Dramatic Rise in Covid Rates Push Wilton Public Schools to Keep MB & WHS in Hybrid Model; M-D & CM to Stay In-Person For Now

During Thursday night’s (Nov. 5) Board of Education meeting, Wilton Public Schools‘ superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith discussed the current status of learning models being used in the district in relation to COVID-19 mitigation. He briefed the board members on the models currently being employed in each of the schools, and whether any transitions are planned based on recommendations from the district’s health advisors.

Working together with Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle, the school district’s health advisor Dr. Christine Macken, and Chris Clouet (special advisor to the State Department of Education‘s commissioner), Smith recommended to the board that the district maintain the learning models currently in place:  hybrid learning at Middlebrook School and Wilton High School, and four-day in-person learning at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill Elementary Schools.

Smith acknowledged what he called a dramatic rise in the amount of COVID-19 activity in Wilton, in Fairfield County and across the state and country, particularly in the last 7-10 days. He referenced the State Department of Public Health‘s recent classification of Wilton and surrounding Fairfield County communities as “orange-alert” in the model used to track 14-day average daily case rates, as well as the significant number of CT towns currently at red alert.

Smith pointed to the COVID Act Now website which shows that Fairfield County’s current average daily new case rate is 34.5. He compared that to the same indicator three or four weeks before, when the rate was between five and 12.

The State Department of Education’s guidelines suggest learning models based on the number of daily new case averages–generally aligning more in-person learning for an average of 10 or fewer cases; hybrid learning for an average of 10-25 new daily cases; and less in-person or remote for cases exceeding 25 per day. Smith noted that the guidelines do not recommend automatically changing models when any threshold is crossed, but rather districts should consult with local health officials to discuss COVID activity in the community.

Smith said Wilton’s medical advisors agreed with the plan of staying with current models, with one caveat:  “That is, unless we begin to see a substantial rise in unlinked COVID cases in our schools. At the moment we haven’t seen a substantial rise, although we’re definitely seeing an increase in cases,” Smith said.

He added that the district has been experiencing “relative stability,” adding to the rationale for keeping the models as they are, even with three new COVID cases at Cider Mill and one presumptive positive case at Miller-Driscoll reported earlier this week. Smith noted that before this week there were only three other confirmed cases in the district.

None of the cases reported in the school district were linked to transmission in the schools–something Smith said is a key indicator for deciding which models to use.

Smith provided the district’s current positive case and quarantine numbers, as of Thursday:

  • One confirmed positive staff member
  • One presumed positive staff member
  • 10 staff in quarantine (five to return Friday, Nov. 6)
  • Three positive students
  • 72 students in quarantine (18 to return Friday, Nov. 6)

Smith said surrounding towns are experiencing similar or higher stats. “We’re going to have to continue to pay close attention to what’s happening in our schools and our communities now.”

  • Ridgefield has 187 students and 52 staff members in quarantine.
  • New Canaan has six COVID-positive students and staff and 85 in quarantine.
  • Darien has nine COVID-positive school community members and 144 in quarantine.

Even though Wilton’s current plan is to hold the status quo, Smith said that’s not a hard and fast recommendation by any means.

“I absolutely see our ecosystem here as being pretty fragile. It’s not just based on the number of people who are being identified, but we’ve also had all kinds of reports of secondary exposures from outside of the community, whether it’s kids participating on a regional athletics team or kids are exposed because a family member develops COVID,” he said, adding, “The environment is definitely shifting and we need to really continue to pay close attention.”

Smith said the recommendation could shift at any time.

“This is an incredibly dynamic situation and it’s changed a lot very recently. And so those recommendations could change tomorrow. So we just have to, again, pay close attention and stay in touch,” he said.

One factor that could especially impact model change is staff availability. “If we find ourselves in a situation where we have a critical mass of teachers and staff quarantining, we may need to shift to a school to remote learning because we simply don’t have the bodies to manage the in-person environment,” Smith said, noting it’s something that other districts have had to do.

Board member Ruth DeLuca asked if the school district has enough resources to do contact tracing and monitoring, given the rising case numbers.

Smith said that the effort to do so is extremely time-consuming.

“When we get a notification of a case, it’s all hands on deck. We have good forms and protocols, and we really do this with some precision because we want to make sure we don’t miss anybody. It is really time-consuming,” he said, explaining that Maria Coleman, the district’s director of human resources and operations oversees the contact tracing effort.

“She spent the entire week last week responding to COVID questions, kind of facilitating contact tracing, just making sure that the information was coming together, communicating with Barry Bogle so we could inform him so he could make decisions, getting his advice, communicating that out to people.”

Smith cautioned that it would be easy to become overwhelmed should cases multiply quickly.

“We can easily get overrun here. If we see we have–I don’t know, five, six, 10, I’m not sure what the number is–but I think we could be overwhelmed and really be challenged in our capacity to do it effectively in a timely way. For me, it’s the timeliness that is so key here because from a health and safety standpoint people need to know.”

There an added implication for wanting to make sure instructional time isn’t negatively impacted. “If we have to shut down schools because we’re doing tracing and can’t get to everybody right away, it just has a negative effect. So I do have a worry about that,” Smith said.

He also answered a question he said he gets frequently about if there is a cut-off number that he has in mind for deciding when to shut down the district and go all-remote.

“There isn’t a hard and fast number. It really is dynamic, it’s based on a variety of variables, primarily spread within the school and some of those other factors… There just isn’t a cut point where you make a decision. So that’s why we rely so heavily on Dr. Macken and Barry Bogle,” Smith said.

Board chair Deborah Low acknowledged the delicate balance between the district’s stated priority of maintaining health and safety and the desire to keep students in-person as much as possible.

“This is a sensible and a safe approach, but it could change at any moment and we need to be flexible,” Low said.