Tag Archives: COVID

Unsung Heroes #288

Graduating students are called many things.

Most are boilerplate: “Talented.” “Hard-working.” “The future.”

They are seldom called “heroes.”

There are several ways to define that term. One is “a person who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, courage, or strength.”

When they receive their diplomas next week, the nearly 500 young men and women in Staples High School’s Class of 2023 will know that they have faced — and overcome — adversity.

In the spring of freshman year — as they rounded the corner toward a time when finally they feel fully comfortable in their new school, and really begin enjoying their time there — their world abruptly changed.

For 3 months, COVID forced them to learn at home. They struggled with isolation, depression, and teachers who struggled too.

Despite uncertainty and fear, many 9th graders reached out to friends, neighbors, strangers (and their teachers) to see how they could help.

In the spring of 2020, James Dobin-Smith quickly created the OneWestport.com website. It provided up-to-date information on what’s open and closed, all around town. It’s still live.

Some of those students — though certainly not all — returned to campus for the fall of sophomore year. They spent the year wearing masks, following 1-way arrows in the hall, separated from friends by Plexiglass at cafeteria tables.

Sports schedules were truncated. The drama program was curtailed. The Candlelight Concert went virtual.

And in the classroom, students and teachers still struggled with “hybrid learning.”

It may not have been a lost year. But it came close.

in the 2020-21 school year, athletes competed in masks. (Photo/Dylan Goodman)

Junior year was a bit more normal. This year has been even more so. But the scars — the fears, the solitude, the years of high school shattered — still linger.

The soon-to-graduate seniors faced adversity even before the pandemic. They were in Coleytown Middle School when it was closed by mold. They were crammed into Bedford and Staples — fun, but a further disruption of their education.

“I’m not gonna lie,” to use a popular teenage expression. Our Staples seniors were hardly the only ones to face adversity. Students in most school districts across the country — not to mention billions of other people around the globe — faced far worse.

But obstacles are not a contest. We should not try to discount anyone’s experiences, for any reasons.

So today’s Unsung Heroes are each and every member of Staples High School’s Class of 2023.

Congratulations on getting through high school (as every graduating class is told). And, for you in particular, for doing it with ingenuity, courage and strength.

Our “06880” hats — and mortarboards — are off to you.

(Do you know an Unsung Hero? Email 06880blog@gmail.com)

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Roundup: Lisa Newman, Jaden Waldman, Teens And COVID …

Representative Town Meeting District 8 will be looking for a new member soon.

Lisa Newman resigned yesterday. In a letter to colleagues, she wrote:

“This was not an easy decision, as I love serving the town with you, but it’s the right move at this time.

“As many of you know, I went back to school last year to pursue my law degree. I’ve loved being on this new path so far, but it has taken a lot of time and attention. Over the last few months, I’ve realized I need to preserve as much of my time as I can for my children – something that would be impossible to do once we enter budget season. And it’s not fair to my district or the RTM for me to hold a seat that I cannot fully commit to (plus those who know me know I can’t do anything half way!).

“So as much as I’m going to miss those late, late nights in the auditorium with all of you (haha – but will I?? 🙃), I realize the right thing to do — for my family and the seat -0 is to resign. I’m hopeful that doing this now will create enough time to get someone seated in District 8 ahead of budget season/committee meetings.

“Of course, this is not goodbye – I still expect lots of updates from the trenches and, make no mistake, I’ll be watching the meetings and texting many of you in real time with my nonsense. I also plan to stop by the Feb. 7 meeting before it begins to say a proper goodbye in person.

“And you never know – when life calms down and my kids get a bit older, I might just be back. There just aren’t enough attorneys on the RTM.😎”

Lisa Newman


Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The night before, Jaden Waldman helped honor it. The Bedford Middle School 7th grader sang in an emotional Carnegie Hall concert

The “We Are Here” event drew dignitaries from all over the world. The all-star lineup of presenters and performers included Joel Grey, Harvey Fierstein, Chita Rivera and Shoshana Bean.

Jaden Waldman, on stage. (Photo/Tom McDonald)

“Songs from Songbooks” — written by Jews in ghettos and camps, and discovered after liberation — were sung in honor of survivors and in memory of those that perished. 

Jaden most recently originated the lead role of Noah Gellman in Broadway’s “Caroline, or Change.” He starred as Ben for 2 years in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and performed in the “Ragtime on Ellis Island” concert.

