It was a dramatic Wilton Board of Education meeting last night, as school officials discussed the possible start of returning students back to full in-school learning in October. The BOE members also heard from the Wilton Public Schools’ district medical advisor about recent increases in case data that prompted her to push out her recommendation for just when it would be safe to consider that full return to classrooms.

As part of the meeting, the Board discussed concerns over screen time and the difficulty of distance learning for Wilton’s youngest learners, something they’ve heard a great deal about from many parents and educators alike, in emotional pleas that were shared during public comment when community emails were read aloud.

At the same time, officials also heard appeals from teachers worried about how safe having more students in the classroom will be.

And the principals of Wilton’s two elementary schools–Miller-Driscoll (Pre-K to 2) and Cider Mill (3-5) gave very candid accounts of what hybrid learning has been since school started and what it would mean to transition to an in-person model.

For now, the Board voted to make one major change to the schedule at Miller-Driscoll and then schedule another meeting next week to continue discussions over the possibility of an Oct. 5 start for phasing in in-person learning at the K-5 level. But reaching those decisions meant a complicated and emotional meeting for all present.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  We’re breaking the article into two parts. The first part goes through comments from the district’s medical advisor regarding data and her recommendations.

Plan for Live Meeting Scrapped

Board chair Debbie Low started the Zoom meeting by telling viewers that the original plan had been for BOE members to meet in-person (with administrators, staff and the public still watching virtually), but technical glitches made that impossible. The effort was something the board had hoped to do after being asked somewhat frequently why they weren’t meeting in the same room but they had decided to send students and teachers back to in-person learning.

Acknowledging Heroic Work, Collaboration–and Thorny Issues

Setting the tone for the emotion of the evening, Low made opening remarks that acknowledged the significant effort that has been made by many in the district to get to this point in the school year.

She included Dr. Smith and his “extraordinary administrative team” for their leadership; the teachers and support staff “for their continued heroic and creative work, dedication, and deep commitment to students. We have come this far because of their tremendous efforts and professionalism”; and families “for guiding and encouraging your students through this new learning landscape.”

Right off the bat, she referenced “thorny issues,” saying that the BOE members “take to heart, understand, and empathize with the valid concerns and worries from parents and teachers.”

Low made clear often during the meeting that school officials have heard from many community members–teachers and families alike–and that they were listening.

“As we address the real and painful challenges of students feeling discouraged, overwhelmed, and disengaged, even to the point of tears of teachers, feeling anxious and pressured and overwhelmed, even to the point of tears, staying together is more important than ever. There are no bad guys. We all want what is best for students and the hard truth. This pandemic makes perfect solutions impossible,” she said.

Reminder–We’re In a Pandemic

Superintendent Kevin Smith led off his remarks with a stark reminder of the situation and the stress it causes on several levels.

“I start every morning.reminding myself we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and life has been disrupted in every possible way. I know you all know it and are all living it and we all have an incredible desire to try to return to some sense of normalcy in whatever way we can. We’re in a time we have never faced in this generation. In a global pandemic, we’re tasked with educating and re-engaging students, families, teachers; in our schools, we’re tasked with delivering a robust curriculum, promoting healthy development of all, and nurturing connections; and as adults, we’re tasked with staying socially and emotionally healthy, so we can remain good, strong, positive role models for all of our children. Contemplating this task and how we get it done, we also have to name that we’re all under an incredible amount of stress and pressure.”

Smith described just how difficult and complex it has been as the district has gotten the hybrid model up and running, and said he had “an incredible debt of gratitude to our teachers.”

“We’ve asked them to learn a new platform, to learn all kinds of technology, hardware, create a community with a class that’s split between remote and person. On the whole, they’re doing unbelievably, remarkably, extraordinarily well. This task is incredibly demanding and fraught with difficulties… ”

He added that teachers are collaborating and troubleshooting through challenges. “Zoom has had issues. Google has had issues. We’ve had connectivity issues. We’ve had Chromebook and other hardware issues, camera issues, volume issues. The list goes on, but teachers are making it work,” and added, “Logistics are imperfect, but …they seem to get smoother every single day.”

But he also acknowledged the “acute issues” for Wilton’s youngest students, something he said would be addressed at length during the meeting.

Smith also said that mitigation efforts are working, with “lots of evidence” that community-wide those strategies are being implemented and followed.

Data, Case Numbers, and Doctor Recommendations

Smith explained that as part of the promised every-three-week review of the learning model being followed (currently hybrid), officials look at COVID-19 transmission rates, as well as how effective the district is in implementing various mitigation strategies (masks, social distancing, enhanced cleaning, hand-washing and sanitizing, increased fresh air flow, and student cohorts).

Currently, all data sources that Smith said the district uses point to rising COVID-19 rates.

