During Thursday night’s (Dec. 3) Board of Education meeting, Wilton Public Schools superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith updated the board on the ongoing efforts to bring COVID-19 testing to the school district, detailing multiple types of tests being considered.
He also announced plans to continue each school’s current status of either hybrid or full-time on-site learning models at least through the rest of December.
Smith began with comments on the CDC’s recently revised recommendations that individuals can quarantine for 10 days without a negative COVID test, and seven days if they have no symptoms and get a negative test result. He said he consulted Wilton’s Health Director Barry Bogel and district medical advisor Dr. Christine Macken about the CDC’s updated guidelines and they are waiting for a directive from the CT Department of Health before amending district-level recommendations.
In light of the news that the town is organizing a COVID testing site at Comstock Community Center, Smith announced that the district would cover the $90-per-test out-of-pocket cost for any staff members who wished to be tested during the first date scheduled by the town.
He also updated the Board on plans to bring BinaxNOW antigen rapid tests to Wilton schools. These tests will be provided by the state to school districts and are offered to students and staff who exhibit symptoms. Macken and her colleagues at Doctor’s Pediatric have agreed to serve as providers for these tests. Smith said he will alert the BOE when plans are finalized and anticipated these tests will be available “sooner rather than later”.
At the same time, Smith is working on potentially introducing diagnostic testing to monitor the spread of COVID within the school community. District officials have had ongoing discussions with CIC Health in Cambridge, MA about conducting either surveillance pool testing of the broader community or PCR testing of symptomatic or exposed individuals.
Smith said he was more interested in pursuing pool testing–a method that tests combined samples of multiple people at the same time–but after discussing the logistics with CIC Health, he learned that implementing this method might require more thoughtful planning than he expected in his initial talks with the company.
To conduct pool testing, CIC Health works with labs in Cambridge and Memphis, the latter of which uses matrix testing, a type of pool test in which the lab can actually identify a positive individual without requiring the entire sampled group to take a follow-up PCR test.
In order to take advantage of this more efficient model, the district would need a physician willing to provide standing orders, something Macken suggested she may be able to do. The district would also need a way to report any positive cases to the state, which Bogle and his team would likely handle.
Smith described a possible issue with the Memphis lab, however. As of now, the Memphis lab promises to have results within 24 hours of receiving samples taken in Wilton and shipped to the lab–”We would still be at or toward the front of the line,” Smith said.
However, because Memphis’ municipal government has a “first right of priority agreement” with that lab, the lab would prioritize the city of Memphis if it scales up its testing, and Wilton could get bumped to the back of the line. Smith said he was not clear in his conversation with CIC Health about what that meant in terms of specific timing.
Smith indicated that once CIC Health addressed that concern and answered some additional questions posed by Bogle, the district will be able to make a better decision about whether or not surveillance testing is the best option. He added that he expects to know more around Jan. 1.
Smith is exploring a second pool testing opportunity with Broad Institute Labs. Like CIC Health, Broad Labs conducts testing where the samples are pooled and tested as a single unit. The difference in Broad Labs testing is if the pooled sample indicates a positive, all individuals in the sample are required to get a follow-up test to determine which individual in the pool is positive.
Sample testing also raises concerns about the costs of follow-up testing and Smith wondered if the BinaxNOW antigen test might be a better, more cost-efficient option, something he plans to ask the State Department of Public Health. He concluded his update on testing summarizing that good progress is being made but a few questions still need to be answered.
Learning Model Update
During the BOE meeting, Smith also announced that the district would maintain its current learning models at each school heading into 2021, with hybrid learning at Middlebrook School and Wilton High School, and four-days-a-week in-person learning at Cider Mill and Miller Driscoll Schools.
Based on his statistical updates on where Wilton is as a community in regards to COVID positive case numbers, Smith felt there was not any need at this point to make major changes to the current learning models. He was proud to report district officials are not seeing evidence of in-school transmission, based on what he said was the conscientiousness of all members of the district.
In fact, Cider Mill returned to in-person learning on Thursday, Dec. 3, after two weeks of remote learning thanks to too many teachers being quarantined. “My kids were 10 minutes early to the bus stop today,” Smith added, describing his own children’s excitement to be back in the classroom and praising the seamless transition.
The board again posed questions about whether the district should maintain Wednesdays as a day of remote learning for everyone, to which Smith responded with his support of this practice. He explained that remote Wednesdays is one part of a collection of mitigation strategies and helps to ensure proper cleaning routines are performed, and in-person staff availability.
If COVID cases decrease significantly, Middlebrook has the most promise for welcoming back students full-time. Smith said the 6th and 7th-grade classrooms are equipped with enough furniture to accommodate social distancing, and the 8th-grade classrooms should be ready by early January. He anticipated a phased return, similarly to how the Cider Mill students were transitioned back into in-person learning. However, these plans are entirely dependent on the state of the virus in the community, Smith said.
In contrast, Smith does not anticipate bringing back all Wilton High School students to the building simultaneously, citing space restrictions and scheduling issues as reasons why a full return at WHS is not as likely.
Smith plans to reevaluate all learning models in early January and is open to changes if the infection rate decreases significantly.
BOE Officers (Re)Elected
Board Chair Debbie Low, Vice-Chairman Glenn Hemmerle, and Secretary Gretchen Jeanes were all re-elected to their positions.