Tag Archives: COVID-19

Scarice: Travel Wisely Over April Break

A week before spring vacation — with COVID still a strong concern — Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice issued travel guidelines.

He also reminded families of quarantine mandates for athletes staying overnight at out of state events, . Scarice wrote:

Although Governor Lamont’s Executive Order regarding travel is no longer in effect, the Department of Public Health recommends that all Connecticut residents follow CDC Guidelines for Travelers.

Students and staff traveling over the April vacation are asked to follow the guidelines below, which are consistent with the expectations that have been previously communicated.

  • While traveling, please continue to utilize all appropriate mitigation strategies (including mask wearing, distancing, symptom recognition, hand washing, etc.) regardless of whether they are mandated at your destination.

  • Before travel, review current DPH and CDC recommendations for travel during COVID-19, and plan sufficient time for any necessary actions.

  • Before returning to school after travel, we ask everyone to:

    • Get a viral test after returning to Connecticut, and stay out of school until you receive a negative test from the laboratory.

    • Be aware of and closely self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms during and after your trip, especially for the 14 days after returning.

    • Immediately quarantine if anyone with you on your trip tests positive after returning to Connecticut.
    • Be prepared to immediately quarantine if/when symptoms appear.

International travelers should be aware of the additional COVID-19 Travel Recommendations by Destination prior to departure: click here. You may also find these Frequently Asked Questions helpful.

Any student traveling overnight to participate in an athletic tournament must quarantine for a minimum of 7 days upon returning to Connecticut, even with a negative COVID-19 test result.  Additionally, any student not testing must quarantine for a full 10 days upon returning from an overnight out-of-state tournament.  These expectations come directly from the DPH document, “Updated Guidance for the Operation of Interscholastic, Youth and other Amateur Sport Activities during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Connecticut mandates quarantines for any athletes participating in out-of-state events, if they include overnight stays.

As we conclude our second, and final, round of vaccinations for faculty and staff this week, we turn our efforts to supporting parents in vaccinating our 16+ student population.

At this point in the year, nearly 2/3 of our high school population is 16+.  Currently, only the Pfizer vaccine has received emergency approval for administration to children ages 16+. This is not the vaccine that has been distributed to our local health district. However, there are options in our region to advance this effort.

There might be clinics in the region that will be dedicated to local students. We may have more specificity just prior to the April break.  Stay tuned!

School districts across the state are awaiting guidance from the DPH regarding end-of-year activities, including graduation, proms, etc. It is likely that we will continue to be encouraged to favor outdoor activities, with universal mask wearing and social distancing.

Once the DPH document is released, the district will move from “save the date” to planning specifics of our end-of-year activities, knowing that any event can change at a moment’s notice until the pandemic is behind us.

Please continue to report any cases over the break to our hotline. We intend to stay on top of our reporting procedures and data, as we have with prior vacation periods.

Thank you for all of the support and patience this year.

JoyRide Founder: Fitness Industry Needs Help

Westporter Amy Hochhauser started JoyRide in 2011. For 10 years, she has nurtured and grown the popular cycling studio. She writes:

Founding JoyRide is one of the highlights of my life. In addition to the incredible community of riders, many of whom I count as close friends, it’s been tremendously rewarding to employ so many amazing people, in Connecticut and Texas. The JoyFamily is remarkable.

In addition to providing workouts, our team has always been committed to using our platform for good. To date, we’ve helped various charitable organizations raise over $750,000 for their causes. This brings us immense JOY.

Amy Hochhauser (right) with fellow JoyRide leaders (from left): Becky Cerroni and Rhodie Lorenz.

But times are tough. This year, we’ve had to close two of our beloved Connecticut studios just to survive — and we’re still struggling to make ends meet.

After months of mandatory closures and capacity restrictions, the reality is — despite being allowed to open at full capacity — social distancing requires us to limit the number of customers we can serve. Our business model was not meant to function with only 12-15 customers per class.

Most of our landlords have been great. A few, not so much. And as a female-founded, independent small business, we struggle to get the support and attention of some of our larger competitors.

