Wilton shortens remote learning day for youngest students

With 206 students now under quarantine, Miller-Driscoll remains the only public school in Wilton open to all students at the same time. Students attend classes four days a week. Cider Mill is on full remote and Middlebrook and Wilton High School remain on a hybrid learning model.

With 206 students now under quarantine, Miller-Driscoll remains the only public school in Wilton open to all students at the same time. Students attend classes four days a week. Cider Mill is on full remote and Middlebrook and Wilton High School remain on a hybrid learning model.

Jarret Liotta / For Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Following overwhelming concerns expressed from parents about extensive screen time for young students, the Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday night to shorten the virtual school day at Miller-Driscoll School by two hours.

“I’m all for it,” declared Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle.

“Six-year-olds and five-year-olds are not wired to sit in front of a screen for six hours, period,” he said.

At the same time, the board put off the decision of returning elementary students to school in-person fulltime until next week, amidst conflicting and emotional arguments from both teachers and parents.

The board didn’t even have enough to time Thursday to hear the 30 emails of public comment — half of which were from school staff largely urging the board to maintain the course with a hybrid learning model at least for the time being, in particular at Cider Mill School.

Several staff members there painted bleak pictures of in-school learning under the pandemic, with kids not following social-distancing or mask-wearing protocols, as well as claims that the PPE equipment supplied for staff is inadequate for protection, and the requisite technology in place for remote instruction is proving ineffectual for various reasons and causing headaches for teachers.

Regardless, the majority of Wilton parents of elementary-age students want their kids back in school at least four days a week, experiencing their own pains at home, with various reports that remote learning is having an adverse impact on their children.

“We’ve gotten a ton of emails from families saying there’s too much screen time,” noted board member Mandi Schmauch.

One Miller-Driscoll parent reported that her first-grade son “spends most of his home-learning days crying … and feeling bad about himself.”

“He just needs to be in class,” she said, joining 75 percent of surveyed parents in their belief that that school should reopen full time.

“I have major concerns with the current e-schedule,” said parent Meredith Marks, who supported reducing the length of the school day as well.

On the other side, several teachers painted vivid pictures of a problematic school environment they maintain is jeopardizing their safety, particularly at Cider Mill.

“Most of the day is spent troubleshooting technology, managing behavior, or showing students how to manage Schoology,” said Cider Mill teacher Kimberly Cameron.

“What is the rush?” asked Cider Mill teacher Suzannah Carr.

“As a teacher I would love to have all of my students back with me every day, but at what cost would that come?” she said.

Cider Mill art teacher Michele Montanaro said she has observed students trying to share materials, visiting one another’s desks, not wearing masks properly, nor social distancing. She and others reported that flimsy sneeze barriers at the front of the rooms fall over rather than protect teachers.

“Where is the support for your staff?” she said.

In a joint letter, executives from the Wilton Education Association said they were opposed to bringing all students back to Miller-Driscoll at this time, saying it would be irresponsible to risk health and safety.

And while the school board will explore that question further at a special meeting likely to be scheduled on Monday or Tuesday, principal Kathryn Coon is proposing that, to start, both kindergarten and first grade return in total for four days a week starting Oct. 5.

“I think it’s very hard, especially for kindergarten and first grade, to do all these things,” she said, pointing out the disadvantage of students working from home not having peers from whom they can learn.

Asked why Wednesday should remain as a remote-learning day, Coon said, “I think it’s really important to keep everyone in the routine of remote learning, because … at any point in time we could all go out full-remote.”

“Also it is very helpful to have that day for a deep cleaning for the custodians to go through the building,” she said.

Cider Mill principal Jennifer Falcone, however, wants to see the hybrid plan kept in place at least through the first trimester — something she thought prior to yesterday was going to be the case.

“I was not aware that we were opening on the 29th (of September) and now on the 5th (of October),” she said, noting there had only been six total days of in-person instruction and those had mainly been spent doing orientation with the students.

“I had thought the board was going to be checking in, so there’s been a lot of catching up that I’ve had to do with my staff,” she said, following the news that full-time in-person instruction was possibly imminent.

“That’s what the board had discussed,” noted Chair Deborah Low.

“When we had set our goals we said that we would review the learning model … and we always said with an eye toward getting a full opening,” she said.

“I would like to have more reviews,” Falcone said, noting they haven’t really had time to fairly assess how well things are working with the hybrid model.

“Eighty-two percent of our staff would prefer to remain in the hybrid model for the remainder of the trimester,” she said, though 74 percent of parents would like to return to full-time in-person learning.

“Already we’re being asked to transition to something new,” she said. “I feel like that would be unfortunate because we haven’t had the chance to really make something work, where we would have to get used to something different again.”

Low pointed out it was yet to be determined whether the board would even approve any changes next week, or whether these might just involve Miller-Driscoll.

The board also heard comments from health adviser and local pediatrician Christine Macken, who recommended delaying any expansion of in-person learning at least to Oct. 5.

Thereafter, she said, it would depend on what the virus rates look like for Fairfield County, as well as transmission rates.

“We’re in the midst of a global pandemic and life has been disrupted in every possible way,” Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith said, striving to mollify the conflicting concerns — as well as head off the many questions — that continue to permeate the community.

“There are no bad guys,” Low said, acknowledging the anxiety and pressure overwhelming families and school staff alike.