COVID-19 Update (Dec. 17, 2021): Kevin Smith “Concerned” After Nine New Cases in One Day, Staff are “COVID-Weary”

Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith at a BOE meeting in December. BOE chair Deborah Low is on the right.

At Thursday evening’s (Dec. 16) Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Kevin Smith told the board members he’s concerned about what he’s seeing in the district with regard to COVID. Just that day, Wilton Public Schools reported six* new positive cases in the district — something, Smith said, that hasn’t happened ever before.

“Since the beginning of December, we’ve had a steady trickle of new cases in our schools, one or two a day on average. Six was a watershed. I don’t think we’ve had a day since the pandemic started, where we’ve had six positive cases in a single day,” Smith said.

UPDATE, 9 A.M. — Smith reached out to GMW to revise* the figure, after learning of three more cases. “Our six became nine late last night when we learned that three bus drivers were COVID positive. That is definitely a one-day high number. We’ve had other high number reportings but they have occurred on Mondays and represent cases being reported over a weekend,” he emailed. [GMW has revised the headline to reflect the increase.]

It’s a fact that worries him, in combination with other data points he listed:

  • COVID Act Now‘s reported daily case rate for Fairfield County is 56.2, an extraordinary difference from the five-or-less at the start of the school year, and the highest since early January.
  • The CT Department of Public Health reports 21 new cases per day on average for Wilton, putting the town “solidly in the red,” with 97% of the rest of the state.

While dealing with COVID isn’t new for the schools, Smith fears the recent case uptick along with what possibly lies ahead during the impending holidays will have an impact, given that building administrators are already scrambling to conduct contract tracing and notify families about exposures.

According to Smith, the district’s medical advisor, Dr. Christine Macken, is also apprehensive. “Her [Wilton pediatrics] office has also been overrun recently with requests for tests and she expressed her own concern about just what the impact of people traveling over the holiday season may be.”

The two had been discussing temporarily suspending the district’s adherence to the state DPH’s “Screen and Stay” program, at least coming into the holiday period. Macken wanted to know if the district was seeing in-school spread.

“We have not seen an increase in in-school spread, [but] we had one instance earlier this year at Cider Mill where we think we did have in-school spread, we think in part as a result of Screen and Stay,” Smith said, before asking for BOE member input.

[Editor’s note: The Screen and Stay protocol allows unvaccinated individuals to attend in-school instruction after possible exposure to a COVID-positive individual under very specific guidelines and criteria — most notably, when the exposure takes place in school and all individuals were masked if indoors.]

BOE member Ruth DeLuca said contemplating suspending Screen and Stay is “reasonable” at the moment, especially post-Thanksgiving and ahead of potential holiday travel.

“The heightened numbers, in conjunction with the Screen to Stay program, without that element of testing to it is concerning. It’s also concerning to some families who don’t know if their kids are in classes with other kids who were close contacts but are screening to stay,” she said, adding the district needs to “just get through the next couple of weeks.”

“They’re saying that Omicron’s peak will probably be in like four weeks, mid-January. I know doctors’ offices in our area are overwhelmed with flu, COVID, RSV, and, really just trying to keep the kids and the staff as healthy as possible and in school as much as possible,” DeLuca added.

Smith hasn’t decided definitively whether to suspend Screen and Stay, but will gather more data including how many families are opting for Screen and Stay. If he does decide to suspend the protocol, it would be the only one he’d consider suspending. Vaccinated students and staff would still be allowed to remain in school if exposed, as long as they’re asymptomatic; unvaccinated individuals would have to follow the quarantine protocol in place prior to Screen and Stay — something Smith said some families are opting to do anyway.

Board member Jennifer Lalor asked whether it would be possible to allow unvaccinated exposed students to stay in-person if they participated in surveillance testing — a service the school already offers but something not many families have opted in to take part.

“It hasn’t gained the kind of traction which you might expect,” Smith said, adding he’d have to check with the lab that conducts the testing whether it could handle situational testing.

“Right now, with the protocol that we have for testing, we just test weekly and so it’s not dynamically responsive to a moment.”

Smith was less enthusiastic about the possibility of relying on self-tests done by families at home to allow exposed unvaccinated individuals to stay in school.

“I’m certainly open to talking about it and exploring it, I think I would take some feedback from Dr. Macken and look at the opportunity. I don’t think we’re at a place where people using home tests, that those would suffice. But if you’re talking about a clear certified rapid antigen test that’s used daily, let’s talk about it,” he said.

Realistically, however, being open to more options that would keep kids in school is something Smith said the district might have to do.