JoyRide has moved classes outdoors …

We’ve had to guarantee many of our obligations personally. Despite believing that we’ve banked enough good karma to avoid this fate, when your landlord is a public company, good vibes and fairness don’t get you very far.

But we are not alone. Thousands of gyms and studios (and many other small businesses) across the country struggle with the exact same fate. We can all forecast a horizon in 2022 where things get better, but to get to that place, we need to survive the next 6 months.

… and cut capacity indoors.

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that fitness and wellness are more important than ever. They combat not only obesity, diabetes and heart disease, but also the epidemic of loneliness and reliance on technology. We need to turn off the screens and sweat together! Human connection is a requirement for a JOYful life.

The Gym Mitigation and Survival (GYMS) Act — a bipartisan bill in Congress — would offer relief to health and fitness establishments. Most previous economic relief packages have either left out or not really helped the fitness industry.

If want to help, please click this link and ask our representatives to ask them to pass the GYMS ACT. We need all the help we can get.

Marpe Marks 1-Year COVID Anniversary

1st Selectman Jim Marpe says:

Today marks 1 year since Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper, Westport Public Schools representatives, my fellow selectpersons, various department heads and I held a press conference on the steps of Town Hall addressing the new “coronavirus” spreading throughout the world. At

that time we knew that COVID had been discovered in Westport, contact tracing efforts could not control its spread, and that community members should be made aware of the serious health and safety issues associated with the virus.

We announced that the Public Schools and other town facilities would be closed. We were unaware of how circumstances would unfold in the coming days, weeks, and months to follow.

Flanked by town officials, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announced the latest COVID-19 news, one year ago today.

In the following days, as the town was further shut down and we all entered a phase of self-isolation, I implored everyone to “stay safe and stay home.” I reminded Westporters to maintain “virus distancing” everywhere; that stores and certain businesses remained open only to insure that food and essentials were available to the public, and that all other activities where people may congregate in groups must be avoided.

In short order, we realized what services were considered essential. We became reliant upon takeout food, curbside pickup, and planned for lines outside grocery stores and pharmacies. Working and schooling from home, scrambling for masks, toilet paper and disinfectant became common occurrences.

It was a confusing and unsettling time. In retrospect however, I believe the common conversations and collective experiences were a way to self-manage the significant emotional toll the pandemic was having on our lives.

A funeral service at Willowbrook Cemetery was limited fewer than 10 mourners.

We continue to remain careful and vigilant. Thankfully, due to many positive developments throughout the year, the science and information now available provides an understanding of what we must do to contain and combat the virus.

I am very thankful that we are in a position today to state that we are beginning to see an end; that much of the unknown has become known, and that we are stronger as a result.

On this solemn anniversary, I send my deepest condolences to those who have lost a loved one and to others who have seen the devastating effects of this pandemic. As a community, we mourn with you and send loving thoughts that the memories of your family members and friends will sustain you in this difficult time.

I would be wholly remiss if I did not emphatically state that, despite its obvious impact, COVID has proved how creative, resilient and compassionate Westporters truly are. The support for first responders and health care workers, words of encouragement, heart-shaped signs, painted rocks, and donations of handmade PPE, proved to be a motivating force for many. These acts of kindness brought a sense of peace and calm during extremely challenging times. The community spirit and collective concern for all was, and continues to be, uplifting.

Some hot meals for the Westport Fire Department, courtesy of Staples football and Viva Zapata.

In conclusion, I want to express my sincere gratitude to the Westport residents, businesses owners, religious leaders, town employees, and the multitude of volunteers who offered advice, maintained services, provided comfort, financial support, and generally surpassed expectations in caring for all of our neighbors.

Your cooperation and unselfish participation, under extreme conditions, was extraordinary. I will always be thankful that Westporters were able to respond to and meet the unique challenge that was COVID.  And I am confident that brighter days are ahead. Please continue to be safe and healthy.

For more information on Westport’s response to COVID-19, visit westportct.gov/covid, or wwhd.org. For information on COVID-19 vaccination distribution plans in Connecticut, visit ct.gov/covidvaccine.

