Wilton BOE Members, Residents Frustrated and Angry Over “Subjective” Delay in Middlebrook’s Four-Day In-Person Start

One of the precautions was installing sneeze guards between students and the teacher.

At the regular meeting of the Board of Education Thursday night, members discussed the sudden changes to the learning model plans for two Wilton Public Schools, with Middlebrook Middle School‘s planned move to four-day in-person deferred until Feb. 8 and the closure of Wilton High School through Feb. 2 and transitioning to remote only following Wednesday’s news of COVID outbreaks linked to recent high school gatherings.

Board of Education members expressed their frustration and anger primarily over the Middlebrook decision after green-lighting the plan to bring all students back on Jan. 25, citing that New Canaan’s middle school has been open since October. The plan was initially approved at the BOE’s Jan. 7 meeting, on the condition that COVID-19 case numbers would stabilize or decline, but Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle and Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith overrode the BOE’s approval.

Most of the BOE members’ concerns called into question how these decisions are made at the health department–asking if there is a number, for instance, that would trigger a remote learning option, or if it is more subjective.

The BOE members, along with comments from members of the public, implored Smith to press Bogle to consider the mental health, academic and social implications of reducing in-person learning specifically for Middlebrook, citing the school’s low transmission rate relative to the town.

Wilton Public Schools’ COVID Tracker for Thursday, Jan. 21. The numbers reflect Middlebrook school currently has the lowest number of students and staff either with a confirmed COVID diagnosis or in quarantine due to exposure. It also shows the recent uptick of six one-day COVID cases at the high school following a potential outbreak.

BOE Comments

Smith began the discussion of the new model changes by calling the recent news at the high school “profoundly upsetting and concerning.” Though he said that WHS principal Robert O’Donnell reported a “high degree” of contact tracing cooperation from families, nine students at the high school have tested positive for the virus after attending one of the high school gatherings, and close to two dozen are in quarantine. Smith said he expects the quarantining number to grow as the town continues its contact tracing efforts.

In all of the schools now a total of 99 students are quarantining, 27 of whom are at the high school.

Smith emphasized that the health director’s primary goal is to reduce the spread of the virus, and this decision to move to remote learning is a reflection of that goal. However, he said he and Bogle are acutely aware of the social, emotional and academic motivations for an in-person model.

In terms of why Bogle made the decision, Smith said that in March, the governor authorized the commissioner of public health to delegate “very broad authority” to municipal health directors during the pandemic, giving them much control over municipal operations.

“Here, we’ve opted and worked, I think, very successfully in a collaborative decision-making process with Mr. Bogle as well as with [district health advisor Dr.] Christine Macken,” Smith said, “but when it comes to health and safety, the health director really does exercise a great deal of authority and so we have to bear that in mind as we’re putting our plans together.”

Smith also said that Bogle has been taking a very hands-on and active role in approving actions taken by the district, requiring the school to make a written plan for the change in model and making a recommendation after that, and closely tracking daily data. Smith said he is in contact with Bogle daily, and Director of Human Resources Maria Coleman is in contact with Bogle multiple times a day as well.

Smith also refuted the perception that Wilton is an “outlier” in these models. Of the schools in Wilton’s immediate vicinity, New Canaan is the only school with a four-day in-person model for the middle school. He acknowledged that although Fairfield County is still experiencing high COVID-19 case numbers, Wilton is comparatively on the lower end of the spectrum.

Even still, BOE member Mandi Schmauch asked why students “three miles away” have access to a different experience than Wilton’s kids.

“To say I’m disappointed and sad and frustrated is an understatement,” Schmauch said. “It seems like it’s such a subjective opinion, the fact that three miles away my kids would be into school full time in New Canaan since October.”

She added that as the school transmission rate has been incredibly low she doesn’t see why the plan is pushed back.

“I feel like we’re getting further and further away from the science and the data, and closer and closer to the fear,” she said.

BOE member Glenn Hemmerle agreed with Schmauch and asked if the health director had seen the public comments, to which Smith said that he is aware of the “complexity” of the issue.

Schmauch also pointed to the new state and CDC guidance about reducing the quarantine period to 10 days in certain circumstances, but how Wilton is still sticking to the 14-day quarantine as another perplexing decision.

BOE Chair Deb Low said that she too shares “frustration and puzzlement” towards the Middlebrook decision, and wanted to know the criteria the health department uses to decide when a school should switch models.

“If this is to be a partnership, what we’re trying to do in school is also important,” she said. “That is not to diminish the health and safety of course, but how can we find the right path forward.”

Lowe suggested that the BOE come up with questions to ask Bogle to understand his perspective on these decisions and invite him to a meeting as well.

Schmauch asked if there were any other precautions the middle school could adopt to make an in-person switch easier. Smith said that Macken and Bogle went to the school earlier in January and made recommendations from their visit.

Schmauch also added that maybe the district could consult an epidemiologist for a second opinion about the school. Smith said he would look into it, as he is in regular contact with epidemiologists on state-wide calls.