Jaden has voiced lead characters in “Star Wars: Visions,” “Pinkalicious & Peterrific” and “Mirai.” His TV credits include “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “The Plot Against America.” Jaden is in the feature film “Give or Take,” and the upcoming short film “Curls.”

Click here for the program, and details.

Jaden Waldman at Carnegie Hall.


Positive Directions’ next “Lunch and Learn” covers “Helping Teens Navigate Loss After COVID.”

The March 2 event (noon to 1:30 p.m., Westport Weston Family YMCA) will be led by Malaika Boyer-Seme, a licensed professional counselor associate with Positive Directions. For more information, click here.

Malaika Boyer-Seme


Thursday’s “Cocktails and Conversation” at MoCA featured talk about “the intertwined nature of style, and how we use creativity to define a look that is our own.”

Panelists included WEST owner Kitt Shapiro, photographer Jane Beiles, content creator and Designport founder Jen Berniker, and “social artrepreneur” Diana Mashia.

At next week’s “Cocktails and Conversation,” Alexandra M. Thomas leads a curator talk about the current exhibition, “Paul Camacho: El Ritmo y La Unidad.” Click here to register.

Enjoying the MoCA exhibit: Vernice Holmes and Sue Donato. (Photo/Leslie LaSala)


Staples High School’s January Student of the Month are seniors Frankie Lockenour and Claire Sandhaus, juniors Moses Beary and Curtis Sullivan, sophomores Luca Caniato and Shane Sandrew, and freshmen Matthew Anto and Annabelle Katz.

The program recognizes students who help make Staples High School a welcoming place for peers and teachers. “They are the ‘glue’ of the Staples community: the type of kind, cheerful, hard-working, trustworthy students that keep the high school together, making it the special place that it is.”

All candidates are nominated by teachers.

Staples High School’s January Students of the Month (from left): Claire Sandhaus, Luca Caniato, Frankie Lockenour, Shane Sandrew, Annabelle Katz, Moses Beary, Curtis Sullivan, Matthew Anto


There’s always something special at the Westport Farmers’ Market.

Next month, it’s extra special.

On the first 2 Thursdays — February 2 and 9 (Gilbertie’s Herbs & Garden Center, 7 Sylvan Lane, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) — you can drop off gently used winter coats, mittens, hats and gloves, plus medical supplies. All are desperately needed in Ukraine.

Cash contributions to help with shipping costs are always needed.

Questions? Want to help? Email Mark Yurkiw: mark.think3d@gmail.com.


Carl Addison Swanson’s latest book, “Blind Bigot,” is now available at Amazon

“The inner bigotry and hate of a suburban commercial banker comes to light after he suffers from a horrific medical procedure,” the bookseller says. Booklist describes it as “a nasty look at ourselves. A page-turner.”

Swanson — a longtime Westport resident, and member of Staples High School’s Class of 1966 — is an award winning author of 54 novels. They include the Hush McCormick series, Tug Christian thrillers, Scooter mysteries, Ian Fletcher legal series, Justin Carmichael nostalgic memoirs, 5 books of short stories, and 5 stand-alone books.  

He has co-authored 10 books with editor Jo Ann Miller. Five of his works have been optioned to the film industry, including the latest Hush McCormick trilogy to DreamWorks. 

Swanson earned a Presidential Unit Citation for his service in Vietnam. He is CEO of Bermuda’s CAS Publications, and  is a contributing editor at Hearst Communications.  


Former Westport resident Abraham Nad died peacefully yesterday at United Hebrew Geriatric Center in New Rochelle, New York. He was 92.

Born in Houston, he graduated from Rice University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa. He also earned a master’s degree from Columbia University.

Abraham served in the National Guard and Navy from 1952 to 1954. He worked as an accountant and publisher, eventually opening Directors’ Publications.

Abraham loved to travel, and was an avid fan of classical music and the arts. He was a longtime member of Temple Israel, serving on its Board of Trustees, and a supporter of the Westport Arts Center.

Abraham is survived by his daughters Karen Bernstein (Peter) and Laurie Desjardins; grandchildren Rebecca Anne Bernstein (Justan Dakes) and Benjamin Jacob Bernstein (Jocelyn Ezratty), and great-grandson Lucas Joshua Dakes.  He was predeceased by his wife Elsa Nad in 2015.

Funeral services will take place tomorrow (Sunday, January 29, 10 a.m., Temple Israel Cemetery in Norwalk). Memorial contributions may be made to the Nad/Schiff Special Children’s Fund at Temple Israel. Click here to leave a condolence message.

