Schools Are One Step Closer To Full Reopening

Since September, the Westport Public Schools have operated on a hybrid model since September. Some students learn in school each day; some learn at home. 

This morning, in an email to parents, Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice gave an update. Schools have not proven to be the vectors of COVID transmission many expected, he notes. In fact, they are some of the safest places during the pandemic.

Next month, administrators will begin exploring options for returning more students to school, more of the time. Scarice says:

I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone the very best during the holidays, and a very happy new year. This has clearly been a year like no other.

Thomas Scarice (Photo courtesy of Zip06.com)

I shared with the faculty and support staff during my opening address in September that in my research, I’ve found that the very best organizations are marked by a culture where each individual can count on each other.  This year I’ve found that to be the case right here.  Look to your right, look to your left and you’ll find someone on the team that you can count on.  If this is the culture during a pandemic, I can assure you that there will be no limit to what we can accomplish as a school system.  We can, and should, have a bold vision for our schools in the post-COVID world.  This energizes me a great deal.

As I shared Monday at the Board of Education meeting, I was fortunate enough to be invited to visit math classrooms at Staples a couple of weeks ago. I was humbled by the work of our faculty in leading classroom instruction this year.  This morning I got a tiny window into the burdens of “Zoom instruction” as I struggled to engage a class of kindergarteners in my read-aloud of “The Gruffalo.” Not my finest moment, but being in the presence of our students is where I find such purpose and fulfillment. I hope Mrs. Sweeney was able to clean up my “digital mess” afterwards!!

At the expense of sounding gratuitous, I see the work of our faculty and support staff this year as nothing short of remarkable. Yet, just over the horizon I can begin to see us starting to turn the corner. With our team and the support of our parents and community I am beyond enthused about the second half of our school year!!

What’s Next?
Take a look towards the horizon and the immediate future and you will see that vaccines are on the way, new testing technologies are arriving regularly to communities, and treatments for the virus have advanced well beyond the approaches of last spring.

Locally, like countless other school districts, we have demonstrated incredible resilience in preventing virus transmission in our schools. I was told earlier in the fall that the safest place in our communities outside of our homes is in a public school. I found this unbelievable at the time. But now, based on almost 4 months of experience and the vigilance of everyone in our schools, I believe this to be true.

I have recommended a cautious approach to the reopening of our schools this year. However, a great deal has changed over the past 9 months. Perhaps most profound for schools is that high community transmission rates have had little impact on school-based virus transmission.

What’s confounding is that community transmission rates were initially identified as the primary driver affecting the reopening of schools among public health experts, including the Harvard Global Health Institute which guided Connecticut’s efforts. In fact, just last week, Tom St. Louis, occupational health program director for the Connecticut Department of Public Health, concluded in a statement to superintendents that the high rates of spread in communities are not translating to similarly high rates of transmission in schools. He acknowledged that most experts did not know this would be the case when guidance was provided over the summer.

Population density is a factor in mitigating spread, thus the reason for hybrid models this year. Yet, there is ample evidence across the state of minimal to no virus spread in schools with greater population density than the current levels in our schools.

This track record of remarkable resilience, along with the timing of the reopening of Coleytown Middle School, and with the critical need to balance our responsibility to public health with the social/emotional/academic wellness of our students, has led me to begin conversations about engaging in additional reopening efforts for the second half of January, including a full reopening of on-site schooling for all K-8 students.

Coleytown Middle School’s renovation is nearly complete. (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)

When We Return January 4, 2021
We will begin the New Year in the current hybrid model beginning on January 4. However, we will monitor the conditions around us, and within our schools, in an effort to begin to possibly open our schools for full on-site instruction at the K-8 level later in the month. Additionally, we will look to broaden access to Staples for more on-site instruction for all learners, beyond those identified as “at-risk.”

I have asked the administration from each of the three levels to have plans ready for my review by the end of the first week of January in anticipation of implementation for the second half of the month. Specific plans and dates have yet to be identified. This information will be forthcoming shortly thereafter.

Given the performance of public schools across the state, and here in Westport, I am confident that our resilience will continue to maintain high levels of safety for staff and students. It is true that it will not look like our classrooms prior to the pandemic and that a return to a “pandemic classroom,” particularly at the elementary level, was not optimal as rates sharply trended in the wrong direction in October and November. I stand by the prudent approach I recommended in the fall. Yet since then, we have learned more and more about schooling during the pandemic.

It is clear that with strong mitigating measures, particularly fidelity to mask wearing, schools can remain resilient while serving more on-site learners safely.  When we return, we will begin the process of planning for more on-site learners in earnest for the second half of the school year which begins later in January.

Of course, for this school year all parents will be afforded the right to distance learning for their child.  We will continue to serve our students in this arena and seek to continually improve our practices in remote instruction.

Until then…
As I shared with the faculty earlier, we have an opportunity to take a break from perhaps the greatest professional challenge we will face in our careers, an eleven day respite. For all of us, this should be time to reconnect with our families and friends in safe ways. Perhaps some Netflix viewing (if so, you must watch “The Social Dilemma” with your teens), some unwinding, and some time to unplug.  Whatever may come over the break, I have complete confidence that we will turn a corner to a positive horizon in due time.

2 responses to “Schools Are One Step Closer To Full Reopening

  1. Jack ( former educator) Backiel

    Even though I don’t live in Westport anymore, I’m looking forward to reading the comments on this topic.

  2. While I understand the argument, I feel like we should continue to be as vigilant as possible now that the end is in sight with a vaccine. Too many people are already acting like this thing is over, and I think this just sends the wrong signal.

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