March 11, 2020: The Day COVID Crushed Our Town

On Sunday, March 8, 2020, town officials hosted a community forum on COVID-19, at the Westport Library.

“A small, well-spaced-apart crowd was joined by many more online participants this afternoon,” I wrote.

“Presentations were clear and cogent; questions were wide-ranging and thoughtful; answers were direct and honest.” Topics included schools, the Senior Center, restaurants, Metro-North, budget implications, gyms and the YMCA.

1st Selectman Jim Marpe (far right), at the March 8 COVID-19 panel.

The key takeaways:

  • There were dozens of “what-ifs.”
  • The best precautions included rigorous hand-washing, frequent cleaning of surfaces, and careful monitoring of surroundings and contacts.
  • It was virtually inevitable that COVID would come to Westport.

In fact, it already had.

State Representative Jonathan Steinberg (left),and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe demonstrated the best way to say hello, COVID-19-style.

Three days later — on Wednesday, March 11 — fear had heightened considerably.

A student at Staples High School asked me if I thought schools would close. “Maybe Monday,” I replied.

That night I was supposed to have dinner with my sister and nephews in New York, and see Andy Borowitz. We texted all day about what to do. With trepidation, we said: Let’s go for it.

Suddenly, news came that Westport schools were closing. A news conference was quickly planned for outside Town Hall. Forget dinner, I texted. I have to cover this.

The weather outside Town Hall was beautiful, I reported. But the officials on the front steps were grim.

1st Selectman Jim Marpe, Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper and others outlined the day’s rapid developments.

Flanked by town officials, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announces COVID-19 news.

They noted a private party in Westport the previous Thursday, March 5. Of the 40 or so attendees — of all ages — 14 reported coronavirus-like symptoms.

“It’s likely many people were exposed,” Cooper said. “And others will be.”

Schools would be closed indefinitely, for deep cleaning. Also shut: Town Hall. All meetings, including the Board of Finance budget. The Senior Center. Toquet Hall. The Westport Library (until Monday).

Marpe noted that private institutions must decide for themselves which events to cancel. “We recognize these are tough decisions,” he said.

Print and television reporters kept their distance from each other, at the press conference on the steps of Town Hall. (Photos/Dan Woog)

I still planned one last hurrah that night in New York.

I never went. Midway through writing my story, I got a text. Andy Borowitz had canceled.

The next day, I walked downtown.

The scene was surreal. Main Street was abandoned. Stores were shut; every parking spot was open.

A friend in an office above Brooks Corner spotted me. We talked for an hour. He runs a summer camp. He had no idea if — or how — he’d be affected. We agreed: None of us knew what’s ahead. But suddenly we were very, very worried.

One of my fears was that with Westport locked down, I’d have nothing to write about.

An hour or so after the Westport Public Schools announced they were closing, Trader Joe’s looked like the day before a snowstorm. (Photo/Armelle Pouriche)

I could not have been more wrong.

After returning home, I did not leave for the next 4 days. I wrote constantly. There were stories everywhere.

I wrote about:

  • Constantly changing advice on numbers and safety precautions
  • Store closures: How to get food
  • Church closures: What to expect for Easter and Passover
  • What students should expect, with schools closed
  • The emotions of the Staples girls’ basketball team; COVID canceled the state tournament, just as they reached the semifinals
  • The lack of test kits
  • A raging debate on whether “small gatherings” were okay. “It’s not a snow day!” one news story reported. Some in Westport disagreed.

And of course, I wrote about the beach.

The weekend was gorgeous. Stuck at home Thursday and Friday, Westporters flocked to Compo. Some wore masks. Most did not. Some practiced that new concept: social distancing. Others did not.

Compo Beach, March 13, 2020 (Photo/Jo Shields Sherman)

Alarmed, Marpe shut the Compo and Burying Hill parking lots, and the Compo playground.

Some Westporters applauded his action.

Others protested. They drove to the beach, and parked up and down Soundview Drive.

Police issued tickets. But they were playing whack-a-mole. As soon as one beachgoer left, another arrived.

With the parking lot closed, folks parked up and down the exit road.

All that was within the first 96 hours of COVID in Westport.

It’s been here since.

