Superintendent Scarice: Mitigating Measures Work

Today, Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice updated the community on Westport Public Schools’ immediate future, quarantine practices, supports for quarantined students and distance learners, transportation, travel guidance and COVID reporting.

He also added a few personal thoughts on what we might expect over the horizon. He wrote: 

The Immediate Future
As projected in October, community infection rates increased sharply over the past month. Meanwhile, our schools have shown a remarkable resilience in halting any spread of the virus in our buildings. I am confident that vigilance in maintaining our mitigating measures (i.e. masks, distancing, hand hygiene, etc.), as well as keeping the density of our schools at 50% capacity, have ensured this measure of success.

Thomas Scarice (Photo courtesy of Zip06.com)

We have identified nearly 80 positive student and staff COVID-19 cases in our schools since September. As a result, nearly 1,500 students and staff have been asked to quarantine.

Yet there has been little to no spread of COVID-19 once positive cases have been identified in our schools. The lack of positive COVID-19 tests of those in quarantine is affirmation of our ability to halt the spread of the virus once it enters our schools.

We will return to on-site schooling in the hybrid model on Monday (November 30) at all of our schools. There will be just over three weeks until our next break beginning December 24. As I mentioned in my last message to the school community, I see this year in 4-6 week increments.

Public health experts project high transmission rates until the start of the new year. It is critical that parents and those in the community partner with us to maintain the same vigilance that is evident in our schools in order to keep our schools open for on-site schooling. An outbreak of the virus, or staffing challenges, can put all of our schools into a fully remote model.

Sharpening Our Quarantining Practices
Quarantining is a necessary mitigating measure in preventing the spread of COVID-19 once a positive case has been identified. As the number of positive cases dramatically increased over the past few weeks in our community, placing Westport into the high risk category, we took a conservative approach with our contact tracing efforts in the schools. This approach led to recommended quarantines for large numbers of staff and students.

Again, our mitigating measures have been extremely effective resulting in a very limited number of positive cases through in-school transmission. This fact is most significant. In reviewing data related to the number of quarantines associated with close contacts in our schools,  it has been determined that spread in our schools has been extremely rare.

Despite the “second wave,” in-school transmission of COVID-19 is very rare at Staples High School, and throughout Westport.

For example, of 508 classroom exposures recorded at Staples High School through November 23rd, only one is believed to have led to an additional positive case within the school. This success in controlling the spread of COVID-19 allows us to modify our current approach to contact tracing, specifically in the middle and high school, which will help limit the number of students and staff needing to quarantine.

With support from the Westport/Weston Health District, and our medical advisor, Dr. Norman Weinberger, we intend to take a more precise approach when determining “close contacts” and recommending a self-quarantine.  These changes will be in effect after we return from the Thanksgiving break.

Instructional Support for Distance Learning and Quarantined Students
As the number of students in distance learning and quarantine increased, new challenges were posed for our school district. I suspect we would have concluded last summer that an increase in distance learners (i.e. from 168 in K-5 on October 30 to an anticipated 207 on November 30) and those in quarantine would coincide with a move to fully remote instruction. However, given the resilience demonstrated by our schools, and the encouragement of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, our doors remain open for on-site schooling in the hybrid model.

In order to address the number of students in need of instruction in distance learning or quarantine, I am very pleased to share that we have secured the services of multiple certified teachers to provide support for these programs.  These resources should be in place to start following the Thanksgiving break.

Transportation
The provision of transportation is guaranteed for each public school student.  However, given the complexity of transportation during the pandemic we encourage parents to transport their children to and from school whenever possible. Decreasing density on our school buses will minimize the need to quarantine students when a positive case is identified on a bus. Of course we will continue to transport all students in need of transportation.

Socially distanced school buses (Photo/Amy Schneider)

Travel Guidance
Travel guidance has been issued. Interstate and international travel is forbidden without following the guidelines. Failure to comply with Connecticut’s travel policies (https://portal.ct.gov/Coronavirus/travel) may result in a civil penalty of $500 for each violation.  Please take this seriously and adhere to the guidelines issued by the CDC and Connecticut Department of Public Health.

COVID-19 Reporting Hotline
As a reminder, we have developed a COVID-19 reporting hotline to report positive cases only. The number is  (203) 341-1016. Also, an email can be sent to PositiveCovidReport@westportps.org.  If your child has tested positive for COVID-19 please use one of these two methods to communicate to the schools.  You may also contact your school nurse for any follow up information. See this link for more information.

Over the Horizon
As challenging as this year has been, and as dark as it is expected to get over the next 8 weeks or so, I am more optimistic now than I’ve ever been about our future.

Although we have used rather primitive methods to confront this pandemic (i.e. physical distance, masks, etc.), the ubiquity of biotechnology breakthroughs is close to catching up. Treatments have emerged for those infected. Proactive surveillance testing is becoming a reality, and not just for the NBA and the most exclusive colleges and private schools. Vaccines are racing towards the finish line with success rates that match the aspirations and hopes of recent biotechnology promises.

With that, I would like to bring your mind to the other side of this pandemic, which could be within reach in a matter of months. Although I do not expect a “war is over” declaration, I do anticipate that these breakthroughs will conspire with our collective purpose to turn our exclusive attention towards the work of teaching and learning, towards the work of preparing all learners for the challenges of the modern world, and towards building a system that enables all students to thrive and make positive contributions to their world.

A return to “normal” school could be oaround the horizon.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, for this reflective moment, for this optimism, I am most grateful.

In closing, I’d like to share one of my favorite pieces on the purpose of education. As you contemplate the other side of this pandemic and a potential renewed vision of our schools, may these words rise within you and inspire you to action.

In 1947, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this essay for his school newspaper at Morehouse College. Although published nearly 75 years ago, it rings as true today as it did then.

Have a restful and peaceful Thanksgiving,
Tom Scarice

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