This afternoon, Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice provided parents and the community with another COVID update.
After discussing the full reopening of the elementary and middle schools (set for Monday, February 1 — weather permitting), and providing an update on PPE, masks and desk shields — he addressed a rising problem in the district: abuse of the “Absent but Present Online” attendance option. Scarice said:
In a year of disruptions to our normal routines, perhaps nothing has done more to disrupt classroom instruction than the provision granted to families of keeping their child home on any given day, but remaining present “online” for attendance purposes (“APO” Absent but Present Online).
This provision has a very valuable purpose. This was designed to afford parents the opportunity to keep their child home if they have the slightest suspicion that their child might be ill. This is a critical mitigating measure in preventing potential virus spread.
However, in the purest sense of the word, this provision has been abused and must stop being misused.
There are too many examples of students traveling, or staying home for a variety of personal reasons, completely unrelated to the intended purpose of the “APO” standard (which is keeping a suspected ill child home).
The unintended result is a material disruption to the middle and high school classrooms. I am responsible, along with the entire administrative team, for preventing and addressing disruption to the learning environment. Recent misuse of this provision warrants administrative action.
Teachers on a daily basis put a great deal of time into planning for on-site learners and remote learners, simultaneously. As an educator I can share that this task alone is herculean, and it has been done admirably all year long.
Yet when planning for 10 on-site students, and 2 show up because 8 have invoked the “APO” provision, lessons must change on the fly and this disrupts the learning of every student in the class, on-site and remote.
As a result, the district is establishing standards for “APO” at the middle and high school level that will prohibit students from accessing this provision unless it is truly being used for the purposes that were mandated from the State Department of Education. Parents at the secondary level can anticipate more information on this in the immediate future as it relates to attendance and the earning of credits at the high school level.
Scarice also talked about the district’s plans to serve on-site and distance learners, in the months ahead.
As stated above, perhaps the greatest instructional challenge this year has been the simultaneous dual instruction of on-site and distance learners, particularly for our secondary teachers. I see this as an unnatural learning environment, or at least very unnatural to the familiar learning environments before the pandemic.
The provision of distance learning is warranted this year, given the need for certain students to take additional precautions. We have a moral obligation to educate these students and are doing so to the very best of our ability. We cannot provide facsimile of on-site instruction, but we can certainly educate distance learners effectively while helping them advance in their education.
As we begin the second half of the year and introduce more on-site instruction, the number of learners in the classroom will greatly outnumber our distance learners.
For this reason, and to keep our commitment to providing a high quality experience for distance learners, there is a concerted effort to identify and provide additional supports to distance learners moving forward. There will be more information about these efforts in the very near future.
Distance learners are defined as a group of students that have elected to engage in distance learning for an extended period of time. This group does not include those students who are intermittently “APO” (Absent but Present Online).
The superintendent addressed vaccines, surveillance testing, and the timetable for Staples High School’s full on-site reopening.
We wait eagerly for educators to be notified that it is time to schedule an vaccination appointment. The time is approaching, particularly with new vaccines entering the emergency approval stage. In the interim, I ask that you join me in advocating for advancing the timeline for educators by contacting state representatives, state senators and other related officials.
COVID-19 surveillance testing is employed in settings as a mitigating measure. Professional sports along with private schools and various universities have used this approach to identify carriers of COVID-19. The town of Westport has engaged in a program for its employees involving surveillance testing. The town has also offered a partnership with the school district to participate in this program. Monday night I will be sharing information related to this opportunity to the Board of Education.
Questions have been submitted regarding further reopening of Staples High School. We have placed focus on the K-8 level for the time being but will revisit the idea of increased access to additional on-site learning opportunities for students at Staples. Any efforts in this regard will not take place before the February break, but perhaps sometime thereafter. Models of modifying the cohorts to increase cohort size is a likely approach to increase access.
Finally — and powerfully — Scarice appealed to the community to be vigilant about risk factors. Of special note: restricting out of school activities.
Many parents have asked how to help our schools, particularly with our full opening Monday at the K-8 level. I can request one thing that could help significantly.
The virus does not originate in our schools. It comes in from the community, and based on the local health district and our own findings, it is coming in as a result of informal gatherings where defenses are down and transmission occurs.
If community members truly want to help keep our schools open and safe then we would all restrict activity outside of school so that community transmission rates would recede and the virus would not enter our buildings. This would help more than any donation or other form of generosity.
Please keep your eyes on the forecast and have a restful weekend.