I realized quickly that I would not run out of stories.

The pandemic has affected every aspect of life here. I’ve written about:

  • The return of college students and 20-somethings to their parents’ homes
  • The continued fallout from “the party”
  • Mental and physical health
  • Westporters of all ages coming together: teenagers shopping for the elderly; women making masks (and yarn bombing trees); churches providing meals; children painting positive messages on rocks
  • Where to find toilet paper, paper towels and Lysol
  • Businesses and restaurants that closed — and new ones that opened
  • Pop-up entertainment, like the Remarkable Theater and a Staples grad who sings opera
  • How to access business loans and other help
  • Hybrid education, Staples’ unique graduation, and the virtual Candlelight Concert
  • 12-step programs, religious services and more online
  • App developers who help the world trace contacts, visualize impacts, connect with others
  • Virtual programming: the Westport Library, JoyRide, non-profit fundraisers and more
  • Where to get tested, and how to get a vaccine.

One of the yarn bomber’s first works, at fire headquarters. (Photo/Molly Alger)

One year ago today, I stood on the steps of Town Hall. I still thought I could get to New York that night.

I haven’t been back since.

This has been a year like no other. Every man, woman and child in Westport has been affected.

We’ve lost 28 neighbors. Over 1,400 here have been diagnosed with COVID. If we did not believe that COVID was real on March 10 last year, we sure did on March 11.

Soon, “06880” will look ahead. We’ll try to figure out what March 11, 2022 will feel like.

But today, let’s look back. We want to hear your thoughts on the past year.

What did the town do right? Wrong? What are you most proud of, or regret the most? How did your life change?

Click “Comments” below.

And remember: Wear a mask!

James Dobin-Smith created the OneWestport.com website in a matter of days. It provided up to date information on what’s open and cloed, all around town.

COVID Update

Here is 1st Selectman Jim Marpe’s weekly COVID update:

This week we saw great progress in the fight against COVID-19, and some return to normalcy.

Governor Lamont announced some easing of COVID-19 restrictions over the next couple of months. Individuals age 55 and over, along with educators and childcare professionals, became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, and the Westport Weston Health District (WWHD) hosted the first COVID-19 vaccination clinic dedicated to school personnel at Staples High School.

Health officials continue to emphasize mask wearing, social distancing and good hygiene, even as restrictions are loosened and the vaccine is further distributed.

Governor Lamont’s plans for the 2021 spring season include the following:

  • An executive order immediately opens the fishing season by removing the closed seasons on all inland waters in Connecticut, and opens additional lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams to fishing statewide.
  • Effective March 19, the occupancy limits for many places of business, restaurants, cultural institutions, libraries, offices, and houses of worship will be removed, although COVID protocols must continue to be observed. Indoor occupancy limits will be increased to 25 indoors and 100 outdoors. For commercial venues, those caps are 100 and 200 respectively. Subject to Department of Public Health guidance, all sports will be allowed to practice and compete, and all sports tournaments will be allowed.
  • Effective April 2, summer camps and festivals are advised they may begin planning to open for the upcoming season. Additional information can be found here.

Summer camps may be open again this year.

In Westport, I am pleased to announce that plans are underway for a summer that will look more like what we normally experienced in past years.

  • The Levitt Pavilion is planning its season, to be held in compliance with any necessary COVID considerations related to outdoor venues.
  • The Board of Selectmen approved the use of the Imperial Avenue parking lot for the Remarkable Theater’s Drive-In movie theater, and for The Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce and Westport Library’s Supper and Soul events.
  • The Parks and Recreation Department is currently preparing to open its facilities, and plans to offer programs that were not available last year due to COVID-19. They will strive to create safe environments for all facility users and program participants by following best practices and state guidelines.

The Remarkable Theater will be back, with movies and events like Supper and Soul concerts. (Drone photo/John Videler for Videler Photography)

While the easing of these restrictions, as well as the relief from the vaccine, is encouraging, we cannot and should not put our guards down when it comes to the pandemic. All protocols that relate to face coverings, social distancing, and cleaning measures must be maintained. Although current vaccines do not contain the virus that causes COVID-19, there is a possibility that the virus may be contracted from another source. People may remain asymptomatic and contagious even after vaccination. I strongly urge all residents and businesses to follow the State’s reopening guidelines.

