Wilton school reopening: state directive ‘not welcome news at all’
WILTON — The viability of full-time in-person school is beginning to look bleak, but state officials appear to be pressuring municipalities to move forward anyway.
Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith told his Goal One Reopening Committee on Wednesday afternoon that, though the state is requiring municipalities to craft plans for distance learning and a combination “hybrid” model that would combine it with in-person instruction, it’s also saying those programs wouldn’t “count” as legally required school days.
“There are several communities across the state that have already made it plain to the commissioner that they don’t believe they can open their high schools, with all students, safely,” Smith said.
“On the heals of that we all got this clarifying memo about the governor’s directive,” he said, which at least seeks to dissuade municipalities from implementing either the hybrid or distance-learning model at the onset of the 2020-21 school year.
“Current statutes do not anticipate that remote learning programming ‘counts’ toward the required number of days in a school year,” Miguel Cardona, commissioner of education with the Connecticut State Department of Education, wrote in a memo to all state superintendents on Tuesday.
“If we elected to open with a hybrid model in place, then those days would have to be made up,” Smith said. “That was not welcome news at all.”
“The CSDE expects to issue further guidance on this issue should it become necessary for districts to move to remote learning models in some capacity during the 2020-21 school year, should public health data require it,” Cardona wrote, noting that a failure to at least provide the state with a “full reopening option” would likewise “not be in compliance with current state law’ with regard to the 177 required school days.
Smith and others, meanwhile, expressed continued concern on the viability of reopening both Middlebrook and Wilton High Schools to all students.
“I’m very, very concerned about our capacity to effectively implement mitigation strategies in the high school with all students present,” he said.
“The more we get into the logistics and planning, I’m just more and more concerned that we can do that effectively,” he said. “I’m also concerned about the middle school.”
“Your concern is not alone,” said Board of Education member Ruth DeLuca.
Smith cited a study released out of South Korea last week that children ages 10 and up can transmit COVID-19 as readily as adults can.
Because of space constraints, Wilton’s full-time, in-person reopening plan hinges on the strategy of a three-foot social distancing margin between students, with six feet the standard for adults, and between adults and students.
Smith noted that even one case — or a possibly suspected case — found in the school will result in closure for at least a couple of days so tracing and cleaning can ensue, and that these will likely be frequent in the first months of reopening.
DeLuca said the frequent shutdowns are “probably going to be more disruptive to a successful academic environment than perhaps a more sustained closure,” or a hybrid plan.
“We have some gut check moments here that I think we’re going to have to make in the coming days,” Smith said, noting that potential costs keep going up as well.
“The costs that we are anticipating to reopen our schools are just increasing by the minute,” he said.
Smith said more detailed meetings are in the offing with staff and parents by building, and probably by grade level too, noting that by early August they should have a clear idea on how things will be done at each school.
“To the best extent possible we want to give everybody the opportunity… to weigh in on the plans,” he said, noting another survey was going to go out to parents.
The last survey, he said, ended with 3,150 parent respondents, and show 13 percent of families will plan to opt out of in-school learning — a slight increase from last week.
He said the numbers indicated, however, that these families are not pulling their children out of the district for private school, but intend to make use of the distance-learning plan in place.
“We believe it’s very important to have kids in school with their teachers,” Smith said, “not only for their academic instruction but also for their social and emotional well being.”
He said, however, the town needs to determine whether it will be in students’ and families’ best interest to have things “constantly ping-ponging” between plans.
“We’ll get more info from the governor and the state Department of Education,” he said, “but I think we’re also locally going to have to decide what we’re going to do.”
“As the Governor has indicated, careful analysis of public health data will drive the final determination regarding which models school will implement when reopening,” Cardona wrote in his memo, noting that additional communication would occur.