Wilton works on firming up back-to-school plans

WILTON — The herculean task of reopening schools was looked at in more detail Wednesday afternoon when the Reopening Goal One Committee met online.

Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith presented the latest details on how Wilton Public Schools will modify its facilities, culture and instruction to keep students and staff safe in the time of COVID-19.

“The sand shifts between our feet on a daily basis,” he said.

The state is requiring each district to come up with three separate practical plans — one to return students to school full time, one to continue with distance learning, and one that combines the two.

Implementation will depend on what the virus case numbers look like toward the end of August, and each district could hypothetically switch plans once or more throughout the year.

“The purpose there would be to increase the social distancing accommodations,” Smith said, if there is a change in virus transmission rates or another outbreak in this region.

A recent parent survey comprised of 2,900 respondents found that at this time 67 percent would have their children participate full time in in-person instruction, while 11 percent said they would opt for remote learning for their kids.

The remaining 22 percent — just over 600 respondents — said they weren’t sure at this time, which Smith said made good reason why the district needs to continue finalizing plans and disseminating information to parents.

Due to space restrictions in Wilton’s school buildings, Smith said the administration is going to assume a three-foot minimum distance between students, rather than the six feet that has heretofore been the standard requirement.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics (and) the World Health Organization both kind of stipulated, or suggested, that three feet is acceptable,” he said.

“I recognize that there’s still not a lot known about COVID spread in children,” he said, noting the information wasn’t always consistent, but particularly among elementary-age children, data indicates that less social distancing is necessary.

“The evidence is actually different at different grade levels,” said Deborah List, a member of the Commission on Social Services.

“I think generally speaking the evidence is clear among the younger kids, and less clear among the older kids … This is where we need to take your input and guidance and evaluate it,” Smith said.

“It’s absolutely our intention to be guided by local health officials and local health data,” he said.

“We’re not creating a risk-free environment,” said Board of Education member Ruth DeLuca, noting that distancing was just part of the plan.

“I think it’s important that we frame it that together all these strategies work to mitigate risk as much as we possibly can,” she said, including use of masks, keeping students in their same cohorts as much as possible, and other practices that, DeLuca said, “really need to go hand in hand to make the entry as safe as possible.”

Working in classrooms that average 900 square feet in size, Smith said the plan will be to keep adults distanced at six feet from students and each other, despite some particulars of instruction that this might disrupt.

Plastic sneeze-guard-like barriers will probably be set up in the front row of most classrooms, where individual desks will all be facing toward the computer board used for instruction. In classrooms where students share tables, these plastic barriers will be erected on the tables between students.

“As we’re setting this up, there’s a long list of questions,” Smith said. “I don’t think there are simple answers.”

In an effort to follow state Department of Public Health guidelines, at least seven additional custodians will be hired to administer daily cleanings of “high touch” areas, as well as twice-daily cleanings and disinfection of bathrooms.

“Ventilation has been another really significant question over the last few months,” Smith said.

While the district already has a full-time HVAC specialist, he said “preliminary plans suggest that we will be changing our filtering as well as modifying some of our systems in order to increase fresh air flow through the buildings.”

“Some of these things are not news,” he said. “We’re just codifying them,” including the use of face masks by all students and staff, with certain exceptions for “compelling reasons” such as breathing issues or an inability to remove a mask on one’s own.

Smith said at this point it was still unclear how they would be working around the inclusion of individuals who don’t wear masks in the school building.

“We’re going to be directed by some of our health folks … That might require alterations to social distancing,” he said.

“Everybody at every level is making the best decisions they can with the information they have,” Smith said.

“We’ve never done this before so I think we’re going to have to experiment and make adjustments … There are many, many moving parts,” he said.