The CDC’s latest guidance on mask wearing can be found here.

Update from the Westport Human Service’s Department:

The Department of Human Services and the WWHD seek the community’s help in identifying residents who are experiencing technical difficulties scheduling their COVID-19 vaccination appointments or who require a home vaccination appointment. Seniors ages 65+ and individuals ages 55+ years old with disabilities who require local appointments or a home visit to receive their vaccine should call 203-341-5037 or email humansrv@westportct.gov for assistance.

If you or a loved one are genuinely homebound, please contact the Human Services Department for an assessment of eligibility to receive a home visit for vaccination. Homebound persons include those who require medical equipment to leave their home safely and whose medical provider has advised them not to leave their home due to medical vulnerability.

Registration for the Vaccine:

Vaccine eligible residents are encouraged to make vaccine appointments at any available vaccination clinic, and not wait for an appointment specifically with WWHD. It is anticipated that as supplies to the Health District increase, additional clinic appointments will become available.

Those who are currently eligible to register for the COVID-19 vaccination include:

  • Healthcare personnel
  • Long-term care facility residents
  • Medical first responders
  • Residents and staff of select congregate settings
  • Individuals 55 and older
  • Educators and child care providers:  Pre-K – 12 teachers, paraprofessionals, custodial staff, food service providers, school bus drivers and childcare providers as well as in-school administrative staff. This does not include individuals who are not required to work on-site in a school.

To view a statewide list and map of COVID-19 vaccine clinics click here, enter your zip code in the location box on the right and press the yellow search icon.

Vaccination appointments can be made utilizing the following tools:

  • The Vaccine Administration Management System can be used to schedule appointments at multiple clinics across the state. Click here.
  • Call Connecticut’s COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment Assist Line: Open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., 7 days a week: 877-918-2224.
  • Hartford HealthCare: Multiple locations throughout the state, including large clinics in the Hartford area. Click here.
  • Yale New Haven Health: Multiple locations throughout the state, including large clinics in the New Haven area. Click here.
  • Stamford Health: 7 days a week at Stamford Hospital. Click here.

For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19 vaccination distribution plans in Connecticut, visit ct.gov/covidvaccine.

COVID Vaccine, Restriction Rollback Update:

State Senator Will Haskell offers this COVID-19 update:

Connecticut this week received 39,000 doses of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, in addition to the thousands of Moderna and Pfizer doses already being distributed on a regular basis. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe, effective, and requires only 1 injection, so we’ll be able to accelerate the rate of immunization significantly in the coming weeks and months.

Currently, 74 percent of state residents over the age of 75 have received at least 1 dose of the vaccine; 59 percent between 65 and 74 have received at least 1 dose, and 17 percent between 55 and 64 have received at least 1 dose. I’m proud that we’ve administered over 1 million vaccine doses.

In light of our vaccination success and the overall decline of COVID-19 cases, Governor Lamont has also announced the rollback of certain social distancing restrictions beginning March 19th, including the full capacity reopening of indoor restaurants.

These new restrictions reflect that we’re moving closer to a fully reopened economy. In the meantime, it is important that all employees and customers continue to wear masks, stay 6feet apart, and wash their hands frequently. The more we do those things, the more likely it is that we will be able to fully reopen and put this pandemic behind us in the near future.

Scarice: After Vacation, Quarantine Or Test!

All week long, Westport schools have been on winter break. 

As in years past, families headed on vacation. They skied in Vermont and Colorado. They swam in Florida, and snorkeled off St. Martin.

But this year is not like all those others. We are still in a pandemic. Governor Lamont has issued travel mandates. Connecticut residents must take precautions — testing and quarantining — when returning from out of state.

Today, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice said:

Dear Westport Families and Staff,

As we head into the final weekend of the winter break I want to remind everyone of Governor Lamont’s Executive order 9S, regarding travel.

Students and staff returning from travel to anywhere other than New Jersey, New York or Rhode Island, where they have stayed longer than 24 hours, are required by law to follow this executive order.