BOE member Ruth Deluca added that a question she’d ask is why the rise in community transmission has affected Middlebrook’s decision but not the existing in-person models at the younger schools. She also asked for more guidance about the criteria for switching models, so the BOE does not keep having this discussion every meeting.

BOE member Jen Lalor agreed that the school should open, adding that the town is full of “really intelligent people” who understand the risks of sending their children to school.

“At this point it’s not the virus that’s hurting them,” Lalor said, “it’s the fact that they’re still not in school.”

“Schools are Not an Island”:  Vanderslice Responds to Criticism of Health Director

Following the meeting, GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice for reaction to the criticism leveled at Bogle.

She provided lengthy information refuting any assertion that Bogle was not following CDC guidance about quarantines.

“Health Director Barry Bogle is following the CDC guidance,” she wrote, adding, “CDC guidance is to quarantine for 14 days after exposure to the virus. In early Dec, the CDC offered options to reduce the quarantine period based on local conditions and resources.”

She explained that the BOE website links to introductory language from the CDC, that explains public health officials make the final decisions about how long quarantine should last, based on local conditions and needs, and that they have options to stop quarantine “after day 10 without testing” and “after day 7 after receiving a negative test result (test must occur on day 5 or later).”

However, Vanderslice said that there are much more detailed, scientific CDC recommendations for public health agencies on the length of quarantines.

From that detailed, scientific section of the CDC, Vanderslice pointed to the statement that the CDC recommends a 14-day quarantine, but that local health officials have options to shorten that period–each of which still has certain risk for transmission. She quoted the information directly:

“Local public health authorities determine and establish the quarantine options for their jurisdictions. CDC currently recommends a quarantine period of 14 days. However, based on local circumstances and resources, the following options to shorten quarantine are acceptable alternatives.

      • “Quarantine can end after Day 10 without testing and if no symptoms have been reported during daily monitoring.

o “With this strategy, residual post-quarantine transmission risk is estimated to be about 1% with an upper limit of about 10%.

      • “When diagnostic testing resources are sufficient and available (see bullet 3, below), then quarantine can end after Day 7 if a diagnostic specimen tests negative and if no symptoms were reported during daily monitoring. The specimen may be collected and tested within 48 hours before the time of planned quarantine discontinuation (e.g., in anticipation of testing delays), but quarantine cannot be discontinued earlier than after Day 7.

o “With this strategy, the residual post-quarantine transmission risk is estimated to be about 5% with an upper limit of about 12%.

“In both cases, additional criteria (e.g., continued symptom monitoring and masking through Day 14) must be met and are outlined in the full text.”

Vanderslice suggested there’s confusion and misunderstanding about whether Bogle is following the CDC guidance for multiple reasons:

    1. Anyone clicking on links to the CDC through the BOE website may not be digging deeper into the CDC website to the scientific information.
    2. Past news coverage has led the public to believe that CDC guidance on quarantine length changed from 14 days to 10 days period.
    3. The Governor’s subsequent decision to reduce the travel quarantine period from 14 to 10 days for those entering CT from an affected state. That travel quarantine only uses contact with a state or country–not close contact with a COVID-positive individual. “The Governor chose optional guidance based on his assessment of the statewide conditions.”

Vanderslice had a lengthy response in reaction to hearing the BOE members criticize Bogle’s decision-making.

“Aside from the criticism that the Health Director is not following the CDC guidance or science, which I think is addressed by my response to your first question, I heard criticism/concern that the Health Director is prioritizing or focusing too much on the entire community versus the school community or focusing too much on the physical health of the community and not enough on the mental health of the students attending the school. I also heard criticism that the guidance provided by the Health Director appears to be inconsistent with New Canaan and any other school districts, where students are attending in-person at a greater frequency than students in Wilton.

“I don’t believe you can isolate the school community from the rest of the Wilton community. Schools are not an island. It is stating the obvious, but students’ lives and actions are interwoven with those of other members of the community. Students have family members who attend other schools within and without the Wilton Public Schools. They have family members who work outside the home. Older students work in local businesses. The same is true of Wilton’s teachers, administrators and other staff. You can’t separate students and staff from the community and you can’t separate students from staff.

“For any government official, whether the Governor, the CT DPH Commissioner or the local health director, making decisions while trying to balance between controlling the pandemic, physical health, mental health and economic health is challenging. It is a balance that needs constant monitoring and reconsideration based on local conditions that often change. Decisions must be informed by all the information, which entails reading and gathering all the guidance and all the information, not selected information.

“Like the Board of Education members, I hear from many residents. I suspect I hear from more residents, who don’t have school-aged children than the BOE members. I also suspect I hear from fewer residents with school-aged children. Of course, I hear differing views. Some residents think we should increase restrictions, others think there are too many restrictions. Some support hybrid learning, some don’t. Some think football is a high-risk sport, others don’t. Views vary on what ultimately will have the greatest damage as a result of the pandemic: overall mental health, overall economic health or overall physical health/premature mortality. Comments are generally based on that individual’s personal situation and perspective, which is understandable. Honestly, I hear from more people who are generally supportive of the direction taken by the town during the pandemic, than those opposed.

