Are CT Education Officials Prioritizing Re-Opening Over Safety? Frustrated Wilton Schools Re-Entry Committee Pleads for Better Guidance

Early this week a suspected case of COVID-19 at Wilton’s Extended School Year Program prompted the program to switch to remote learning–and the community to reflect on how sustainable in-person learning will be. On Wednesday, Assistant Superintendent Andrea Leonardi emailed GOOD Morning Wilton to say based on “updated information,” ESY will now return to in-person instruction starting next Monday, July 27.

“We have now received updated information and reviewed it with the Department of Health. We are cleared to return to face-to-face ESY instruction at WHS beginning on Monday, July 27. Families and staff have been notified,” Leonardi said.

The scare highlighted just how critical planning and establishing protocols will be for safe return to school–and just how challenging it may be. It was good timing for a meeting that same Wednesday, July 22 as the Wilton Public Schools Re-Entry Committee met again to discuss more of the COVID-19-related safety precautions and procedures the district will put in place for reopening schools at the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

The meeting comes just two days before the district has to finalize and submit its reopening plan to the state for review. It integrated significant input from the Board of Education, which focused on the topic at their meeting last Thursday and will do so again tonight. [The BOE meets tonight, Thursday, July 23, at 7 p.m. via Zoom. The agenda is online and public comment can be submitted via email.]

Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith kicked off the meeting by clarifying that the Re-Entry Committee is focused specifically on goal one out of nine regarding reopening:  safety. In other words, while other committees focus on different goals such as the social-emotional health of students and curriculum, this committee is narrowly tasked with crafting safety precautions alone.

The meeting addressed new information from the state, new coronavirus research findings, and new corresponding concerns. They also discussed protocols to be implemented if a COVID-positive case or someone with COVID-19 symptoms did present in school, as well as other clarifications about safety measures.

Frustrations with the State

This particular meeting took on a different tone, with committee members expressing frustration with the State Department of Education‘s lack of clarity and lack of flexibility about the guidelines and how the town can implement them. Smith emphasized that although state officials are encouraging schools to move forward with a full re-open, Wilton will have to decide individually if that is the right model for the district between all three options:  full re-open, remote learning, and a hybrid of the two.

In particular, Smith addressed a recent memo from the State Department of Education that said if the schools were to choose a hybrid model, any days that the students are not physically on-site would not count as school days, even with teachers continuing remote instruction.

The committee was particularly concerned with how well they can follow mitigation protocols like social distancing and keep students and teachers safe, when current class sizes mean a 3-ft. distance between students is the maximum that could be achieved. Scheduling needs at Wilton High School that would mean high concentrations of students passing one another in hallways was also a worry.

Dr. Deborah List, a local public health professional and professor on the committee, spoke with GMW after the meeting emphasizing her concern about the state’s memo from a public health perspective. She said that although this decision reflects the state’s concern for student education, officials must pay equal attention to health and safety.

“We need to be very cognizant of the mitigation strategies and how to best implement them, and if we don’t feel that we can do them to meet the safety needs of the high schoolers, we really need to think about hybrid or online model as the best way to keep our students safe,” Dr. List said. “And it appears that the state is looking more focused on opening than health and safety, as best I can assess from what I’m hearing.”

From a public health perspective, that certainly doesn’t seem to be supporting the variety of options that should be out there and should be considered to best meet the balance between health and safety and engaged learning,” List added.

This is particularly concerning given Smith’s dwindling faith in the practicality of preparing the high school for a full re-open, given the challenges of putting mitigation strategies in place, such as cohorts and social distancing in class.

“I’m very, very concerned about our capacity to effectively implement mitigation strategies at the high school with all students present. I know the state is pushing very, very hard that local districts have a plan for all students to return at all grade levels, as well as back-up plans, as well as an expectation that school districts do that. I want this group to know… the more we get into these logistics and planing I’m just very, very concerned that we can do that effectively,” he said, adding that he had similar concerns for Middlebrook Middle School.

