“The World Outside of Our School is Out of Our Control” – Smith Talks Reopening FAQ Details, and How District will Measure Safety Success

With the Hybrid reopening model officially approved for all schools, Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith led the Wilton Public Schools Re-Entry Committee yesterday (Wednesday, Aug. 12) in a discussion about the specifics of “testing competency” of COVID prevention in the schools–in other words, how the district will measuring just how well the school community is following all the new steps and guidelines being implemented.

The committee also reviewed details of the district’s reopening plan and discussed the FAQ guide prepared by Smith’s team and soon to be released on the new Reopening Webpage created on the Wilton Public Schools’ website.

Staffed with teachers, health professionals, school nurses, and administrators, the re-entry committee has been working for several weeks to monitor “Goal 1” of Wilton’s reopening plan:  ensuring the health and safety of every person in the school buildings.

Wednesday’s meeting to review details followed just two days after the Board of Education debated and eventually approved the Hybrid reopening model at its meeting Monday, Aug. 11, where public comments shed light on the community’s increasing anxiety about the model, on both sides of the debate.

How Will Schools Measure Competency of Mitigation Strategies?

The enormous scope of just how many details district officials have to consider and the difficulty of getting everything in place before the start of the school year became clear when Smith discussed just one of the hundreds of specifics his team is working on:  ordering and erecting tents to create outside classroom and meeting space. He explained how the process of getting tents was much more complicated than initially anticipated–securing permits, getting fire marshal approval, etc.–even though his team continues to actively pursue it.

Though each building plans to implement numerous mitigation strategies to protect against this virus, this meeting made it eye-opening clear that many of these strategies will not be foolproof.

For instance, while cohorts have been championed both on a state and local level as a primary approach toward stemming the spread of the virus, Smith made the blunt clarification that in any school, an absolute cohort has “never been achievable.”

In other words, even with limiting the number of other children students will encounter through cohorts, it will be impossible to absolutely isolate and separate children from one another and prevent some contact.

“It seems to me a number of folks here have been thinking of cohorts as absolutes and that is simply just not the way it is. This is just one of obviously a list of strategies with the goal of reducing or minimizing [contact], it’s not to completely contain. That’s never been achievable.”

“The world outside of school is outside of our control,” Smith added.

Through school, a child potentially will be exposed to any of a number of contacts in a single day:  (1) students on the bus; (2) students in their classrooms; (3) students they potentially pass in the hallways or at pick up/drop off; (4) students in any school-sanctioned after school program or activity such as sports; (5) students in activities outside of school-related programs; and (6) their own family and siblings, who have had their own similar exposures.

Though a hybrid model cuts the number of students in the school approximately in half and allows for implementing six-feet of social distance, the exposure outside of a cohort is not insignificant.

Additionally, measuring the incidence of the cohorts mixing is made more difficult because the district has no control and no way to track where students mix outside of the school day.

Given the many complexities and the uncertainty of each mitigation strategy’s viability, the district has put together a monitoring checklist. Having staff members complete the checklist on their class’ performance daily, Smith said, will both help the school community adhere to the rules for new procedures and collect data on how teachers and students are following mitigation steps to measure how well those new procedures are working.

Smith presented the committee with the proposed checklist of what the schools should track:

  • Physical Space Design
    • Amount of space in class for social distancing
    • Amount of outdoor space available
    • Layout of entrance and exits
    • Total school population
  • Cohorting
    • “Ability to consistency group students in small cohorts”
    • “Ability to minimize interactions with other cohorts throughout the day”
  • Self-Screening Compliance
    • How often students come to school with symptoms of COVID-19
    • How often staff come to school with symptoms of COVID-19
    • How often students attempt to return to school with COVID-19 symptoms
    • How often staff attempt to return to school with COVID-19 symptoms
  • HVAC/ Ventilation
    • Sufficient airflow provided by “well functioning and well maintained” HVAC systems in each building
  • Cleaning and Disinfecting
    • If DPH guidelines are being followed
    • Adequate Supplies
  • Face Covering Utilization
    • Number of students and staff who follow face mask requirement
  • Physical Barriers
    • “Efficacy of sneeze guard barriers” for staff and students
  • Hand washing/Hand Sanitizing
    • Frequency of washing hands
  • Student Movement Throughout Building
    • Social distancing at arrival and dismissal, as well as when moving between classes
  • Remote Learning
    • Level of student participation and self-sufficiency
  • Incidence of COVID-19

Dr. Deborah List, a public health expert who has studied epidemiology and is a parent in the district, suggested rephrasing the wording in these quantifications to be less subjective and more measurable. For instance, List pointed out that under cohorting it now calls for teachers to rate the “ability to consistency group students in small cohorts” and “ability to minimize interactions with other cohorts throughout the day.” List said the definitions of “consistency” and “minimize,” as well as “ability,” are unclear, and thus unmeasurable as written. She also said it is difficult to test the “efficacy” of sneeze guards.

“The objective has to be written in a very measurable way. You’re looking at frequency of hand washing, you can measure…this class measured their hands x number of times so you can see that. ‘Efficacy’ is not a measure. So we need to look at what are we going to measure. Are you going to measure if [sneeze guards] are up at every station or desk in this classroom? Is placement the efficacy? Are they cleaned x number of times a day? There’s a number of things that can be measured, we just a have to be clear… so you know what your data is going to be,” she said.

How often this data will be collected is also unclear. For instance, a question was raised about how often the HVAC ventilation systems will be tested.

For other categories, it’s not what will be measured that’s the issue, but who is responsible to measure it. Smith said which person would vary depending on the data category. For instance, while the school nurse would likely be required to track health data and the HVAC expert would assess the ventilation systems, teachers would have to track mask-wearing and other compliancies.

