On Tuesday night, superintendent of schools Thomas Scarice told the Board of Education that the current hybrid model — 2 days in person, 3 out for middle and high schoolers; morning and afternoon sessions for elementary-age youngsters — will continue at least through December.
In an email yesterday to Westport families, he described that decision. He wrote:
Last night I was asked by the Board of Education to share my decision regarding the next phase in our school reopening plan. I am most grateful for the opportunity to work through this process in collaboration with a team of committed Board of Education members, as well as all members of our school community.
In short, following a public examination of the advantages and disadvantages of a full reopening, last night I recommended that the prudent course of action at this particular point in time is to remain in our current model for at least the next four to six weeks while monitoring the trajectory of infection rates.
This will be a year of responsiveness, i.e. responding to trends in changing data, responding to feedback from parents, students and educators regarding our performance, and responding to any possible breakthroughs that might alter the direction of our way of life during the pandemic (i.e. treatments, testing, vaccines, changes in the efficacy of specific mitigating measures).
I fully understand the entrusted responsibility of decisions such as these and I feel the weight of that responsibility. That said, beyond delivering the best educational experience possible for our students, I also feel responsible for any efforts to pull the community together during polarizing decisions and possible divisiveness.
I intended to make a decision based solely on transmission rates and our ability to maintain our mitigating measures in a full return. In full candor, what I did not anticipate was the impact that the current elementary instructional model would have on my thinking in the next phase of reopening.
It is true that a number of school districts across the region that originally began in a hybrid model are now fully opened for on-site schooling, particularly at the elementary level, and these districts have experienced very low rates of COVID incidences at the elementary level.
Furthermore, as promised, we administered an internal assessment of our mitigating measures. The results are very promising in assuring that not only are the current measures effective, but with some modifications, they show promise to be maintained in a full return, with some exceptions.
That said, I’d like to reiterate a comment from my last parent letter where I indicated that it is critical that any changes in our schooling models are responsive to trends in virus transmission rates. Absolute rates remain in the low risk category, yet weekly data has demonstrated a consistent increase in virus transmission. Yesterday our state experienced the highest positivity rate since June, and just over the border, Westchester County saw the largest jump in positive cases since May while hospitalization rates recently doubled.
Our local Westport/Weston Health District (WWHD) has advised that we take a cautious approach in any reopening moves as they expect an increase in infection rates. There is evidence of an increase in rates of infection at the present moment.
Although there appears to be a window for a full return before the rates advance to a level that warrants additional restrictions, based on current trends in virus transmission, I do not see the value of what would likely be a temporary return. The trade off is not our current elementary model for a “normal” classroom and schooling experience. The trade off is the value of our current elementary model for a “pandemic classroom”.
As I articulated last night, with substantive support from the elementary principals and our Elementary Curriculum Coordinator, Ali Moran, our current model enables our faculty to deliver an instructional program during this time that would be restricted in the “pandemic classroom.” Our current model empowers our teachers to work closely with individual students and small groups, actively moving within the confines of our mitigating measures to ensure that academic progress is not lost, but actually advanced. It also supports social/emotional development in ways that would be compromised in a fully reopened “pandemic classroom.”
This week we have engaged in an analysis of our entire K-12 reopening instructional model with focus groups at each level for teachers, parents, and students. This information will be instrumental in our efforts to improve our programs for students. There are clearly areas for improvement. Although we will stay the course, this feedback could alter our practices across all levels, elementary, middle and high.
If we are to be assured of anything it is that the landscape will continue to change. We’ve seen this since the onset of the pandemic in March. Guidance on masks, virus transmission on surfaces, and most recently on the effectiveness of neck gaiters, has evolved and changed regularly. In fact, my own thinking has changed as I received input from the school community and was able to conduct classroom observations in each elementary school. I anticipate that changes will continue and our responsiveness will mark our success.
Our next step is to receive the feedback from our focus groups and take action. It is likely that this will begin with reconvening the district wide School Reopening Committee. Updates will be forthcoming as we continue to move forward.
Given the advantages and disadvantages of a full reopening, I am confident that we can balance safety with desirable instructional experiences for our students by taking the prudent course of action at this particular point in time. We will continue to monitor the changing environment and look to fully return when infection rates stabilize and trend downward so that we are able to loosen the restrictions in the educational setting.