Superintendent: COVID Makes Keeping Wilton Schools Open a Challenge; Community Needs to do Better to Keep Kids in School

The unified message from Wilton Public School‘s superintendent, Board of Education (BOE), and First Selectwoman is getting louder and clearer from an already loud and clear stance:  if Wilton residents want to keep their kids in school and the schools open, they’d better start collectively acting like it.

That was the message delivered at Thursday night’s (Nov. 19) Board of Education meeting.

“If we are going to keep kids in school and engaging in in-person learning, we need to have all our community members adhere to mitigation strategies, we need to have all our community members think very carefully about the social gatherings in which they engage and about their travel plans. All of our community members need to adhere to the governor’s executive order, if we can make a broad, shared commitment, we can bend the curve and bring more students back to school, but it is going to require a broad, shared commitment among all of us,Wilton Superintendent Kevin Smith said.

The warning came at the end of Smith’s update on learning models and the status of COVID cases and exposure in the district. His overriding theme is that the current environment in the district is “growing more challenging” to manage, and he warns of a looming tipping point.

It’s a message that echoes what First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice has said repeatedly in her COVID updates to residents.

At each BOE meeting, Smith details the case numbers and quarantine data for the district. “With each subsequent meeting, the information I share gets worse. Tonight will continue that trend, unfortunately,” he said, adding that the case numbers locally, regionally, across the state and nation “continue to climb at a dizzying pace.”

Smith’s evidence included:

  • As of Thursday afternoon, on COVIDActNow.org, the website monitored by the district’s medical advisor Dr. Christine Macken, the new daily average case rate for Fairfield County is 55.1 cases per 100,000; the infection rate is 1.21, and the positive test rate is 9.6%. It foreshadows the data produced by the State Department of Public Health.
  • Wilton’s current average new daily case rate is 31.8 cases per 100,000, a numbers that has “climbed dramatically,” Smith said.
  • As of Wednesday, according to the district’s COVID tracker there are three staff members and 16 students who are COVID positive and isolating; and 50 staff members and 200 students who are in quarantine. “We have nearly doubled the folks in quarantine in about a week,” Smith explained.

This past week, the district (along with Macken and Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle) made the decision to shift Cider Mill School to temporary remote learning, due to the sharp rise in case numbers and the impact of so many people needing to quarantine, making it “incredibly hard-pressed to effectively staff that building for in-person learning,” Smith said.

Making the situation even more difficult is that staff who live in other communities have to respond to changes in their own communities. “That’s a pattern playing out all across the state–seeing an increasing number of districts and schools having to opt for temporary remote learning because of staffing shortages as a result of impact of COVID case activity,” Smith said.

Right now, Smith’s continued recommendation for the district’s other three schools is to keep them in their current learning models (Miller-Driscoll at four days in-person; Middlebrook and Wilton High School in hybrid). With the increase in the number of cases and quarantine numbers, Smith said his team is carefully watching the staffing levels in these three schools.

“It’s important for everyone to understand it’s absolutely a challenge to keep our schools operating in person,” he said, even with the ability to shift substitutes from Cider Mill to the other schools.

Smith called the situation “absolutely dynamic” and something he monitors “hour by hour because it changes hour by hour. So we could be presented with a different set of factors in the morning which would require us to shift.”

While there is no change at the moment, Smith’s recommendation is to “be prepared to shift to remote learning if necessary.”

It’s the Community’s Responsibility

Smith put the responsibility for whether or not he has to make the call to shift learning models squarely on the shoulders of the community. Community behavior will make or break what happens.

Wilton is at a critical juncture, right now, he said.

“I do see us approaching a tipping point, unfortunately. Cider Mill [‘s closure] is clear evidence. We want to have students in person, and we continue to be guided by our health experts,” he said.

“If we are going to keep kids in school and engaging in in-person learning…, we need to have all our community members adhere to mitigation strategies, we need to have all our community members think very carefully about the social gatherings in which they engage and about their travel plans. All of our community members need to adhere to the governor’s executive order, if we can make a broad, shared commitment, we can bend the curve and bring more students back to school, but it is going to require a broad, shared commitment among all of us,” Smith said.

The message included a recommendation to community members that if they do engage in risky behaviors (travel, large gatherings, youth sports and little mitigation), they should consider voluntarily moving to remote learning on their own.