A concern was raised that the burden would fall on teachers, who are already potentially stretched too-thin with managing their in-person and online classes simultaneously. It was suggested that perhaps they could instead do a pool or sample where administrators observe a few random classes and use the results as a representative sample of the school.

Smith said he will address these concerns and work to both condense the list so it is simpler to report and keep track of, as well as make sure the list of what to track is measurable. Smith also praised the idea of sampling, which could make the data collection as “unobtrusive and efficient as possible.” Nonetheless, he said some of this reporting will be anecdotal and based on reported observations.

As for sorting through the data, List suggested that perhaps in a win-win situation, AP Statistics and/or AP Biology students at Wilton High School could be responsible for sorting through some of the data as a hands-on, practical example of working with public health data and statistics.

“This is real life, this is a pandemic, this is what biologists and statisticians are doing all over the world. It would be really great to get some of our students involved in some of this data collection, some of this analysis, and have them sort of be our real life analysis team and data collectors. It would be great for them, this is really exciting work and I think it could be embedded into some of what the high schoolers are doing in the AP Bio and AP Stats classes,” List said. Smith called it an “exciting possibility.”

Smith also said that as far as face coverings go, the district has not yet defined which types are acceptable and which are not, although in the FAQ officials do ask that reusable masks be cleaned after each use.

This sparked a conversation about a just-released study from Duke University that tested the effectiveness of masks, and which revealed that neck gaiter-style face coverings are less effective at protecting against spreading droplets that may contain COVID-19 viruses and may do more harm than forfeiting a mask entirely. Committee members suggested it would be helpful to better define acceptable materials and models of face masks.

In response to someone asking how long this measuring will be necessary, Assistant Superintendent Andrea Leonardi suggested that monitoring is necessary far past the first week of school. Through her experience running the in-person Extended School Year (ESY) program Leonardi observed a behavioral “regression towards the mean” to what students imagine school to normally look like as time went on. She explained that ESY students and staff at first were hyper-aware of the need to properly wear masks and wash hands at the start of the program; however, a few weeks into the program, Leonardi said program partiicpants fell into a rhythm and needed some extra reminders to keep up compliance, such as readjusting a mask when it slipped below the wearer’s nose.

Nonetheless, Leonardi reiterated that she was surprised and thrilled by the widely prevalent acceptance of mask wearing in the school during ESY. She credited this success with the positive attitude the educators used when talking about masks, instead of viewing it as an annoyance.

“The kids want to help others, so ‘mask-wearing helps others’ is the message [that worked],” she said.

A question was also asked about the possibility of bringing rapid-testing to the school, but health officials explained that it was still hard to find. District health advisor Dr. Christine Macken said that even if rapid tests were more widely available they are not very accurate, often producing false-positives that could thrust the community into unnecessary alarm.

FAQs

Attendees carefully reviewed the health specifics of the extensive 18-page WPS FAQ draft in the second half of the meeting. The most helpful aspect of the FAQ they covered was the nuanced flow chart and diagrams detailing the procedure if a child was sick, and how that would vary depending on negative test or positive test results.

In the guidelines for self-screening, it was highlighted parents should take students’ temperatures both at night and in the morning. Students and staff should also self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms.

The content of two significant FAQ topics were challenged.

The first topic centered on fevers, including in the “No” response to the question, “Will students with COVID-like symptoms have to present a negative test in order to return to school?” and the recommendation that children can return to school after being fever-free for 24 hours under the topic, “When Your Child Is Sick.”

Macken said that she believes a temperature reading over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit be sufficient reason for the school to require a child to (a) stay home for 10-days, (b) produce a negative test, or (c) have a note explaining why they had a fever before returning back to school. Though there are many reasons for a child to have a fever, Macken suggested that a fever should be treated like potential COVID symptoms unless proven otherwise.

“It says fever-free for 24 hours they’re allowed to return, but if they have a fever or other symptoms consistent with COVID they really should either have a note to return or a negative test or something along those lines because that’s a little different than that 10-days home [requirement for symptoms]” Macken said.

Macken also said that she thinks “fever-alone should be enough” for the school to recommend the individual get a test.

Barbara Schum, lead school nurse, also added that the district’s current recommendations for “when to keep your child home” were created pre-COVID, but are now being updating to better align with the state’s “Adapt, Advance, Acheive, Reopening plan” Addendum 5, regarding guidance for responding to COVID-19 symptoms or tests.

“All the nurses are going back and forth with ‘well, okay, we know the specific [symptoms], but runny nose, congestion, are you going home? Are you isolating? All of those things we really, really need to clean out to make sure we have all the information to make sure we make the [right] decision to isolation, dismiss, versus testing, not testing,” Schum said.

At the state level, Schum said they are singling out the “most concerning,” specific symptoms such as chills, uncontrollable cough, fever, etc as criteria for addendum 5, versus something a headache or stomachache. But Schum said for her as a school nurse, she wasn’t sure how she would weigh the different symptoms.

“We really have to fine-tune all of these specific symptoms and what would be the deciding factor,” she said.

Health educator Roseanne DeSimone recommended that perhaps the district could contact Georgia schools, which upon re-opening have had a sharp uptick in cases among children, on what the symptoms they are seeing in children to inform Wilton’s own policies. The Georgia schools opened with an optional mask mandate, and since then re-closed. Smith said this was a “great recommendation ” and they would try to pursue it.

Looking Ahead

Smith said that in the short term they will clear up the guidance on fever to match Macken’s recommendation. Specifically, officials will revise the question around fever and if students will have to present a negative test in order to come back to school. He will also revisit the wording of the first document as well.

Smith said the re-entry committee will meet one more time before Wilton schools start reopening.

To get a more detailed look into the district’s planning process and requirements, please see GMW’s past coverage, linked below: