Just this past week, news stories broke about several colleges expelling and sending home students who broke COVID-related rules on social distancing and gatherings. Over the summer, we’ve run multiple stories about teen parties and out-of-state trips that were blamed as the cause for rising positive COVID case numbers here in Wilton, statewide, and beyond Connecticut. Now, Wilton has another teen-gathering story sparking COVID fears–made all the more alarming with the start of school just one week away.
A photo posted to social media on Sunday, Aug. 23 showed 44 girls who are members of Wilton High School‘s Class of 2021. The photo was reported to have been taken prior to a scavenger hunt, an unofficial annual tradition that WHS seniors take part in before the start of school. While not an event sponsored or condoned by the school district, the PTSA, the Class of 2021, or the town, this scavenger hunt was confirmed by multiple sources to have been held on Saturday, Aug. 22.
Several people emailed GOOD Morning Wilton with screenshots of the photo and the post on Facebook in which the photo originally appeared. The photo was posted by an individual on their personal Facebook page and identified in the post as “Senior Scavenger hunt, Class of 2021.” [Editor’s note: we have published a screengrab of the photo and post from Facebook and masked the identities of those pictured in the image as well as the original poster. While the image first appeared on a personal page, it has been shared and seen by enough people and inspired enough reaction to have a newsworthy impact, and merited coverage.]
The image spread virally as it was emailed around town, as well as to teachers and to town officials. It appeared on several Facebook group pages, including in one now-deleted post on the Wilton CT 411 Facebook group page originally posted by Wilton resident Lisa Smith, who wrote:
“So many of us have now seen the group party shot of the 2021 scavenger hunt. I am really angry! I have been doing things the right way. I have taught my kids what they need to do to stay as safe as possible. I WANT SCHOOL TO START! There are now over 175 cases in Danbury. Why are parents not taking this seriously? The schools are desperately trying to get things set and you think it’s appropriate and funny to post a picture on Facebook of a group of 30+ kids? I can guarantee they are not all in the same cohort. Enough with this disregard for everyone else. So glad you had fun at your scavenger hunt and soccer camp.”Smith omitted the photo itself in the post she wrote after getting angry by what she saw as behavior that puts the wider community at risk. She says she and her parents, husband, and children have made enormous sacrifices to stay healthy, including one son who’s remained away at boarding school who she hasn’t seen for months in order to abide by his school’s rules to prevent exposure risk.
In the photo of the Wilton students posing close together without masks or following social distancing guidelines, Smith saw people putting the community at greater risk of possibly spreading COVID–a risk that could put the Wilton school year in jeopardy and increase the danger to the community, which she says would likely make the time she’ll have to be apart from her son even longer.
“I want school to start. I want these kids to have some semblance of a start of a school year. I want parents to pay attention. That’s it. We aren’t deserving of anything right now, we just have to pay attention to what we need to do,” Smith said, adding, “I haven’t seen my son in four months. I want to see my son, and I can’t if we continue on the path we’re going.”
The image was not the only one posted online from the scavenger hunt; GMW saw videos and photos shared elsewhere of smaller groups of girls in which the participants were similarly unmasked and much closer than six feet apart.
Response on Facebook to what was seen in the photo was highly critical.
GOOD Morning Wilton asked for comments and reactions to the photo, as well as any information about what was shown in the photo. Several people who commented on Smith’s now-deleted Wilton CT 411 Facebook post said GMW could share their comments here as well, and others emailed their thoughts.
There was no one who expressed support for what was shown in the photo or that it was posted in the first place.
The biggest criticism came from people concerned about how risky behavior, like what they believed the students in the photo were displaying–not wearing masks, not social distancing, etc.–will jeopardize the safety of other Wilton students as well as teachers and community members.
“I don’t want these kids in school with my kids next week,” said Wilton mom Sarah Beach, who added that she had reached out to both Superintendent Kevin Smith and First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice after seeing the image and agreed with a suggestion that the girls in the photo should be quarantined and undergo COVID testing before being allowed to return to school. “This has to happen if any of us are actually going to have any faith that opening schools will keep our community safe.”
Beach added how easily it would be for just one COVID-positive person in that picture to spread the virus.
“Every single one of those girls has been interacting with other people–if one person that someone in that photo has had contact with in the last two weeks has COVID, then there’s a chance that more of those girls do now,” she wrote. “Next week those girls are going to go to school and put my kids at risk. That will put my family at risk–people who have recovered from cancer, asthmatics, diabetics, etc.”
“ASTOUNDS me the disregard for community, and science, shown by some in our town. The pandemic is not over. Many say that getting kids back to school is their number one priority, yet they certainly have not put their own selfish interests behind those of the community as a whole,” Heather Wilcauskas said of what she saw in the photo.
Merideth Brown McNamara was shocked by what she saw: “44 kids from 44 different households with likely hundreds of potential exposures crammed cheek to cheek in a photo and we shouldn’t be upset about this? Am I all of a sudden in an alternate universe where we are not in a pandemic?”
