Letter: Wilton High School teachers advocate for remote learning
To the Editors:
(The following letter is published here at the authors’ request. It was sent to Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith and Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell. It was sent to the Bulletin by Liisa Ibbard, vice president of the Wilton Education Association.)
Members of the Wilton Board of Education:
Over 70 members and counting of the Wilton High School faculty are writing to you today to express our concerns regarding the reopening plans presented to you by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kevin Smith. As ever, we as a faculty are proud to serve the town of Wilton, and are fully committed to ensuring not only the educational well-being of our students, but also their health and safety, both physical and mental. In that spirit, we respectfully request that the Board of Education would consider our thoughts regarding the health risks that our students, our faculty, and their families will be exposed to if Wilton chooses to return to in-person classes this fall.
At the Board of Education meeting on July 30, 2020, Dr. Smith and other members of the district’s administration reported to you on the status of Wilton’s school reopening plans, which include options that range from a full reopening for 100-percent in-person instruction, a “2-1-2 hybrid” model that blends in-person and remote e-learning, and a 100-percent remote e-learning plan. The existence of these plans was acknowledged but not fully discussed during a video conference with the Wilton High School faculty and staff held by Dr. Smith earlier in the afternoon of July 30. That evening, Board of Education Chair Deborah Low posed the following question after hearing the details of the 2-1-2 hybrid model:
“I would be curious as to how much staff discussions were involved in coming to the 2-1-2 model. That would be crucial to me, knowing where the staff is coming from.” Dr. Smith responded with the following:
“Various administrators at their buildings had talked about this, so I’ll defer to them. I will say, when I was on with three of the four faculties today, we did discuss this model. It wasn’t a conversation around whether they thought this model was preferable to another model, but with respect to this as a hybrid concept. I don’t think I heard any objection to this approach, and the theory around it is pretty much what [was] described [in the presentation to the Board].”
While it is true that Dr. Smith did not receive any significant pushback from the faculty and staff of Wilton High School regarding the 2-1-2 hybrid model, it is not because we support the model itself. It is because the model was never discussed in any detail at said meeting for one simple reason: we have grave concerns regarding the implementation of any plan that involves a return to in-person instruction rather than a continuation of fully remote e-learning, and the discussion that afternoon focused on those concerns rather than the specifics of the 2-1-2 hybrid model.
Throughout this meeting, numerous participants voiced the following concerns regarding the threats to the health of WHS students, faculty, and their families if Wilton Public Schools were to reopen for in-person instruction this fall:
● Many members of our school community, including both faculty and students, are at increased risk of illness or death if exposed to COVID-19, or have family members who are themselves in an at-risk situation. When asked if he was truly willing to put our faculty in the 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.
● A plan that involves in-person instruction, in a full or in a hybrid model with reduced student attendance, would not be able to guarantee the adequate maintenance of social distancing guidelines as established by the Centers for Disease Control. The school reopening guidelines issued by the State of Connecticut earlier this summer, amazingly enough, concede the point that social distancing in schools may be difficult or impossible, despite Governor Lamont’s and Commissioner Cardona’s desire to see schools reopen for in-person learning.
● Despite the efforts of our outstanding custodial staff, no amount of cleaning and disinfecting will adequately reduce the threat posed by airborne virus particles in our schools. In an article published on July 6, 2020, The New York Times reported that scientific studies indicate “the coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air” and that in an open letter to the World Health Organization, more than 200 experts recommended that “people should consider minimizing time indoors with people outside their families.”
● It would be impossible for the district to control whether or not students and their families are exposed to COVID-19 outside of school hours, and there is no mechanism in place for screening students and staff prior to entering school facilities each day, nor any mechanism for providing contact tracing and rapid-result testing in the event that suspected cases of COVID-19 compromise the school population.
● Remote e-learning presents a safe alternative to in-person teaching. Although e-learning is not a perfect alternative to in-person teaching, the faculty and staff of Wilton High School is more than capable of making it work, and more than willing to continue the diligent efforts we began under emergency circumstances this past spring to ensure that e-learning continues to be a valuable and rewarding experience for our students. Most importantly, it would help safeguard the health of our students and faculty by ensuring that the educational process continues in a manner that presents the lowest possible risk.
Each of the above points was raised by members of the Wilton High School faculty, clearly and unequivocally, throughout the meeting held by Dr. Smith on July 30 prior to his presentation to the Board of Education. Our group of over 70 members and counting of the Wilton High School faculty in no way supports a plan that would compromise the health of our students, our families, our colleagues, or ourselves.
Given the situation facing our nation and the ongoing threat of COVID-19, including the increasing community spread and rising cases within the town of Wilton itself, we believe that the Wilton Board of Education must not support the idea of placing the health of our community at risk when a safe, viable alternative is readily deployable in the form of a robust e-learning plan.
Thank you very much for your time, and for your thoughtful consideration.
Concerned members of the faculty of Wilton High School