“Like many others, I have seen first-hand the mental health, economic and physical health damage to some of my family and friends. It is difficult to experience, but it helps me understand residents’ perspectives.

“The job of maintaining the right balance during the pandemic is very difficult, but I do know that our Health Director seeks counsel before making his decisions. He is in regular contact with other health directors and CT DPH personnel. He allows members of the Emergency Operations Committee to provide their perspective on a topic, when appropriate. In my meetings with him and school personnel, there is always a dialogue. He doesn’t make decisions in a vacuum. Based on my experience, his decisions are thoughtful. I am grateful he is Wilton’s Health Director during this pandemic. At the end of the day, he has an ethical, professional and legal obligation to make the decision and to make it based on all the facts, along his professional experience and judgment. It is him alone, that has the legal accountability.

“As Health Director during this pandemic, Barry is empowered with certain authorities and responsibilities by law, either by CT statutes or by the Governor’s executive orders or by implementing orders that the CT Commissioner of Public Health was empowered by Executive orders or statutorily to make. As Health Director he is accountable for those legally conferred authorities and responsibilities.

“As far as comparisons to other school districts, I don’t track daily data on cases, ages of cases and such for other towns, so I can’t provide any fact-based comparisons to other towns. I am in regular contact with area first selectmen and I read newspapers from surrounding towns, so I am aware that other school districts adjust schedules in response to outbreaks/case increases, as I believe New Canaan and Weston did in early/mid-November. As advised by the CDC, local health districts make local decisions based on the facts on the ground in their local health district.

“This is likely the most difficult time in the pandemic. Case rates are high. Deaths are high. Deaths track close to the decline in hospitalizations. The UK variant virus is in CT and we are learning of other variants. The CT DPH Commissioner has advised, if you have the virus, there is a high probability it is the variant virus, which will soon, if not already, be the dominant virus. The vaccine is in very short supply. Residents are fed up with the pandemic. Uncertainty abounds. This is all converging in the winter, a time health professionals previously forecasted would be bad in the northeast as residents are required to spend significant amounts of time indoors.

“In Wilton, we are fortunate the members of the Boards of Selectmen and Education enjoy a positive, collaborative, and respectful relationship. Despite frustrations and differing views, I am confident our current relationship will continue. Ultimately, we all want what is best for our community.”

Public Comments

The majority of public comments reflected families’ disapproval of the decision regarding Middlebrook; however, two remarks strongly encouraged that health and safety be prioritized.

Maria Wilcox called the two-week closing of the high school building “unfortunate,” but said, “I hope we do not take these particular circumstances and turn them into something they are not.” Wilcox added that the safeguards in place in the school have proven to be effective, with Smith saying that virtually no cases have been traced to in-school transmission, and the school should continue with the hybrid model after students return.

Joseph Mancuso, a father of two 7th graders, “implored” the district to authorize a full, four-day in-person model “immediately.” He also said that parents have the choice to opt for remote learning for their children if they are not comfortable with in-school health risks.

“The lack of in-person schooling has been an absolute travesty developmentally, academically, and socially for the children,” he said. “The kids deserve better.”

Juliet Craig said those concerned about the safety of in-person models given recent events are valid: “That’s why there is a fully remote option for the schools, correct?” she said. But, she said, so are parents’ wishes for a return to full in-person learning. “Isn’t that why we all took a survey to express our choice of learning model for our particular kids?”

Crystal Fogarty asserted her “strong objection to any attempt to make further closures to the school” in her public comment, citing that parents are aware of the risks.

Brittany Leitten said she was “severely disappointed in the students and parents at the high school level that are not practicing safe COVID-19 procedures,” but does not want it to affect the middle-schoolers because community spread has not happened within schools. She trusts the school to notify her if her child has a close contact, and fears the mental health impacts she has seen on her own child.

“We really need to ask ourselves what the long term impact of these decisions will be on the overall wellbeing of our children,” she said. “I am seriously begging that we once again don’t allow the selfish acts of the high school students to deter the plans for our return to normalcy for our younger students.”

Jessica White, in contrast, implored the school to keep the hybrid model at Middlebrook because Wilton is in the “red zone” and early vaccination stages, and to keep prioritizing health.

The last BOE comment from Noah Littin echoed those health concerns, adding that with the “much more viral strain of COVID-19 now circulating” the school should be extra mindful about containing it. His comment pointed to how European schools, which have dealt with the new strain for longer, have seen transmission in schools especially as young kids can often be asymptomatic. He recommended that the school adopt in-school COVID-19 spit testing with one group test per homeroom, and any sample that tests positive would individual retesting. He added that desks should remain six feet apart and if this is not possible, that the schools test the desks three feet apart in a hybrid model and see if school transmission rates are affected before adopting it for the full in-person model.