Smith said other superintendents across the state share this viewpoint. However, their pleas for flexibility and additional mitigation strategies to state officials have gone largely unanswered.

There is medical evidence drawing a lot of attention in the education world that may support the concern. A recent study in South Korea of nearly 65,000 people helped clarify children’s role in transmission. It found that while children under the age of 10 spread the virus much less often than adults do (although spread still happens), kids aged 10-19 years old spread the virus at least as much as adults. The study was mentioned multiple times during the meeting, heightening awareness that either additional mitigation strategies or adopting an alternative model will be necessary at the high school level if schools have any hopes of keeping students safe.

“We’re locally going to have to decide based on what we think we can do what our best plan is going forward whether we start the year back or we start the year in a hybrid or something else,” Smith added.

A hybrid model splitting students between in-class and remote learning allows for more social distancing because there are fewer people in the building at one time, making it a safer alternative. However, state guidance indicating that any plans which include remote days will not be counted toward meeting the 180-day required school year crushed any hope the committee had about choosing a hybrid option.

Additionally, the state has not clearly defined its thresholds for low, moderate, and high transmission levels, which is a key factor in how the district will determine which model to use. In her own research, List has seen cities and towns take into account not only transmission rates but what health resources are available in the community, such as ICU occupancy rates and available hospital beds. She was surprised that the state has not issued guidance about it yet, which places additional pressure on Wilton officials.

Likelihood of Frequent Closures

Although the recent ESY closure and planned return were both sudden and alarming to the community, given the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting, the closure could represent the new normal more than initially anticipated.

The commission discussed what the procedures would be in place if a student or staff member did exhibit symptoms, especially since symptoms on the CDC’s COVID-19 Symptom list may overlap with symptoms of fall allergies or other common seasonal illnesses.

They concluded that since all symptoms of COVID-19 will be treated as potential cases to best prevent community spread, the committee anticipates there will be frequent closures at the beginning of the year.

“If you’ve ever set foot in an elementary school you know just about every child has a runny nose at some point in the day, and so one of the real challenges for us and for every school system that’s contemplating reopening is exactly that:  how do you differentiate?” Smith said. “I’ll defer to the health experts on this call but [my thinking is] we’re probably not going to.”

I can easily imagine that we’re in this period of time where we are shutting down frequently because of suspected exposure,” Smith added.

The district’s drafted containment plan spells out the specifics:

  • If a student or staff member has symptoms of COVID-19 or has “reason to believe” they are infected and they were at the school 48-hours or less before developing symptoms, the student must contact a school nurse right away, while a staff member would contact Human Resources. All health information will be confidential.
  • School will contact Barry Bogle, the town’s health director.
  • Students will be sent to the isolation room in his/her school until they can be picked up; staff will be sent home immediately.
  • School and District Response Team (made up of school and district administrators, school nurses, director of HR, Bogle, and Smith) will be notified and start working on the communication protocol to all staff and students.
  • Arrange for the rest of staff and students to be dismissed from school; implement about two-to-five day shutdown (time period from CDC) in which contact tracing and possible exposure would be investigated and the school would be deep cleaned and disinfected.
  • Notify the school community and Board of Education; transition to remote-learning plan.
  • Work with Health Director about reopening; stay in contact with infected individual and health department.

Smith emphasized that definitions such as “close contact” are directly from the CDC.

Though frequent closures may seem like overkill, List said it’s a necessary precaution to reduce transmission.

“This is how we reduce community spread,” List said. “From a public health standpoint, where we look at the population as a whole, this is how we protect as many people as possible.”

The district’s medical advisor (and re-entry committee member) Dr. Christine Macken agreed, adding that because about only 40% of kids present with a fever, “especially at the beginning most runny noses, cough, sore throat have to isolate from home and figure out from there.”

Both Macken and List agree that testing is another factor in the likelihood for continous shutdowns, as on average, getting test results in Connecticut takes about two days.

