Superintendent Kevin Smith Q&A on Getting Teachers Vaccinated & Implementing School COVID Testing

Wednesday, GOOD Morning Wilton published a Q&A with First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice about how the town has been juggling all the intricacies of scheduling vaccines for as many teachers as quickly as possible, following Gov. Ned Lamont’s order late last week for vaccine providers to prioritize educators and childcare workers.

Vanderslice described needing to both fulfill commitments for second doses for anyone who already had been given a first dose at a prior town-sponsored clinic, and provide whatever first doses the state allots to the town for clinics set up specifically for employees of the Wilton Board of Education (Wilton Public Schools), Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy, the Montessori School, and 27 other licensed preschools and childcare centers in town.

Demand for vaccinations far outpaces the number of vaccine doses the town receives from the state. Although there’s hope that more vaccines will now come in since the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been allowed by the FDA and President Joe Biden has promised to accelerate the pace of vaccine distribution, for the time being Vanderslice said no other clinics are being organized for groups other than educators at this time.

We spoke with Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith Wednesday afternoon to find out his take on how vaccines are being handled in the district, and got an update on details about COVID surveillance testing, including when it will begin in the district.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  How are the teachers responding to the way the COVID vaccination plan is being executed? 

Dr. Kevin Smith:  I don’t know that I can speak on behalf of all of our teachers, but I’ll say a few things. First, last week when the governor announced that he was prioritizing teachers–public, private school, as well as childcare workers–alongside those folks who are 55-and-older, that was really some of the best news that we’ve heard in a long time.

The challenge is there’s something on the order of 600,000 or so people in that pool that’s now eligible and not really enough vaccines. So it’s the stress and anxiety about, How soon can I get a vaccine?

Of course, you know Connecticut, like many states, has put a lot of control and discretion at the local level. It hasn’t been really centralized. So you have these different plans unfolding all over the place. So things don’t look similar even in neighboring towns. So I think when people don’t have the full understanding how certain decisions are made in other places.

I think all of that just leads to, generally speaking, people feeling anxious because there’s a strong desire for some–Get the Vaccine!–and then, with the shortage, it’s hard to predict, who, how many and when.

Here in Wilton, we’ve been working together with the town very, very closely from the onset of the pandemic, but particularly in preparation for providing vaccines. [Wilton Schools’ HR Director] Maria [Coleman] works very, very closely with [Wilton Health Director Barry [Bogle]. And some weeks ago we had started to organize our staff lists and send them over to the town so we can be ready to go when vaccines were made available.

This past weekend, [Town employees] Sarah Gioffre and Patricia Brandt took the added effort of loading all of our [BOE] staff members into VAMS on Sunday afternoon. So that was just a huge gift for us.

Yesterday [Tuesday, March 2], we were able to announce plans to vaccinate the staff at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill [schools].

Hopefully, the state will continue to provide enough vaccines and it’s my hope that sometime next week we’ll be able to address the Middlebrook and Wilton High School faculty. And if all things go really well, hopefully, we’ll have everybody that wants to be vaccinated, vaccinated in the first part of the month. But a lot of that’s out of our control because we just simply don’t know how many doses of the vaccine we’re going to get.

GMW:  Do you have any idea of how many teachers have already been vaccinated?

Smith:  I don’t. I know as of midnight, Monday, there was just a mad scramble. I know of a number of our staff (and I’m sure lots of other people) who were in that VAMS system in the wee hours trying to find appointments. So I’ve heard some talk–I don’t have any hard numbers at all–about people who were fortunate to get appointments sometime maybe in the second half of this week.

Again, things are kind of coming out. It sounds like maybe Stamford Health had a good system for teachers. So I think folks were being directed toward them because they had maybe more availability of appointments in the early part of the month.

GMW:  Do you have an idea of how many employees have said that they want to be vaccinated?

Smith:  I think we sent about 600 names over [to Town Hall].