Governor Ned Lamont’s order on out-of-state travel includes $500 fines.

We want to remind families to continue reporting positive COVID-19 cases of students using our reporting voicemail or email regardless of whether the students are in remote or hybrid models of instruction. Please follow this link for more information on reporting.

As noted last week, the travel guidance linked and outlined below is important information as the winter break draws to a close, but it remains critical for families and staff to remember that smaller social gatherings with family and friends have an equal, if not greater potential, for transmission of COVID-19 if mask wearing and other critical mitigation measures aren’t followed.

Thank you again for your help in following this guidance. Enjoy the weekend, and we look forward to seeing everyone next week!

As noted on Westport Local Press:

New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are exempt from this advisory, and do not require quarantine or COVID-19 testing.

Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and all other states or countries are not exempt. If you visited any non-exempt state for more than 24 hours within the past 10 days:

    • All students and families must fill out the State Travel Health Form regardless of COVID-19 testing.

    • All students and families must quarantine when they return home to Connecticut, and must remain in quarantine for 10 days since last contact with the affected state.

    • Quarantine may be left if a rapid or PCR COVID-19 test was administered, and returned negative. The test can be administered up to 72 hours before returning to the Connecticut, or anytime thereafter. Results must be submitted to the Commissioner of Public Health .

Failure to quarantine, receive COVID-19 testing, and/or submit accurate State Travel Forms will result in a $500 civil penalty per violation (per family member, and/or per time leaving quarantine)

All positive COVID-19 cases for Westport Public Schools students or staff (virtual or in-person learnings) must be reported to the District by email or phone.

Anonymous reporting of people not adhering to the Connecticut Travel Advisory can be submitted online here.

Connecticut has strict rules for travelers returning from destinations like Cancun. Other states — for example, Texas — are less stringent.

 

Scarice: More Staples Students Return To School; Attendance, Social Gathering Updates

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice sent this email to Westport families yesterday:

As we round into our February vacation I would like to provide the school community with some updates.

Elementary Schools Update
Our elementary schools began to welcome back students for full time in-person instruction on January 28.

Our faculty, staff and administrators have done an outstanding job in safely and successfully bringing our students back. It is not the classroom of last year. This is a primary drawback.

Yet, the environment is most welcoming and positive based on the outstanding professionals in our schools. Additionally, the full instructional model, within limits based on our mitigating measures, can be fully implemented.

We will continue to make changes and modifications along the way, but it is certainly safe to say that we have successfully kicked off the second half of the year, and this success can be attributed to the teachers, leaders and support staff in our schools.

Middle School Learning Model
We have also had a very successful start to the full reopening of Bedford and Coleytown Middle Schools.

The first phase of this model included all students attending full days, four days a week, with a half remote day on Wednesdays. This phase will continue going forward and will be revisited in approximately 4-6 weeks.

There continues to be approximately 10% of our students engaged in full distance learning at the middle schools. These Wednesdays are invaluable for the planning and preparation teachers need to keep these students on pace for the current school year.

In addition, due to the need to provide appropriate supervision of students at arrival and dismissal (i.e. enforce COVID rules, prevent congregating, etc.) we have encroached on the time that is reserved for teachers before and after school, and as a result we moved some required professional meetings to Wednesdays.  For these reasons the current phase including half remote days on Wednesdays will continue at the middle schools for the time being.

Staples Learning Model Update
As mentioned in a previous message, there has been an effort to increase on-site learning for students at Staples High School, particularly after a successful start to full on-site schooling at the elementary and middle school levels.

The first phase of this effort will begin March 1. Although Staples Principal Stafford Thomas is sharing details to the Staples community regarding the calendar and schedule as it relates to individual students, I would like to make the entire Westport school community aware of the overall plan.

This next phase learning model for March is intended to increase on-site attendance to a 75% capacity.  All students will attend Staples three full days a week while a distance learning option remains available.

As spring nears, 75% of Staples students will return to campus. (Photo/Jennifer Kobetitsch)

The current Staples model is designed to instruct 50% of the student body through an A/B cohort model (i.e. cohort A and cohort B each attend on-site two days a week, Monday/Tuesday for cohort A and Thursday/Friday for cohort B with Wednesday serving as a half remote day).

