photo: Pexels.com

Today marks a big change for Wilton Public Schools, as the school district’s COVID-19 policy has shifted along with the change in emergency orders at the state level. After the CT state legislature confirmed Gov. Ned Lamont‘s decision to cede responsibility for setting school mask policy to individual school districts, the Wilton Board of Education approved Superintendent Kevin Smith‘s recommendation to move to a mask optional policy for K-12 students (and mask recommended policy for pre-K students) as of Monday, Feb. 28.

Monday’s change comes just a few days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued updated guidelines and new criteria for communities to determine responses to local COVID-19 metrics. Instead of basing the risk assessment only on the number of cases, the new strategy looks at three metrics: COVID-related hospitalizations, percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID patients, and new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people over the prior week.

Those new guidelines eased the recommendations for mask-wearing in the majority of the country. In Connecticut, all but one county is now classified as low-risk, and the eighth county — Middlesex — is at medium. Per the CDC’s new guidelines, indoor masking is no longer necessary anywhere in the state, including Fairfield County.

The CDC is using new metrics and criteria to classify COVID risk levels.
Based on the CDC’s new criteria, there are revised guidelines for community-level response to COVID-19, including revised guidelines for indoor mask-wearing.
All CT counties are now classified as “low risk” according to the CDC’s new COVID guidelines

The CDC’s website allows members of the public to check their local community levels and provides a daily tracker.

School Changes as of Feb. 28

During the February break for Wilton Public Schools over the last week, Smith sent emails to the school community with updated information about how the school would approach the new policy.

Smith asked that families test their children for COVID-19 before returning to school on Monday. He urged parents to keep any child exhibiting any COVID-19 symptoms at home and contact the school nurse. The school district also has test kits available at each school for families to use.

Smith supported his decision to move to a primarily mask optional policy with local metrics of case transmission rates, noting that when he wrote his email, the COVID Act Now website was reporting a daily case rate of 10.8 per 100,000 people. He also linked to updated guidelines from the CT Department of Public Health for schools as support to transition to the new mask policy.

One of the issues brought up by parents related to the change in mask policy is how the schools will approach helping students navigate the classroom experience with not all students and families choosing the same approach to masking.

Smith addressed this in his email, encouraging parents to speak to their children in a way that would be “consistent with our approach to maintaining a respectful environment in all instances.”

“We will remind our school community to be respectful and tolerant of all people in our school buildings, regardless of their personal choices with regard to mask-wearing.  Throughout this pandemic, we have adjusted our behavior in response to COVID many times, ever mindful of the fact that we are all in this together.  As we prepare to take the next step in our journey, we are reminded that we continue to be in this together, even if people choose to take different approaches with masks,” he wrote.

He included some talking points for parents to consider:

  • “Mask choice in our schools will likely lead to a range of feelings and opinions.
  • “It is important that we are respectful of everyone’s individual choice.
  • “Encourage your child to be supportive and accepting of others’ decisions and feelings without identifying any feelings as “right” or “wrong.”
  • “Negative comments or criticism for individual decisions will not be tolerated.
  • “Each family is making a decision based on what is best for them as we all have different circumstances.
  • “Make sure your child clearly understands your expectations about mask wearing. Staff will not be expected to monitor or enforce mask use for students whose families choose to wear masks in school.”

On Sunday, Smith emailed the school community with another significant and unexpected change to mask guidance: the CDC announced it will no longer require that masks be worn on school buses or vans operated by public or private school systems, but that the agency would leave it to the discretion of school districts whether or not individuals in school vehicles would be required to wear masks.

Smith wrote that as beginning Monday, Feb. 28, “masks will be optional on all Wilton Public School transportation” as well.

Wilton Cases and Vaccination Rates

As of Friday, Feb. 25, the CT-DPH reported 15 new COVID-19 cases in Wilton for the seven days spanning Feb. 18-24, a big drop from the prior week when there were 28 new cases. The decline in the number of cases from the January peak of the Omicron variant wave has been markedly significant:  there were 663 new cases in all of January and only 84 new cases in February.

Wilton’s two-week average daily case rate (per 100,000 people) is also much lower, at 14.83. The two-week test positivity rate is also leveling off, with the most recent one-date rate measured at 3.03%.

Wilton vaccination rates have inched up slightly in the last week. Of residents eligible to receive the vaccine (over 5-years-old), 98% have had one shot, 88% have gotten a second shot, and 53% have received a booster.