From public comments to the formal agenda, last week’s (Jan. 6) meeting of the Wilton Board of Education dealt with a single topic: the district’s response to the Omicron variant, and in particular, the newly-instituted isolation guidelines. The Board met virtually over zoom in light of the rising COVID-19 case count and respecting renewed district policies limiting visitors to campus.
Superintendent Kevin Smith set the stage in his opening remarks.
“It’s no surprise to anyone on this call, it’s been a tough, tough week here for Wilton Public Schools. Our teachers and administrators have been scrambling. Hats off to our teachers and building staff who have been working to patch together coverage for all of the absences and launch remote learning for the kids who need it.”
He then ran through current statistics, which he called “unprecedented numbers, by a long shot.” The daily case count for Fairfield County was 240.7 cases per 100,000; for Wilton, it was 138.6 per 100,000. Within Wilton schools at the time, 236 students and 38 staff were COVID-positive; 66 students and four staff members were quarantining. That day, there were 258 student absences and 79 staff absences. The numbers of students enrolled in remote learning at the time were 75 at Miller-Driscoll; 64 at Cider Mill; 68 at Middlebrook; and 120 at Wilton High School.
Smith noted that the surveillance testing program had seen a dramatic spike in participation since students returned after holiday break, from roughly 150 volunteers in the week of Jan. 3, to more than 300 signed up for the week of Jan. 10.
Maria Coleman, Director of Human Resources and General Administration for Wilton Public Schools, explained the district’s current isolation and quarantine guidelines. Specifically, she gave more detail behind the district’s decision to require a 10-day quarantine for students who test positive for COVID-19, despite allowing staff who test positive to return just five days after testing positive. The difference, she said, had to do with mask compliance. She noted that the decision was made based on the recommendations of the district’s medical advisor.
“Staff have the option of returning on Day 6 if they are fever-free and their symptoms are significantly improving. There is a requirement that they wear a mask around others at all times. That was one of the primary reasons why we have a different approach with students,” Coleman said. “Thinking about the school day, it wouldn’t be possible for a student to wear a mask around others because they have snack and lunch during the school day. There wouldn’t be a place for all of the students returning to eat privately.”
She also noted that mask compliance, both with younger students and with older students experiencing “mask-fatigue,” had been a concern, as well as the lack of boosters for most of the school-age population.
Board Member Mandi Schmauch asked whether staff are monitored once they return to ensure they are masking and distancing from others throughout the entire school day. Coleman replied that the district does not have the resources to do that.
“If we’re not monitoring teachers, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around why we’re not allowing our students to do that,” said Schmauch. “I’m really worried that we’re propagating the thought of not testing: everyone I know individually is not testing, because they’re so worried of their child being asymptomatic, testing positive, and then missing 10 days of school. Why we are taking that ultra-conservative route for asymptomatic children when the federal and state guidelines say you can return after five days?”
The updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control issued on Dec. 31, 2021 recommend that people who test positive for COVID-19 but do not develop symptoms can end isolation after five days but also states, “You should continue to wear a well-fitting mask around others at home and in public until day 10 (day 6 through day 10). If you are unable to wear a mask when around others, you should continue to isolate for 10 days.”
Schmauch asked whether Smith has spoken with school districts in nearby towns about their isolation rules for asymptomatic children who test positive. Smith replied that he had communicated with all but one of the superintendents in Fairfield County; with the exception of Norwalk, all of the other districts are allowing students to return after five days. Norwalk, like Wilton, requires a 10-day period of isolation.
Board Member Jen Lalor then asked about exploring ways to solve for the concern surrounding lunch and snack break transmission.
“If our concern is around eating, is there any possibility for students to come back after five days, but they eat in a separate room? Or could parents come and pull them out for lunch?”
Smith replied that while he is open to talking about it, “I can tell you this week, no one has head space to even think about it. We have 80 staff members out a day. We’re just trying to keep our doors open. No one is trying to willfully keep kids out of school; we’re trying to maintain a safe and healthy environment for some of our more vulnerable kids.”
Board Member Nicola Davies brought up the topic of cleaning protocols, asking whether desks at Middlebrook and the high school in particular are being wiped down in between classes. Smith responded that those additional cleaning protocols were suspended last year after studies showed that fomite (or surface) transmission was not a significant route of transmission for COVID-19. Later, Davies would follow up asking whether there is any data specific to fomite transmission of the omicron strain.
“If we’re not contact tracing anymore,” she added. “How would we know?”
Due to the high rate of transmission, the State of Connecticut no longer recommends contact tracing in schools. However, Wilton parents are notified if a student in their child’s class tests positive.
Board Member Pam Ely shared some words of support and appreciation, telling Smith, “Kevin, you’ve had a terrible week. If there is more that we can do for you, please let us know. This has been a heavy lift for you, for Maria, for all of you. Kudos to you for just keeping it going.”
Board Member Ruth DeLuca proposed that the District consider expanding the definition of “fully vaccinated” to follow the CDC’s new definition, which requires all recommended doses, including boosters, and not just the initial series, to be completed. Smith clarified that the Connecticut Department of Public Health is using the old definition of having completed just the initial vaccine series.
Board Chair Deborah Low asked that these policies be revisited more frequently than every few weeks, due to how quickly the situation is changing. She reiterated an idea floated earlier in the evening that, should test availability improve significantly, a negative antigen test might be used to shorten isolation time to five days for students.
She noted, “I don’t want to beat a dead horse. You’ve heard the feedback from the Board. To the extent you think you can safely do it, we want to see as short an isolation period as possible. But it is not the Board of Ed who are the experts here. We’re doing our best to piece together the best advice we can get and Kevin is our lens for that.”
As the meeting concluded, Schmauch offered to connect Smith with an additional epidemiologist, which he welcomed as he is still waiting to hear back from the state epidemiologists. He also agreed to a suggestion from Lalor that he reach out to nearby districts for feedback on how their five-day isolation policy is working out from a transmission perspective.
The public comment period, which preceded the Board discussion, featured written comments from five Wilton residents, several of which challenged the district’s 10-day isolation requirement as well.
On that topic, Andrew Warren wrote, “I would be very curious what you think your staff do outside of school after their five-day quarantine period that is so much safer than eating lunch or snack at school like our children.”
Julie van Balen wrote, “Quarantining healthy children for 10 days and using sometimes-unreliable tests instead of symptoms as our guide is excessive.”
The next meeting of the Wilton Board of Education is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 20, and will include a presentation on the 2022-2023 budget.