New report IDs challenges with Westport's hybrid learning

Kids arrive for the first day of school at Coleytown Elementary School. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020

Kids arrive for the first day of school at Coleytown Elementary School. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020

Scott Mullin / For Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Limited social interactions, lower engagement and not enough collaboration were all challenges outlined in a new report looking at the district’s hybrid learning model.

The study by the the Tri-State Consortium was conducted through 30 focus groups made up of administrators, teachers, parents and students. It highlighted challenges, as well as areas the district was doing well in the current learning model.

“In total there were over 200 individuals and the main goal of the work was to capture the school community’s response to the reopening of schools,” Anthony Buono, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said at a Board of Education meeting Monday.

Staples High School parents and teachers shared concerns about the limited amount of social interactions. Staples students also had trouble with attendance and engagement when not in school, according to the report.

“I’ve been in about a dozen classrooms over the last couple of days and I think this has been an area everyone has been working on improving, but there’s still work to be done,” Buono said, adding strategies were being implemented to engage online learners.

Teachers at the middle school level said they didn’t feel as connected to students like in previous years. They also found it difficult to engage remote learners and provide interpersonal, collaborative opportunities for in-person and remote learning, according to the report.

Parents at the elementary level want science and social studies to be more interactive and requested students go to school on Wednesdays for in-person instruction and social interaction. Elementary-level teachers also said there needed to be more teacher collaboration, according to the report.

“The next step here is to say OK these are the areas or real challenges we need to improve upon,” Buono said. “Let’s work with our staff to problem solve these areas and come up with proposals for solutions.”

The study also highlighted elements of the model working well, including students following the coronavirus protocols and good communication from the schools. There was also a reported improvement in student behavior.

School board members largely supported the study as it outlined what the district could build upon to better deliver educational services.

“We’re seeing opportunities to really leverage what we’re doing now and do it better than what we were doing before,” BOE member Lee Goldstein said.

But she questioned what other evidence would clearly show improvements outside of just data.

“This can be evidence that teachers are giving us, but it just feels like a continual collection of impressions and not a real standard that we’re looking to,” Goldstein said.

BOE member Liz Heyer said she also was worried about how real progress was going to be measured.

“I don’t know specifically how we’re going to be able to say that we’ve made definitive progress against areas without understanding really what we’re looking at changing,” she said, adding the current collection of trends in the report could change.

But Superintendent Thomas Scarice said the report is forcing conversations that wouldn’t have been held otherwise.

“We’re having very direct, candid conversations about these topics now because we surfaced them,” he said.

Scarice said the leadership team has identified the big idea areas, but noted the report was just recently completed and it was too early to discuss next steps.

“We’re not prepared to answer that tonight we just met last week to identify the areas we prioritized,” he said. “The next step when we come up with how we’re going to approach a problem and solve it and an action plan — I’m sure we’ll have more information.”