During the Board of Education meeting on Thursday, Sept. 23, BOE members heard and discussed updates regarding COVID-19 and the Wilton School District from Superintendent Kevin Smith.
Vaccination Policy for Visitors
Smith began by addressing the district’s recently announced plans to only allow visitors who can show proof of vaccination into the buildings, as of Monday, Sept. 27.
“While some view this as unnecessary, our thinking is that it’s one more step in a layered mitigation strategy, really to continue to provide safeguards to our students and staff against COVID-19,” he said.
Smith said the district has employed a range of mitigation strategies since the start of the pandemic 18 months ago, from the “most restrictive” — full closure of schools; intermittent, remote learning; a moratorium on playground use; moratorium on all visitors — to “now less restrictive measures” that allow a return to more typical in-person learning — universal masking; school cleaning protocols and increased ventilation; use of outdoor spaces; social distancing during lunch waves; contact tracing and quarantine as necessary; and what Smith called “routine reminders” for all school community members about the efficacy of vaccinations.
Smith said that making the school day and schools look and feel more normal means continuing to implement protocols to safeguard against the potential risks of some of those in-person and more crowded activities. That, he said, includes stricter protocols for visitors.
“We absolutely want to welcome visitors into our school buildings while also ensuring that we’re taking reasonable steps to protect unvaccinated students and those who are medically fragile. Asking visitors to confirm they’re vaccinated helps to provide a reassurance that we can reopen our buildings to visitors, while also continuing this layered strategy approach,” Smith said.
Earlier in the evening during the meeting’s public comment section, Wilton parent Bianca Merkley read a statement telling the BOE that the policy requiring visitors to be vaccinated against COVID is “discriminatory, … not based in science, but in fear … especially when these are parents and caregivers, people who deeply love and care for their children.”
“There are many reasons to choose to not get vaccinated to this COVID-19 vaccine. And they’re valid and personal reasons. Of the few that I know who have made this choice, it has not been taken lightly. Many pros and cons have been weighed, and it’s a difficult decision, one that is personal to one’s own personal health and beliefs,” Merkley said, adding she was thinking of pulling her daughters out of Miller-Driscoll School as a result of the policy.
Although none of the school officials directly answered Merkley after her comment, per BOE policy, Smith did clarify that there may be options for unvaccinated individuals, either who have exemptions or don’t.
“We do recognize that some prospective visitors may qualify for an exemption and in those cases, we’re directing prospective visitors to contact [Human Resource Director] Maria Coleman [who] serves as our COVID liaison,” Smith said, adding that Coleman would decide “on a case by case basis.”
In addition, Smith said unvaccinated visitors may also provide a negative PCR COVID test to enter the building.
“We’re trying to be consistent with the governor’s executive order around mandated teacher vaccinations. … So we’re not looking to be overly restrictive and we also recognize that people come to our schools for lots of different reasons, whether it’s to volunteer in classrooms or to do more routine business. So we’re trying to be flexible,” he said.
Smith said the district is trying to refine its policy. “We’re not looking to unduly exclude people, but trying to strike that balance of ensuring safety and providing access. I think it just requires a little bit more attention.”
Thursday afternoon, Smith released a communication that clearly spelled out what unvaccinated people wishing to visit the schools should do:
“Those who believe they qualify for a medical or religious exemption or otherwise do not have proof of vaccination should contact Maria Coleman, COVID Liaison, at firstname.lastname@example.org one week prior to the date they hope to visit one of our schools. People who fall in those categories can be admitted to the building with proof of a negative PCR or antigen test taken within 72 hours of the visit.”
Vaccination Rates are “Extraordinary”
With Gov. Ned Lamont‘s executive order 13G requiring education workers to be vaccinated, Smith said the district is working to certify the vaccine status of all Wilton Public School employees. The district has almost completed that task, except for a final 26 staff members who are still unconfirmed, but who are also mostly not currently active staff members.
Of the total staff members who have reported their vaccine status, Smith said “an extraordinary” 94% of them are vaccinated. “I think high 90s at Miller-Driscoll and the high school and low-to-mid 90s at Cider Mill and Middlebrook. Ninety-four percent is great. I think that reflects a very strong commitment to health and safety and the health and safety of our kids and our staff.”
The district had hoped to rely on the surveillance testing program it had in place last year for weekly testing of unvaccinated staff. However, Smith said that the State doesn’t accept surveillance testing to satisfy the governor’s executive order.
“I did follow up with an email this afternoon to the Commissioner of Education explaining again what the process is, and, from my part, with respect to outcomes, I see no difference between what the executive order’s requiring and what this approach would achieve,” Smith told BOE members.
He hopes to convince state officials to be more flexible, especially with the high percentage of staff that is vaccinated. “The logistics of managing and collecting information weekly, even from a handful of staff members, could be challenging. And so we’d like to make it as efficient and as effective as possible,” Smith said, adding, “We’ll just keep asking, we’ll just keep asking.”
