said. “It’s subject to changes in the virus rates.”

“We have to all keep that in mind,” he said.

Hemmerle also noted that the board should be provided some updated details on COVID-related expenditures.

“I’m concerned that we have lost track, or are not keeping track … of the cost of all the COVID expenses relating to our budget,” he said, asking that they be shared at the Thursday meeting.

At its Thursday meeting the board also plans to look at the details on the parent survey, entertain discussion of the viability of returning the secondary grades to full-time in-person learning, and will hear an update on athletics.