Superintendent: With COVID Transmission High in Wilton, In-Person Learning at Middlebrook Deferred

Thursday afternoon, Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith emailed the school district community to announce that a proposal to move Middlebrook Middle School from a hybrid learning model to four-day in-person learning won’t move forward, for now.

The recommendation to defer until at least Monday, Feb. 8, was made by Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle after COVID-19 virus transmission rates in the town have remained high.

Smith called COVID-19 transmission in the community and schools “the primary factor … use[d] to decide on learning models.”

To determine which learning model (hybrid, in-person or remote) is appropriate, Smith said he relies on guidance and recommendations from not only Bogle but also the district’s medical advisor, Dr. Christine Macken, as well as weekly updates from the CT DPH.

Smith acknowledged that the news would be disappointing and frustrating for many people in the community. He asked people to be patient and trust the recommendation of Bogle and the town’s health advisors.

“As a school system, we are acutely aware of the importance academically and social/emotionally of having children in school. We are also acutely aware of the threat of the COVID-19 virus and are particularly cognizant of concerns about the presence of the new variant of the virus in Connecticut. The pandemic has presented many unknowns and so we defer to our local health experts in guiding our school model determination decisions. I believe, given our comparatively lower rates of transmission and ability to keep our schools open, that we have been well-served by our health and medical experts. I am asking all of our community members to continue to exercise patience and continue to trust the decision-making. We will come to a point in time where we can safely return more students to school and resume more typical operations,” Smith wrote.

The original proposal to change learning models at Middlebrook was made at the Jan. 7 Board of Education meeting. Smith said at the time there was a “reasonable expectation” that local transmission rates would decline after the spike in cases the week following the December holiday break.

However, rates have not fallen as expected. In fact, according to the CT Department of Public Health, Fairfield County is recording a two-week average daily count of 64.9 new cases/100,000 people, and 36.1 new cases/100,000 for Wilton. Smith said the case count for Fairfield County is the highest it’s been since the state started tracking the data.

As of Wednesday evening, Jan. 20, Wilton had recorded a total of 719 cases since the start of the pandemic–25 new cases in the last week.

Wilton Public Schools publishes a daily COVID-19 tracker on its website. As of Thursday, Jan. 21, Middlebrook had no confirmed COVID cases among students or staff; no staff were in quarantine and 10 students were–three fewer than the day before.

Here’s how the entire district looks for Thursday, Jan. 21, compared to the prior day:

Smith reiterated that the BOE remains committed to its primary goal for reopening the schools, which has been “to return as many students to school as possible as safely as possible.”

Smith said Bogle does support the BOE’s goals to keep schools open and return more students to in-person learning, “but is very concerned about the persistence of high daily new case counts,” and that as health director, Bogle’s “primary focus is reducing the spread of the virus” through the entire Wilton community.

The announcement about Middlebrook comes less than 24 hours after Smith notified the community Wednesday about Bogle’s order to close Wilton High School for two weeks, due to concerns of a likely COVID-19 outbreak among its students. Bogle canceled all WHS athletics and extracurricular activities and moved all 9th-12th grade learning to a remote model through Tuesday, Feb. 2.

Smith said the recommendation to keep Middlebrook on hybrid learning is unrelated to Bogle’s closure of Wilton High School.