“I’m sorry but I am still so surprised that people are being so selfish and disregarding what’s best for everyone, not just them personally. That just means that we will all suffer for that much longer,” wrote Loryn Galardi.
Katie McCabe said what she saw in the photo is exactly why she has chosen to not send her children back for any in-person portion of school: “It’s reasons like this why we opted for 100% remote. Can’t cross our fingers and hope everyone in class is behaving responsibly.”
Some found fault with not just the kids in the picture but also their parents.
“This is incredibly upsetting! There are many kids being responsible and doing the right thing in the 2021 class. This is so infuriating that parents and kids would partake in something that puts our kids’ education and all of our well-being at risk,” said Kimberly Witty.
Amanda McCorry was dismayed by the photo and compared it to a personal sacrifice she made: “I’m so disappointed to read this. I canceled my wedding this summer due to worries about COVID. It was a huge sacrifice but one we were willing to make for the greater good. The selfishness and inability of some people to do the right thing in the face of a massive pandemic is astonishing to me. The sooner we all take this seriously, the sooner we will be able to get back to some semblance of normal.”
Christine Stabler echoed the sentiment. “Our family has made sacrifices. We miss our friends. Our kids miss their friends, yet we have continued to be responsible for ourselves and especially and more importantly, for others who are in high risk groups. I’m so absolutely sick of the selfishness of many others.”
Others were taken aback that the photo was posted on social media–regardless of it being on a private, personal Facebook page–a social media forum where the operative word is ‘social’ and where images and posts are widely shared.
“What is so surprising to me is not only are people having parties but they are so comfortable posting what they are doing on social media,” wrote Lisa Williams.
GMW has emailed at length with the individual who posted the original photo and who identified themselves on Facebook multiple times in connection with the image, to ask for comment. They did not comment on the record as of publication time and declined to allow anything they told us to be published. GMW will add any comment they eventually send to the story.
Jeopardizing Return to School
The photo also went viral among Wilton Public School teachers, who emailed and forwarded it to one another. The reaction there shows just how much impact the image can have on the district’s chances for returning to school–either because the behavior like what it shows may raise the chances for COVID incidence or because it may prompt teachers to refuse to return to the classroom.
One teacher who asked that their name not be used wrote to GMW: “This is not only the students making poor decisions. The parent who posted this photo is responsible for putting the entire school community at risk and is the most compelling reason to take in-person learning off the table. The school has no way to protect the students and teachers from this sort of thing.”
Another WHS teacher who saw the photo was Sarah Lewis.
“I am disappointed to see this many students of Wilton High School with the lack of respect for the effort we are making as a community to keep this virus in check,” Lewis told us. “I personally have had many of them in my class and thought they would be more responsible. I would hate for them to have to learn this lesson of public accountability with the death of someone close to them, but that is the reality of this situation and where we are in terms of managing the pandemic in our community.”
We reached out to Superintendent Kevin Smith for comment on Sunday; he said he would be sending something to us, but we haven’t received anything by press time.
We received a statement from Lynne Vanderslice on Sunday evening:
“On Sunday I received emails and a photo allegedly taken over the weekend. Allegedly a large number of Wilton youths entered Wilton businesses without wearing masks as part of a privately-sponsored scavenger hunt. The photo showed a large number of youths, allegedly from Wilton and participants in the scavenger hunt, clustered together without masks. The actions, if true, are a violation of Governor Lamont’s Executive Order requiring the wearing of masks if you are within six feet of any other individual.
“The Town has begun an investigation and will take enforcement actions to the extent allowed.
“Thousands of Wilton residents, town employees, school employees, and businesses have made great personal and financial sacrifices throughout the pandemic. If true, the behavior by the participants and those who facilitated the hunt is reckless and selfish.
“Wilton taxpayers are investing hundreds of thousands of additional monies to allow the schools to open in a safe manner. Wilton sports groups and other Wilton organizations are investing time and additional monies in hopes of being able to offer programming in the fall. This alleged reckless behavior jeopardizes these activities ever obtaining the necessary approvals to proceed as hoped.”
UPDATE: 10:05 A.M.:
- Outside your home: Put 6 feet of distance between yourself and people who don’t live in your household.
- Remember that some people without symptoms may be able to spread virus.
- Stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from other people.
- Keeping distance from others is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
Cover your mouth and nose with a mask when around others
- You could spread COVID-19 to others even if you do not feel sick.
- The mask is meant to protect other people in case you are infected.
- Everyone should wear a mask in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
- Masks should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.
- Do NOT use a mask meant for a healthcare worker. Currently, surgical masks and N95 respirators are critical supplies that should be reserved for healthcare workers and other first responders.
- Continue to keep about 6 feet between yourself and others. The mask is not a substitute for social distancing.