Wilton High School Principal Dr. Robert O’Donnell released a video message on Wednesday afternoon, expressing his strongly worded thoughts about the school’s closure in the wake of a recent COVID outbreak linked directly to student parties.
His comments were directed specifically to parents about how to “move forward and work together to keep our students, staff, and families healthy and ensure that our students will continue to have the opportunity to learn in school.” His message?
“Make better choices.”
In the video’s first minute O’Donnell got right to the point: “I truly hope that this closing is an eye-opener to any and all of the parents who host parties and or gatherings, at this time certainly, as we’re in the midst of this pandemic. This is an example of some poor decision-making that really broadly impacts student health and education in a community that I know really cares first and foremost about student health and wellness.”
He repeated the message again later on, to both parents and students.
“If we all make responsible decisions now, we have a far better chance to get back to where we truly want to be–ultimately fully in school, engaged in quality instruction with all students, ultimately engaged in co-curricular or extracurricular activities,” he said, adding the ultimate incentive, “And end of the year activities, including graduation.”
He also stressed the seriousness of the situation. With multiple students now COVID positive and others showing symptoms, as well as some students’ family members also contracting COVID, O’Donnell said he would hope that the health risks being faced by members of the WHS community would “really … be enough of a deterrent to weekend parties and gatherings.
“These students are truly ill right now and some of the family members and students have to quarantine and social distance from their own families in their own homes at this time, as they recover from the virus,” he said.
O’Donnell said there were at least four student parties the weekend of Jan. 15.
He reminded parents that the decisions they make for themselves at a time like the current pandemic impact people other than just themselves.
“We all need to consider the consequences of decisions that we make. Unfortunately, the implications of this go well beyond some of these decisions. So, our current reality is that we had to shut down the entire school for 1,000 students who want to be in school and parents who want their students to be in school,” he said.
According to O’Donnell, other “hardships to our Wilton families” that arose out of those few individuals’ decisions included the need for all school families to rearrange schedules and lives to accommodate the sudden move to two weeks of remote learning.
He was also critical of the impact those choices have had on teachers and staff, who he said would now be “more anxious, reticent and scared.”
“So many students and parents have talked about how much they appreciate what our teachers are doing and will continue to do under these challenging circumstances. But this COVID spread as the result of decisions in the community will certainly be perceived as a direct affront to the teachers and to the staff and to their concern for their own health and that of their own families,” O’Donnell said.
It seemed that O’Donnell really wanted to drive home the point about just how wide-ranging an impact the behavior of a few had. He listed students involved in theater and music, and other co-curricular activities that were all shut down immediately; student-athletes and coaches who had hoped to begin conditioning and participating in sports only to have athletics shut down after just one day; and the “countless administrative hours” spent by both town employees and school administrators to do contact tracing rather than their own jobs.
“You know, we are willing to do anything we possibly can as a Wilton High School administrative team, but this is a distraction from other things that we’re working on that are also really, really important,” he said.
Ironically, on the day he learned about the outbreak and the need to close the school building, O’Donnell heard the news on his way to a meeting with Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith to discuss how to safely bring more students back into school if COVID data metrics allowed.
“Refrain from hosting parties and gatherings”
O’Donnell made a straightforward, simple request.
“We need to refrain from hosting parties and or gatherings at this time, while we realize that the COVID rates are too high, and that we just never know who’s COVID positive or who’s asymptomatic,” he said.
Appealing to people’s social conscience and morality, he added, “I know and trust our WHS parents, and I know that you want to take responsibility for and control of anything that occurs in your homes. No family wants to be responsible for being at the epicenter or a part of a super-spreader.”
Although acknowledging that the parties were “not huge gatherings,” and the parents involved likely didn’t think the worst could happen, O’Donnell said, “you never know.”
“You never know if you’re hosting people at your home, or students, you never know if a student may be ill. If a student may be asymptomatic. And the situation like in this case can go south pretty quickly, where we have a number of students who are sick, a number of students who are exhibiting symptoms,” O’Donnell said.
Nevertheless, O’Donnell was clear: he believes the responsibility for whatever happens in a family’s home belongs to the parents. “I say this with the greatest level of respect and, you know, cooperation, you know, I encourage you to take full ownership of that, which happens in your home, certainly, and that, which our students engage in, particularly during the pandemic.”
What’s additionally concerning is that O’Donnell reports he’s been told by WHS families that multiple parties and gatherings “is almost the norm and the case each weekend in town.”
“This is not the time for these gatherings,” he reiterated.
O’Donnell made the effort to end on a positive note, calling the parents involved in the events and aftermath of the Jan. 15 weekend parties were “very forthright and cooperative with the Wilton High School administration when it came to contact tracing.”
“They quickly provided us with the information that we needed. I know that the town [Health Department] initially had a different experience, but the parents provided us with the information that we needed to conduct effective and thorough contact tracing,” he said, and asked for similar behavior from WHS community members for any future instances of contact tracing.
“If you are contacted by a school administrator, one of our high school administrators and or somebody from the town, let’s continue this pattern of cooperation. We are really only calling to keep all of our students and families safe and healthy, and we want to prevent any further spread of this virus,” O’Donnel added. I really believe that together we can keep our school community safe. We really all want the same thing–we want to take really good care of our kids and we want them in school.