Macken also asked if the district would set a time requirement about when testing should happen within a quarantine, because although someone who came into close contact with an infected individual could initially test negative, symptoms can present anywhere from 2-14 days after exposure. Smith said he will add more specifics to the plan.

BOE member Ruth Deluca said the district will have to consider if frequent opening and closing will be worth it over a more sustainable, remote approach, which Smith said was a “thoughtful question.” He added that it will likely become a conversation with staff, students, and families as the year goes on. However, Smith emphasized that in-person education is valuable and meaningful for students and staff.

But remote learning brings up other issues, especially for parents who felt the way distance learning was executed last spring left much to be desired. The district has expressed confidence in its new distance learning platform Schoology, but live video of classroom instruction isn’t something all teachers want.

Andrew Nicsagji, the President of the teachers’ union, the Wilton Education Association, said in a statement to GMW that the association is actively working with the district about their concerns, which hinge on “privacy and security.”

“The WEA understands the need to develop a plan for reopening schools and wants the reopening to be done safely. We have very serious concerns about the efficacy of live-streamed instruction, as well as privacy concerns for staff and students involved. The WEA is working with district administration to find solutions to these very challenging issues we face,” Nicsaji said in his emailed statement.

Required Health Monitoring–Expect a Culture Shift

Another point brought up by the committee was the community’s role and responsibility in monitoring their own health. For staff members, this includes monitoring for observable illness, confirming every day that they have a temperature below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and an obligation to self-report symptoms or exposure to the Human Resources Department. Students and families must also self-check for symptoms and temperature daily, and report any symptoms to the school nurse.

Smith said this will involve a “reversal culturally” where staff and students will have to get in the habit of staying at home even if they just feel a little sick, or if they do not have a fever but are having an off day. In other words, there will be no ‘powering through’. Smith reiterated that people should only be coming to school if they feel “absolutely” well, and staying home if not.

Since the state does not require teachers to be tested before they start the school year, right now Wilton is not planning to test teachers, but they have brought up the topic to the health department.

Smith also drew attention to Connecticut’s new travel advisory in Executive Order No. 7III urging travelers (with some noted exceptions) to quarantine for 14-days from their last time of contact in a state with a daily positive test rate higher than 10%, which currently (as of press time) includes 31 states. Everyone in all buildings will be expected to follow that guideline, and any travel should be reported to the correct person.

Other Clarifications

In previous meetings, it was unclear who would fill the new roles outlined in the state reopening guidelines. For now, H. R. Director Maria Coleman will serve as the COVID-19 Liason for the district.

Someone also asked about the viability of preventing material sharing within a cohort all the time. The committee agreed that every effort should be made to prevent sharing materials as an extra safety precaution; however, using the example of crayons in an after school program, Macken said that as long as the materials are not shared the same day, passive decontamination overnight would likely be sufficient for safety. Nonetheless, Smith said the objective in elementary school should be no sharing at all; however, he appreciates the sustainable perspective as costs are increasing.

“The costs that we are anticipating to reopen our schools is just increasing by the minute here,” Smith said.

Furthermore, questions were asked about how after-school programs will be structured. Wilton Continuing Education (WCE) coordinator Dolores Tufariello said that WCE will not be able to maintain students’ same classroom cohorts for its after school care, as not every student participates. However, they plan to cohort by grade with 12-15 students per cohort and spread out the program into smaller sections. Tufariello said they currently anticipate 70 kids to be enrolled in the Miller-Driscoll after-school program.

School Nurse Barbara Schum emphasized that the after-school program should follow all the precautions employed during the school day to protect the kids, especially as they will be in a different cohort than the one they’re in during the school day.

Conclusions

Smith reiterated that the future is still unknown, and planning for an unknown future is not easy. He said that in the coming days and weeks the district will have to make many decisions in order to best protect students and staff. Smith said they will have a clearer picture of how things will look in early August.

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