Case numbers in the Schools
So far this school year, there have been relatively few COVID cases, exposures and quarantines. One new positive case on Thursday did result in the quarantine of a staff member at Middlebrook and nine students — eight at Middlebrook and one at Wilton High School.
As of Friday, Sept. 24, the district published the following case and quarantine numbers on the website COVID tracker:
Other COVID/School News
- School officials are searching for an epidemiologist in Connecticut to consult with the district on COVID-related matters, but “we have not had any luck yet, so we continue to conduct outreach and shake some trees,” Smith said.
- District officials have sent questions to the State Department of Education (SDE) regarding the possible adoption of a “test-to-stay” testing program, used by the state of Massachusetts, among others. This type of testing allows students and staff who came in close contact with a COVID-positive individual to remain in school for in-person learning while participating in daily rapid antigen testing at school for at least five or seven days. As of now, the district follows the SDE guidelines for quarantine and isolation.
Wilton Board of Education Chair Deborah Low* told the BOE that she has brought the question of test-to-stay testing to the CT Association of Boards of Education (CABE), and asked that it be addressed with the CT DPH and SDE.
“I want to cut down on the need to quarantine for days, if possible, if we could do it right. I’d like to write perhaps a letter to DPH saying, could you research this and provide us some guidance on it?” Low explained. “It’s not where we’re going to do anything. It’s just, I’d love DPH to perhaps not wait for the CDC because there are some other states who have embarked on it, so maybe they can talk to those DPHs.”
When a BOE member asked if there would be any reason Wilton couldn’t deviate from the SDE guidelines, Smith responded, “It’s been our practice from the onset of COVID that we adhere to guidance from the State Department of Education, the State Department of Public Health. So at this point in time personally, I would be uncomfortable veering away from the guidance, particularly from the Department of Public Health, because we’ve been, I think, well-served so far, so that would be my hesitation.”
*Editor’s note: Deborah Low is a Democratic candidate running for re-election for Election 2021.
I am a former Wilton Public School teacher and a fourteen year resident of Wilton. I am also old enough to have been administered the oral polio vaccine as a child so that children in the US today no longer have to become victim to this debilitating virus. I don’t remember my parents standing in the way of eradicating polio in America. In response to Bianca Merkley’s statement, she should follow through on her “threat” and remove her children from Miller-Driscoll. Her comments reflect someone who is choosing NOT to listen to science and NOT to check facts. More importantly, though, she is someone who has closed her mind to the suffering of those around her in her community and within society at large. The criteria for belonging to a social group, a community, is that you care deeply about others, and think in terms of “we” instead of “me.” I would venture to say that all parents in Wilton love and want to care for their children. And the vast majority of them, in doing so, have been vaccinated to protect all families, not just their own. 94% of the faculty have unselfishly and empathetically stepped up for the health and well-being of others. That’s what being part of a society means. Many others in town, although not in the medical field, live by the Hippocratic Oath, “Do no harm.” Exemptions aren’t personal and private. Most are self-serving, which is why we can’t get back life as we knew it. I’m not willing to settle for the “new normal” because of people like Ms. Merkely. By her own decisions, she has forfeited the incredible privilege of being a “true” member of this community. And crying “discrimination” under current circumstances is ludicrous.
Thank you Ms. Shulman. You wrote exactly what I was thinking. It’s amazing how many people think COVID precautions are not based on science, but on fear, when it’s just the opposite. I hope people wake up before it’s too late and their kids have to suffer.
Thank you Joanne Shulman for eloquently, and patiently, countering the anti-COVID vaccine nonsense lurking in the community of Wilton and the US at large. Unless medically contraindicated, and there are VERY few contraindicated situations, there are no socially acceptable “personal” anti-COVID vaccination reasons that outweigh the duty to protect the community. There is no discrimination at play here. While the concept of “discrimination” rests on the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, the term applies to characteristics one cannot freely change-sex, gender, age, etc . Ms. Merkely, and others who scream they are being marginalized, freely chose not to get vaccinated. Freedom has consequences. Society should marginalize those who have put their own selfish interests in front of the well being of the society as a whole. Enjoyment of privileges associated with being a member of a community should be curtailed if one chooses to act against the interests of the community; specifically, against communal health and safety. Those who claim vaccine requirements are not based in science and based on fear, are willfully and ignorantly choosing not to research the issue and find the facts. Parents such as Ms. Merkely who refuse the COVID vaccine, and may refuse to have their children vaccinated, absolutely should exercise their freedom of choice and remove their children from the public schools, not only for their own political purposes, but in the interest of the health and safety of all students and families in the community. The science is clear-the fact that we have not achieved a higher vaccination rate because of people like Ms. Merkely means the community as a whole has been forced to live with a new normal-43, 942,335 cases and 709,119 deaths in the US thus and the continuous disruption caused by rampant spread of the disease. It did not have to be this way, if people such as Ms. Merkely put their families AND the community first and got vaccinated.
How sad to crucify another Mother for her beliefs.
If people who are not vaccinated are required to show proof that they are negative to enter schools, vaccinated should also have the same requirement since they also spread the virus.
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