“We’ll see what happens in the next two weeks, three weeks, four weeks. But if we’re going to continue to live with a surge here, then we need to open up the box and start thinking more broadly,” he said.

Board Chair Deborah Low supported finding out whether the lab could work with the district to accommodate an increase in testing if it helped keep more kids in school.

“We’re not the health experts but it’s worth looking at because we all, unfortunately also know the repercussions of kids not being in school. So we’ve got to be mindful of that,” Low said.

Smith agreed. “Just to be clear, we’re not looking to withhold kids from school. This is just an alarming point here with the spread in the community and the very recent uptick in our schools,” he said.

Given the resurging spread of the virus among adults, and whether potential staff absences might impact keeping schools open, district officials are also preparing for potentially more concerning scenarios, including moving instruction to a remote model.

“Administrators are meeting [Friday], this is on our agenda, to review, to ensure as we’re coming into the [December] break, having staff be prepared, but also families. So we want to make sure that when kids depart for the break they take the Chromebooks with them, should they need them in January. That’s disappointing to think about and have to prepare for, but no reason why we shouldn’t be prepared,” Smith said.

Wilton Public Schools COVID Daily Tracker

School Staff is “COVID-Weary”

Smith told the BOE members that he’s been meeting periodically with groups of staff members to check in and “see how they were doing, how the year is unfolding for them, what was working and, and what wasn’t.”

He said the feedback has been “substantive” with a clear message:  “They wanted me to know, and for you to know as well, that we’re not through this pandemic. Teachers are juggling a great deal with managing mitigation strategies, reminding students about masks and social distancing, managing quarantine learning, and living with the daily specter of potential infection. All of that is just weighing heavily on people.”

One thing that teachers report feeling a “high level of stress and pressure” from is what has been discussed around unfinished learning — any delays resulting from the loss of in-person instruction during the pandemic. The high stress, Smith explained, is coming from “the way that we’ve articulated our goals and expectations around unfinished learning; data collection and data monitoring is a challenge; where we thought we’d be and where we are with respect to the pandemic are two different realities.”

Smith indicated that the optimism staff felt at the beginning of the school year has waned for some of them.

“In August, I think there was a fairly widely held belief and an accompanying sense of optimism that we were moving in the right direction and school would begin to feel more typical. For the first month or so, though not for all, that was true for many. But more recently the rise in cases and quarantines has been a substantial challenge,” Smith explained.

Staff are reporting that they are “feeling COVID weary.”

“What I’m observing is different than a typical kind of, ‘It’s December and we’re working hard,’ kind of pre-break fatigue. It’s much different. They’re showing up, and they’re doing exactly what we’ve asked them to do. They’re working hard, they’re engaging with kids. They’re trying to maintain positive, productive environments for our students, but they’re weary,” Smith added.

Overall, Smith said, teachers have described the environment as “challenging.”

“Our teachers are focused on unfinished learning and they’re working very well with small groups of kids; they’re attending to their social emotional needs and their academic needs, but the environment is challenging. And so as we’re listening tonight, and I think it’s a helpful reminder for all of us, that the environment in which they’re operating and we’re operating remains challenging and complex,” he said.

Low said she and the other Board members are taking the message “to heart.”

“There’s obviously no group more important to us than our faculty and our teachers interacting with kids. And I think we respect, acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate whenever we can, just how wonderful they are, And the environment and the challenge is not lost on us,” she said.

2 COMMENTS

  1. It would seem reasonable in light of more students quarantining/self-monitoring for the high school to suspend its current policy of docking credit for missing a prescribed number of classes per semester/year. Kids may deny feeling ill if they’re worried about losing school credit.

  2. As the current headline raises the alarm and fear regarding COVID new strains, could someone please report whether these students are sick other than how they would react from an annual flu? If the district tested weekly for the common cold or annual flu the system would be paralyzed. COVID is serious and can be fatal to some, but our school age population is not among them.. Nor are most of the healthy adults in the school setting, most of whom are vaccinated or should be (voluntarily). More testing leads to more positive results and that is a good thing to know.. but if the reports do not reflect serious illness and hospitalizations the media fear headlines are harmful and misleading. Please report the facts of severe illness and not just test numbers. As a survivor of COVID hospitilization in Marrch/April 2020 when there were no approved drugs or protocols Norwalk Hospital saved my life and I am all for vaccines and other treatments when sick but also worried about headlines that envoke needless fear again and again when there is a spike in asymtomaitc and mild cases. Please also do not print percent increases as a metric when an additonal case in a week can be reported as a 50% increase over a prior 1 case the week before.

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