“We have data that’s published weekly from the State Department of Health that describes new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 on a rolling seven-day average. For the week of Sept. 10, Fairfield County was at 3.4 per 100,000; as of yesterday, that number increased to 4.3 per 100,000. There’s another website called COVID Act Now, which aggregates a lot of this transmission rate data. That website indicates a daily new case rate of 6.8 per 100,000, as well as an infection rate of 1.15. Those indicators across each of those websites are on the rise and they do suggest that COVID-19 is spreading in our region,” Smith explained.

Given the rising rates, and how well the current mitigation strategies have been implemented, Smith said he recommended delaying the original target date to begin phasing in full-time return to in-person learning, beginning with kindergarten, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5.

That target date change was the recommended strategy from the district’s health experts, Dr. Christine Macken and Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle.

Doctor’s ‘Prescription’–We Need More Time

Dr. Macken was on hand to explain exactly why she was recommending to push back any possible reopen. Her part in the meeting came with the introduction by Smith, who said it was important to note that Macken has long been a proponent of returning all Wilton elementary students back to school as soon as possible.

He added that she only made the recommendation to move to Oct. 5 this past Wednesday, given the new recent data.

Macken explained she shifted her thinking from a return on Sept. 29 to Oct. 5 because of a sharp increase in the rate of cases. She watches the seven-day rolling average for Fairfield County and statewide. On Sept. 7, that figure was at 1.9 cases per 100,000; as of Wednesday, Macken said it was up to 7.5 cases/100,000 (although it dropped slightly to 6.4 cases/100,000 by the time of the meeting).

“We really needed to keep a close eye on that because that was a big increase in a week. If that trend continues, then we would definitely be over that 10 cases per 100,000 where that does not favor complete in-person,” Macken said, adding, “I think we need a little bit more time.”

She added that more time was needed to determine if the mitigation strategies being used by the schools are working, given the news of any positive cases in the schools.

“As we start to hear about new cases in schools, schools needing to close when there’s a case–which is not surprising, we expect that we’re going to see cases in schools. But I just think we need a little bit more time to see the mitigation strategies that we already have in place at the schools–the masking and the distance of six feet–does that control spread, before we start thinking about increasing the number of kids who are in school, having them in closer proximity to each other,” Macken explained.

Board member Glenn Hemmerle asked how she would account for a theoretical rise in case numbers due to a cluster in one large family or gathering, with cases possibly kept to a limited group. “Does anybody look at those things to be rational in the decision making about, had it not been for that, we would still be at one point whatever. We need to understand, or somebody needs to look at and talk about that because we’re making really significant decisions based on that.”

Macken said that’s why she looks at the county level rather than just the town numbers. She also doesn’t have an age breakdown.

“Looking where the increases, see what age group, it would be really interesting to be able to see that, but we don’t. But it is concerning to see it around a time where schools are opening. We just need a little bit more time before we can have a better understanding of where that increase is coming from and what age group,” she said.

Macken also talked about the infection rate–something Smith said: “is one of those indicators that also is trending in the wrong direction for our purposes and seems to have moved pretty dramatically in the last week or so.”

Macken is concerned that Wilton’s infection rate indicates COVID is “spreading more rapidly than it had been [before].”

“The infection rate is how rapidly the virus is spreading in a community. We had been at pretty low levels–below 1.0 for a number of weeks. And now we’re at what’s considered a more moderate level–about 1.1, 1.2. Above 1.4 is considered a high level, that’s a rapid rate of spread. At our peak back in April, we were at about 2.0. So it’s definitely concerning that, not only are we seeing more cases, but it’s also spreading more rapidly than it had been.”

Despite Wilton’s numbers appearing to be “low” on the metrics used by the State Department of Education, it’s the recent increase that has raised Macken’s concern.

“Seeing what we saw in a week was two- to three-times increased in the rate per 100,000, that again speaks to that level of spreads. So while we’re still low, if that rate of rise continued, you’d very quickly be above that 10 per 100,000. That’s why I’m still very hopeful to get kids in school, but we just need to see where the trend is going,” she said.

Knowing that bringing more kids back full time would mean reducing social distance minimums in the schools from six feet to three feet, Macken answered questions about any studies that might provide related information. While there isn’t much research that speaks directly to that, she did say that what research she has seen indicates the need to pair reduced space with adherence to maks wearing.

“Masks show even more protection than the physical distance thing. So I think that if we see numbers stay or level out, that it would be okay to move forward with having the kids in school.”

Smith asked Macken to talk about the increase in the risk of having more people in the school buildings, and what the district could do to maintain a safe environment.