The 75% capacity model will recategorize students from the current two cohorts (A, B) to four cohorts (A, B, C, D). Each day three of the four cohorts will attend at a time, thus 75%. Wednesday will remain a half remote day.

I will continue to review each change on a 4-6 week basis. If this model is successful and if indicators continue to stabilize, there will be the introduction of the next phase of increasing access to on-site schooling at Staples.

Attendance:  Absent but Present Online (APO)
In my last message I mentioned the challenge facing our teachers as secondary students invoke the “absent but present online” attendance option. In short, the abuse of this provision has been significantly disruptive to the learning environment to all students.

In response, clearer guidelines will be shared by the middle and high school principals for implementation beginning February 22. Choosing to attend class remotely when a student is an “in-person” learner will not be an option unless there is a verified medical reason. More information will be forthcoming. It is critical that parents support our efforts in this regard so that we can continue to successfully implement full in-person learning models.

Travel and Social Gatherings
Travel guidance was sent to parents in a separate message today. Quarantining after travel, or obtaining a negative COVID test, remains in effect.

However, another rule that remains in effect is the cap of 10 people for private social gatherings. We have experienced very few positive COVID cases as a result of travelling. In fact, many can be traced to social gatherings.

No more than 10 people should gather together, according to current guidelines.

As the infection rates drop, and hopefully continues, it is essential that parents, students and all Westport Public Schools staff do their part to avoid social gatherings for the time being. This will go a long way in minimizing opportunities for the virus to enter our schools so that we can continue to remain fully opened at the K-8 level, with increased access at Staples.

Although threats remain, the faint light at the end of the tunnel continues to brighten. Vaccines are coming, days are getting longer (and eventually will get warmer), infection rates continue to drop, and we continue to welcome more students to our schools on a regular basis.

I hope that each of you stay safe and enjoy the February vacation.

Scarice Addresses Absence Abuses, Distance Learning, Outside Gatherings And More

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.

Who will show up each day? No one knows.

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.

A distance learner, hard at work.

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.

A date has not yet been set to fully reopen Staples High school. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

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.

In A Pandemic, Telemedicine Thrives

Doxy.me had a 10-year growth plan.

They achieved it in about 2 months.

That’s not surprising. Doxy.me is a telemedicine company. They link clinicians and patients over the internet or phone. It’s simple (no downloads required). And it’s free. (Revenue comes from premium features.)

The pandemic has fueled exponential growth in telemedicine. Colin Livingston — Doxy’s resolution support manager (aka troubleshooter and tech support guy) — has not had a day off since he joined the company last March.

Headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina, it’s a global company. But — just as with telemedicine — employees can work anywhere. Livingston — a 1995 Staples High  School graduate — has an office in the same house he grew up in.

He adores Westport: the arts, culture, dog park, beach and Longshore. Many Staples friends still live in the area.

Colin Livingston and friend.

But the demands of COVID mean that Livingston spends even parts of weekends and holidays at work.

He believes strongly in Doxy’s mission: that everyone, everywhere, can access medical professionals, without ads or complex technology.

The coronavirus may herald a permanent shift to telemedicine, he says. “People see how easy it is not to get in a car to see someone.”

Doxy’s users include COVID clinics, therapists, even veterinarians. “You feel comfortable being able to see your dog or cat,” he notes.

After working previously for the company, Livingston was brought back in the explosive, early-growth days of the pandemic. He recalls being in CVS a few days after Westport’s infamous “super-spreader” party. Someone coughed in a way he’d never heard before. He turned and left.

Befitting someone who spends his days involved with telehealth, Livingston takes precautions. He orders takeout from restaurants. On the golf course, he and his partners stay socially distant.

Still, he says, “if I didn’t have golf and my bike last summer, it would have been really bad.”

Mostly though, he’s home.

“Everyone talks about all the TV shows they’ve seen,” he says of the new normal.

“I haven’t watched any at all. Pretty much from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., I’m at work.”