GMW:  Once everybody who wants to be vaccinated is vaccinated, will it help or will you consider bringing back the schools to 100% full-time in-person?

Smith:  Already, even independent of the vaccine, we’ve been working on a plan to return kids on Wednesdays. That’ll probably land in front of the Board next week. So that’s something that’s just already in process.

With respect to the vaccine, I think certainly having the overwhelming majority of our staff vaccinated will really help, but we also have to continue to be directed by the local Health Department and the State Department of Public Health in terms of managing social distance, requiring masking.

What’s not yet clear to me is whether or not some of those social distance requirements will be relaxed. My hunch is probably not. Based on what’s been stated so far is that some of these requirements will remain in place for the duration of the school year and maybe through the summer.

So the challenge for us at the high school is the three feet–we just don’t have the space to contain classes if every kid was able to come back. I know [WHS Principal] Bob [O’Donnell], [Associate Principal] Don [Schels], and his team, they’re continuing to work on it, but that’s going to be a real challenge for us.

We’re excited to begin working up to 75% and then we’ll have to see what the high school looks like and if we can increase capacity and do it safely, then we certainly would try.

GMW:  In terms of surveillance testing, how will that be rolling out? I know that re-opening the high school [to 75%] was contingent on surveillance testing.

Smith:  We’re making good progress. We’re not fully set up yet to do that, but we’ve signed a contract this week with Mirimus Labs, who is going to provide the testing kits for us. Maria [Coleman] and I went over early this morning to a school district in Westchester County that is using them and we watched what their process looks like. It’s pretty straightforward. So we’re just finalizing details and then I’m hoping to get it going next week.

GMW:  Really?  That’s great.

Smith:  That starting day is contingent upon when the tests show up. And we’re working on the consent forms and the logistics. But every day we take a step closer, so that’ll be just another added layer that will help because we can monitor COVID activity and respond more quickly if any of those pools return positive.

GMW:  How frequently will the kids get tested?

Smith:  It’s voluntary, of course. So the first step is, once we have the consent forms ready to go, we’ll invite participation. And then we’re looking at trying to get about 5% of the total school population–staff and kids–a week. We’re going to start a little bit smaller than that, just so we can work out the process and become comfortable with it. But then you figure about 20% of the school population a month on average will participate.

So I think over the course of the next couple of months individuals might participate between one and three or four times, maybe.

When we were at the Westchester district, the people who are conducting have noted that they had started in early mid-January. So, today they were seeing individuals who were now coming through for the second time or so.

GMW:  Not to jinx anything, but it seems that February break wasn’t such a super spreader event.

Smith:  No, no, knock on wood. The numbers continue to come down, they’ve come down dramatically in the last month or so. And again, fingers crossed, I think on the whole, when you consider our whole population, people are doing the right thing. They need to hang in there and this is really hard.

GMW:  Anything else going on with COVID vaccines or anything else that you’d like to add?

Smith:  As we’ve talked for many months now, it’s a really hard, hard time and people are tired and anxiety is running high. So, I continue to ask everybody to just be patient, continue to follow mitigation strategies. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. We see a lot of good news coming now daily. So we just have to hold on a little bit longer and work through this. But hopefully, the state of Connecticut will be able to provide us enough doses of the vaccine where we can get through our staff and get through local childcare providers and really be in a good place later this month. So just asking people to hang on.

Beyond that, I just commend everyone here in our community. Really, when you can step back from it and look at what we’ve been able to accomplish, whether it’s our students, certainly our teachers, and our families, I do think we’re doing a very good job of prioritizing health and safety. We’ve been led very well by Barry Bogle and by Lynne [Vanderslice], and we should feel good about the progress we’re making and the choices we’re making.

GMW:  I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you have any thoughts on graduation? I know that’s probably on people’s minds.

Smith:  [laughs] Of course. I know Bob [O’Donnell] and his team are thinking a lot about it. I’m going to just tell you to hang on, we are looking toward June. I don’t think it’s entirely clear, but this is about the time where we kick into high gear for planning.