Making decisions for the district aren’t easy, he added, and Smith says he takes into account a wide variety of perspectives and considerations.

  • Staff fear:  With each new case the fear and anxiety among the staff increases, Smith noted. “Even with strong mitigation strategies, people really worry about contracting the virus. The fear is reasonable, we have to take it seriously. We have to pay close attention to mitigation strategies that they’re being followed.”

BOE chair Debbie Low echoed that concern, felt by many in the community as well. “I wanted to recognize what everyone is feeling, which is the increasing anxiety, about schools in light of the increasing COVID numbers and data. I want to assure everyone that the health and safety of students and staff remain the top priority of the board, and that Dr. Smith and his staff [are] in constant contact with our town health director and our district medical advisor,” she said.

  • Benefits of in-person learning: Smith said he balances the evidence of spread with weighing the benefits of in-person learning, acknowledging both instructional and social benefits from an in-person environment. “I’m very worried about social isolation and how that may increase if and when we have to transition back to full remote learning.” He noted that the team at WHS is especially paying close attention, and keeping track of kids they are most worried about, taking steps to make sure they keep students connected and engaged. “It’s proving very challenging and we have to work hard, and as long as we can safely to keep our kids in school,” Smith said.
  • Wednesdays–stay remote for the sake of cleaning or return to in-person time:  The district has reconsidered whether or not to remain remote on Wednesdays, a day that’s been set aside for deep cleaning of district facilities. Smith said he has spoken with head custodian Jose Figueroa about the extent to which the custodial staff need that day for cleaning. “They really rely on that day to do as much cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that they don’t get to on the nightly regimen. He felt strongly the value of that for keeping the buildings clean, that day matters,” Smith said, adding that Bogle and Macken both concur with keeping the model as it is now. His recommendation is to keep the schedule as it is for now and look later at readjusting it.

Smith said he has received a number of questions about possibly transitioning the entire district to remote learning as a preemptive step coming into the holidays, for example after Thanksgiving. The belief is that since virus transmission largely happens outside of school, such a preemptive move isn’t wise.

“The very strong consensus opinion, from the governor, the Department of Public Health, and State Department of Education, is to avoid date-based closures. As we monitor our own numbers and track transmission, we’re still finding the transmission numbers for us are taking place outside of school–family and youth sporting events. We haven’t seen widespread evidence of in-school transmission, a strong indicator for us that the mitigation strategies are working and effective and preventing the virus from spreading in the schools,” Smith said.

As a result he does not recommend any pre-emptive transition to remote learning for the schools currently hybrid or in-person learning. “I think it’s important that we try to keep our students in school and do so as long as we can do so safely.”

Testing Possibilities

Low asked about the possibility of testing, at least the staff, given what she said was their high level of anxiety. She mentioned the possibility of using less-expensive pool testing which might show that transmission is not happening in the schools–or determine if that is true.

“I like the idea of pool testing is it’s not as expensive, and if you do the matrix version, you can actually identify the individual. What I had heard was the turnaround time is very fast, and I know our budget is not in the best shape, but if we look at staff only, I think the return on the investment is worth the extra cost we would incur,” she said.

According to Smith, the state now has a program providing schools with antigen rapid testing, designed to be administered to individuals who are symptomatic. Such antigen tests could be administered to a student or staff member showing symptoms and within 30 minutes would provide an indication of whether the individual was positive.

The district is exploring whether they can set up procedures and logistics to do that, either with the school district’s nursing staff or with the help of Macken’s medical practice, Children’s Pediatric.

The second type of testing being considered by the district is surveillance testing, and Smith said he’s in contact with a company that provides such services to colleges, private schools, etc. This matrix testing is type of pool testing that tests a group of samples together and which can identify individual positive results. They are relatively inexpensive–$25-$26 apiece, and would be used to test staff only.

Smith said the company is putting together a proposal for the district, while his team is exploring the logistics of executing testing, transporting the samples to lab, and the cost, including what funds the district has in its medical reserve account.

Smith said he will bring a formalized proposal to the board, likely after Thanksgiving. It would involve pool testing on staff once a week if they’re willing to participate, which could start the second week of December.

1 COMMENT

  1. The influx of returning college students from all across the country over the next week has the potential to drive cases way up. Let’s hope everyone isolates, gets tested if possible, and keeps their bubbles as small as possible. We are truly all in this together.

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