An open forum was held Tuesday afternoon at the Westport Library to discuss education issues. It drew a full house. / Photo by Thane Grauel
A Board of Education forum Tuesday at the Westport Library to discuss education issues drew a full house. / Photo by Thane Grauel

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The pandemic weighed heavily not just on children, but the parents who worry over them and educators who tried to do their jobs in a world turned upside down.

That wasn’t really news to the roomful of people at an open forum hosted by the Board of Education on Tuesday afternoon at the Westport Library, but it seemed a common theme.

The social, developmental, educational and mental health effects on children, many agreed, will likely be felt for years.

The forum was moderated by Velma Heller, former moderator of the Representative Town Meeting, and drew a full house. Similar school board forums had been held before the pandemic.

Topics also included school start times, transportation issues, and brief detours into critical race theory and what some say are “pornographic” books in the Staples High School library.

One mother had a question about the transition from the middle schools to Staples.

An open forum Tuesday afternoon at the Westport Library to discuss education issues was moderated by Velma Heller, right, former moderator of the Representative Town Meeting. / Photo by Thane Grauel
An open forum hosted by the Board of Education Tuesday afternoon at the Westport Library to discuss education issues was moderated by Velma Heller, right, former moderator of the Representative Town Meeting. / Photo by Thane Grauel

“We’ve had a very fragmented — crazy, for lack of a better word — middle school experience,” she said. “Has there been any thought about doing more study skills, some more explicit study skills for those kids … ?”

Board of Education member Robert Harrington said his four children struggled pre-COVID with their transitions.

“I think the impact is going to be felt for a number of years,” he said.

Another mother said her child’s transition from fourth grade to fifth grade was “horrible.”

“The parents weren’t even invited into Bedford at that time,” she said. “We had a pre-recorded back-to-school night from the year before … I don’t really feel like we fully prepare our fifth-graders for the pulling off of the Band-Aid for sixth grade.”

Another mother thought learning loss in both her kids — one special needs, the other typical — came from “depression, and loneliness, and anxiety.”

“And then feeling, in my opinion, the pressure of performance while trying to navigate that,” she said.

“What specific things are we doing to address the learning loss due to, sort of, this weight that these kids are all carrying?”

Board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein and Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice said that was one of the focuses of a recent climate and culture survey of the school district’s students and staff.

Rebecca Martin, co-chairwoman of the Westport Special Education PTA, noted an uptick in bullying incidents.

“We have heard, from our SPED reps and our friends and our peers with kids in special ed, about multiple instances of bullying this year of special ed students in the middle school and high school,” Martin said.

She said the cultural upstanders, and “resonating statements or guiding principal for our older students, it’s all just abandoned when we leave the elementary school, where I think it really is drilled into them effectively.”

“Are there changes you anticipate, are there new ways of talking about bullying to our high school and middle school students?” Martin asked.

Goldstein said she’d like to see that addressed “for special needs kids, for marginalized kids, for all our kids, we should really look at … kind behavior here, marginalizing, ostracizing, all the way bullying.”

“I would like it to be an urgent question,” Goldstein said.

A mother mentioned what she saw as a maturity loss from the pandemic.

‘A lot of kids, because of COVID, they didn’t have the experiences in life. They circled the airport, they logged in from bed, they often turned off their cameras … you may have a kid who’s 16, but he or she is emotionally 14. It’s everyone’s first pandemic and hopefully our last.’

a mother speaking at the school board’s open forum

“A lot of kids, because of COVID, they didn’t have the experiences in life. They circled the airport, they logged in from bed, they often turned off their cameras,” she said. “I’d love to know if this is recognized in general, it just wraps back to all these other topics because you may have a kid who’s 16, but he or she is emotionally 14.”

“It’s everyone’s first pandemic,” she said to hearty laughs, “and hopefully our last.”

One woman said she’d just moved here from New York, and she hoped the district wouldn’t use critical race theory.

“I do not want to see the kids separated into and perpetual victims because it does not solve the problem, it even creates more animosity,” she said.

As the final topic, Heller brought up was gender, sexuality and banned books display at Staples in September.

“I don’t think the word banned is really appropriate. I think it should be more pornography that’s in the Staples library,” said a woman.

“And other books that are not suitable for children in middle school, and I’ve even heard through the grapevine there’s typical books like that, not as extreme as the pornography in the Staples High School, but in the elementary schools.”

“We each have our personal opinion as to whether or not those books are suitable for a high school library, a middle school library or an elementary school library, and we can each express our opinion on that,” said school board member Dorie Hordon.

Jonathan Alloy, who has pushed back on book banning and CRT comments previously, also spoke.

“Would you please, focus your efforts as the Board of Education, on educating our children holistically and honestly. That includes teaching candid history and celebrating diversity in all its forms — including racial, ethnic and gender identity,” he said.

“And it includes educating parents to avoid ignorant and hyperbolic talking points about boogeymen like CRT and pornography, which are both factually wrong,” he said and was interrupted by applause, “and display a fundamental lack of understanding of what that and other educational modalities actually are. They are intentionally inflammatory about conflating superficial claims of oppressors versus victims, with the very real systematic racism, misogyny and homophobia in America,” he said.

“I went to the library here,” Alloy said. “I asked for all the banned books I said I want to give these to my kids, show me the banned books so I can hand them to my kids.”

“My friend’s trans son was suicidal, and reading books like ‘Gender Queer’ saved their life.”

“LGBTQ kids are real, racism is real,” he said. “We are not going to stand for banning that in Westport.”

Thane Grauel, executive editor, grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond more than three decades. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.