Darien parents criticize school district's remote learning decision

A discussion of how decisions are made to reopen or go remote was held on Thursday, Jan. 7. Above, left, Schools Superintendent Alan Addley, left, Board of Education Chairman David Dineen, below, medical advisor Dr. Timothy H. Kenefick, and right, schools head of nursing Alicia Casucci.

A discussion of how decisions are made to reopen or go remote was held on Thursday, Jan. 7. Above, left, Schools Superintendent Alan Addley, left, Board of Education Chairman David Dineen, below, medical advisor Dr. Timothy H. Kenefick, and right, schools head of nursing Alicia Casucci.

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DARIEN — Some parents have continued to oppose how the school district makes decisions on remote learning during a meeting that was originally billed as a budget roll-out last Thursday.

Superintendent Alan Addley said decisions regarding whether students are remote, hybrid or in-person is based on the health of the children and staff.

“That is the only reason — there are different factors — but that is my only motivation and priority,” he said.

Addley said he is not a medical professional and neither is the Board of Education. He added that he met with head of nursing Alicia Casucci, Darien Department of Health Director David Knauf, and medical advisor Dr. Timony Kenefick on Dec. 30 in anticipation of reopening to the previous hybrid/in-person schedule.

Due to the contact tracing done after Christmas and vacation break, the district’s medical advisors said the amount of travel they observed by school families, and gatherings that had occurred, along with the lag in testing results caused them to switch to remote learning for the first week.

“We’re not disputing nor or our teachers disputing that the best place for students is in school as safely as we can,” Addley said. He added that the remote learning week ensured students could come back in-person in elementary schools and hybrid for secondary on Monday.

Addley said he did not intend to mislead the board or the families.

“I’m sorry that’s the perception,” he said. “The only focus I have is to keep your children safe.”

“We’re in a pandemic and we are going to have to make changes. I respect the parents’ concerns and don’t intend for these decisions to be last minute,” he said.

Board member John Sini asked if any changes could be made to ensure continuity with students in school, especially relative to staffers being out due to illness or quarantine.

Kenefick said additional testing wouldn’t be practical as it would need to happen daily and test results would take too long to have an impact.

He also said group testing isn’t practical as it puts several teachers in a room together when they are trying to social distance, and there isn’t enough testing to make it an effective method of keeping schools open.

Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday that the teachers are in the next phase of vaccinations, which will begin next week.

Joslyn DeLancey, the head of Darien’s teachers union, said she was enthusiastic to get the vaccine and said many other colleagues are as well. She noted that some were a bit apprehensive to see how the first round goes.

As far as substitutes, Addley said sometimes having several non-regular staffers coming through the schools makes things more complicated.

Casucci said all staff in the district are eligible in the second group to receive vaccines, and would be prioritized by the amount of one-on-one exposure they have with students.

Board of Ed member Tara Ochman encouraged district families to get their information directly from the district and Board of Ed and not on social media.

“I’ve seen some respond to questions with misinformation because it isn’t their expertise,” Ochman said.

“In some ways, we unintentionally spread anxieties when we go so far afield and share incorrect information. We have enough anxiety,” she said.

Board member Debra Ritchie asked when Addley expected the middle and high school to return to four days a week in person.

Addley said he hoped to welcome them back, but it depends on the metrics.

Other board members asked about whether the remote response to time off could be put in place after next Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday or February break.

Knauf said he was less concerned with short breaks versus a long Christmas holiday, which lent itself to family gatherings, especially with Christmas and New Year’s Day falling on a Friday.

Ochman also said the district families shouldn’t pit neighbor against neighbor in terms of where they go and what they do.

“Certain people traveled and followed the rules,” Ochman said, adding there’s no reason to “demonize” or hound each other on social media.

Board of Ed Chairman David Dineen said he thanked all the parents who had sent emails outlining their concerns and feedback.

“There is no playbook for running a school district during a pandemic,” he said.

He also said casting blame on others “doesn’t help anyone.

Public comment

During public comment, several parents objected to the remote learning decision, the timing, the transparency of it, and the criticism of using social media to discuss it.

Taylor Carter, a finance board member and school parent who started the Facebook group Teach Our Kids, said the group began because people feel they aren’t being heard, and she said some parents are afraid of backlash.

“They are viewed as anti-administration, teacher haters, deniers or worse. The culture around this issue has become as harmful as the virus itself,” she said.

“There is no data to support keeping our kids at home. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, a month everyone was highly concerned about, student caseloads in Connecticut were lowest among in-person learners, despite being the most frequently observed learning model,” Carter said.

“Remote learners actually reported the most cases in all but one week, when hybrid learners were most effected. Further, there is no evidence that COVID is being transmitted in our schools,” she said.

Teach our Kids also circulated a petition following the announcement the first week of January would be remote. It is now closed with 186 signers, including several couples.

Parent Alicia Mehlberg said she questions the transparency of the decision making, and said the fact that parents are reaching out to each other to get answers shows “there’s room for improvement.”

Parent Elizabeth Drew echoed the need for more parent feedback and urged Addley to reopen the schools as soon as possible.

Jamison Reilly, another parent, said he was wondering why the school was maintaining a half day on Fridays and wanted to know when the district would return to full days on that day.

He also said that encouraging school families to not talk about their issues and share thoughts on social media seems to be silencing opposition and opposing opinions. He said that it was ovious the “Teach our kids” group was being targeting in the unnamed discussion.

“Feeling like we weren’t being heard was the reason the group was created,” Reilly said.

Jon Dunn said the decisions about whether to open schools shouldn’t be held “behind closed doors.”

Several parents commented that the remote learning was especially hard on special education students, including Emily Shelley.

“The willingness to go fully remote for special education students without a plan in place is concerning,” she said.

Elizabeth Pawloski said there was no clear direction as to when the middle and high school would return to in-person learning like the elementary school.

She said she felt the superintendent had “hoodwinked” the entire middle school community with the decision to go hybrid in the fall.

Theresa Vogt said she has a junior at Darien High and she thanked the district going remote the first week of January.

Vogt said her child had to be quarantined earlier in the year and “it was not fun.”

“We quarantined him correctly. He did not enjoy it,” she said.

For parents who are concerned about their children missing out during their early years, Vogt offered a different perspective.

“My 2020 Darien High grad was a cancer patient in kindergarten. She was in the hospital for chemo treatments and could not have play dates for her safety,” Vogt said.

“I want to assure you she made it through, and she is thriving. We can’t let this define us. We can do this. Children are resilient,” Vogt said.

The next Board of Ed meeting is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Those members of the community wishing to view only, should do so through the Darien Youtube link. Those members of the community wishing to participate in public comment should join the meeting via Zoom.

sshultz@darientimes.com