“It’s really just the number of chances of exposure that you have, the more children that you have there. If you have one child that is positive in the classroom, now you’ve doubled the number of children who may be exposed plus increasing the numbers on buses. We don’t think that much about chance meetings in the hallway that are brief as concerning. But the more people that you have, the more particles that possibly could be aerosolized into the air. It’s definitely something to think about,” Macken said, adding, “As much as you can, minimize the number of people in one place at one time.”

Macken also spoke to the question of how likely children are to spread the virus or become sick with it themselves. She addressed it extensively:

Teenagers:  “There’s a decent amount of data to say older children, the teenagers, can spread the virus just as efficiently as adults. They still have much less severe disease, and they make up a lower number of cases that we see. The reason for that I don’t think is still completely understood, whether it’s that they have more mild disease that’s not tested, particularly back in the spring before we knew that runny nose could or stomach upset could be a symptom. There probably were a good number of children that were not tested and so those cases were missed. So there’s a question whether we falsely lowered the numbers because they’re, they’re diseases less severe.”

Younger children:  “There does not seem to be that much transmission from younger children to adults, or to other children. They’ve looked at the amount of virus that you can find in children’s respiratory track. It seems to be about the same, maybe even higher than adults. There’s a lot of theories out there as to why they may not spread it as well to adults, mainly thinking that they cannot aerosolize the virus as well as adults can. So we do generally see less spread from children to adults and children to other children 10-and-under. A couple of recent studies that have looked at daycares in Utah where there was definitely some spread from infants to parents, but it seems to be that spread is really more in a household setting, not in a school or even a daycare setting, with much more close contacts in a household setting. In Georgia, there were some overnight sleepaway camps where masks were not required and there definitely was spread between children in that setting as well. So they can spread the virus, they just are not as good spreading it as adults [are].

Board member Mandi Schmauch asked about why other towns, including New Canaan, Westport and Norwalk, are either moving to or already using a full in-person model, especially if Macken is looking at data from a county-wide perspective. Schmauch noted that data she’d seen indicated Wilton numbers to be lower.

Macken said there’s little formalized group discussion between the towns’ school medical advisors, but that what she saw in Wilton’s data is what has her concerned. “I’m not sure how close everybody’s keeping on day-to-day data.”

Schmauch asked how Macken could analyze the data without determining the ages of those infected. The doctor answered that in information she’s heard during biweekly conferences with doctors at Yale who were seeing the highest levels in older teenagers.

“The rest of the state was at about 2% but it was a 16% positivity rate in teenagers. So it’s really hard to stay. Even if it is that college-age, where we see the bulk of these cases, what concerns me is how many college-aged providers help with childcare to younger children, how many parents do we have at work on university campuses? Regardless of where the age is where we see the most cases, I can’t say that’s not going to affect families in our area,” Macken replied.

She added that even if the case number stayed higher near 7 cases per 100,000, she’d feel better as long as it wasn’t continuing to rise.

“If we saw that number, 6.8 to 7, stay like that, what I would expect is to see that infection rate come down. That would tell me it’s spreading less rapidly. Any amount of stability there, or if I saw that infection rate coming down, I would be happy with that. I wouldn’t want to see the number of double again in the next week, but if it stayed around this level below 10, and the infection rate is coming down again, that would be reassuring,” Macken said.

She also said it’s hard to predict if and when a second wave might happen, as the progression hasn’t followed the typical model.

“What is concerning as far as the second wave, is trying to figure out how much the virus is changing. And did having it before give you any protection against having it again? That’s really what we’re going to need to figure out in order to see whether we’re going to see a second wave, because if you had it, and you developed antibodies but they’re not protective against getting it again, we’re much more likely to see a big increase in case again.”

Board member Jennifer Lalor asked about whether Macken felt implementing testing and required temperature checks in school would be worthwhile.

“Temperature checks really don’t seem to be beneficial. About 40% of kids who have COVID don’t have a fever at any point during their illness. And temperature can vary so much during the day. It doesn’t really seem to be a very high yield screening tool,” she said.

As for testing, Macken added, “The rapid test themselves is not particularly accurate, it really depends on the levels in the population, how accurate they are and how many false negatives and false positives you’re going to have. The PCR tests are a little more accurate, but they take a few days to get the results back, and when you’re doing one of those tests, it just tells you, you are negative at that moment. But if you’re going to develop symptoms in 24 or 48 hours, there’s no way to know that. And you are contagious a couple of days before you develop symptoms. So you could actually be contagious, but be negative on a test. So I think it’s useful in the case where there are exposures to see if there’s any asymptomatic carriers, if there is a history of exposure.”

Macken also said there’s little to compare in terms of how successful other schools have been in returning to in-person learning because situations across the country or even globally are so different.

The reporting on the remainder of the meeting is coming shortly.

Editor’s note:  Language in the article’s opening paragraph has been updated to clarify that the district is considering bringing ALL K-5 students back to full-time in-classroom learning.