The Nad family extends deep love and gratitude to United Hebrew Geriatric Center for their love, care and grace over the past 4 years.


Today’s “Westport … Naturally” feature shows yesterday’s sunrise. Katherine Jacob captured all its glory, at Schlaet’s Point on Hillspoint Road.

(Photo/Katherine Jacob)


And finally … Philadelphia is mourning the death of Jerry Blavat.

The former TV dancer became “the most influential disc jockey in the Delaware Valley thanks to his third-rail energy, fantastical wordplay and finely honed instincts for the particular rhythms of his native city. He died last week at 82, from an autoimmune neuromuscular disease.

“The Geator with the Heater” had an outsize influence on the music scene of his day, thanks to his radio, television and concert efforts. Flags flew at half-staff throughout the region, in his honor.

While still in high school, he was a road manager for Danny & the Juniors:

He is credited by many in the radio industry with inventing the concept of “oldies.”

And among the many groups he is credited with helping break out nationally: the Isley Brothers.

 Click here for a full obituary.

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Aaaah-Choo! All The Info On RSV, Flu And COVID

How are you feeling?

If you’re like many Westporters: not great.

A “tripledemic” — COVID, RSV and flu — has slammed our town, and many others.

The other day, Concierge Physicians of Westport sent this information (from the Centers for Disease Control) to patients. 

Chuck Greenlee thought the rest of us non-concierge patients should see it too. CPW graciously agreed. Here you go:

What is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in 1-2 weeks, but RSV can be serious, especially in infants and older adults.

It can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, when you have direct contact with a person who has the virus, such as kissing a baby, or when you touch a surface with the virus on it and then touch your face before washing your hands. People with RSV are usually contagious for 3 to 8 days, and can become contagious 2 to 3 days before having symptoms.

Diagnosis: The most common is the rapid diagnostic test. This test looks for RSV RNA in nasal secretions. The results are usually available in 1 hour.

Treatment: Supportive. There are no specific antivirals

Prevention: There are no vaccines against RSV

What is Influenza?

Influenza (“flu”) is a contagious respiratory virus that can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can even lead to death, even in healthy children and adults. Symptoms include fever, chills, headache, sore throat, runny nose, body and muscle aches, cough, and less commonly nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

It spreads similarly to RSV.

Diagnosis: Rapid diagnostic tests are becoming the gold standard. Performed by swabbing nasopharyngeal or throat secretions results are available in 15-30 minutes.

Treatment: Specific antiviral flu drugs can decrease the risk of serious complications, hospitalization and death and also shorten the duration of symptoms. Antivirals work best when given within 48 hours of when symptoms appear.

Prevention: The best way to prevent flu is to receive a vaccination every year. The CDC recommends that everyone age 6 months and older get vaccinated annually. The best time to get vaccinated is in the fall, before influenza viruses begin spreading in your community. However, vaccination throughout the flu season is still beneficial.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a viral disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, a coronavirus discovered in 2019. Some people who are infected may not have symptoms. For people who have symptoms, illness can range from mild to severe. Adults 65 years and older and people of any age with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness.

The virus spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.

Diagnosis: Three main types of tests confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis:

NAATs (such as PCR based tests) are most often performed in a laboratory or clinic setting. They are typically the most reliable tests for people with or without symptoms.

Antigen tests produce results in 15-30 minutes. They are less reliable than NAATs, especially for people who do not have symptoms. To best detect infection, a negative antigen test should be repeated at least 48 hours apart.

Self (or “at-home” tests) are usually antigen tests that can be taken anywhere without having to go to a testing site. Follow FDA and manufacturer’s instructions, including the number of times you may need to test.

Treatment: Depends on the severity of infection and is constantly evolving. There are antiviral drugs for COVID-19.

Prevention: People ages 5 years and older should complete the COVID-19 primary series vaccines and boosters (including mix and match shots) to prevent getting and spreading the illness.

How can I stay healthy?

Avoid contact with people who are sick. If you need to be around a sick individual, wear a well fitting mask (N95 or surgical) and make sure to cover your mouth and nose.

Stay home if you have symptoms such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath.
Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve, not your hands.

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand rub that contains 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.

VACCINATE yourself against influenza and COVID.

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COVID, Flu, RSV: Looking Ahead To Winter

Right now, Bridgeport Hospital is caring for 30 COVID patients.

That’s down drastically from the height of the pandemic, when they filled 300 beds.

Most of us no longer wear masks. We’ve stopped social distancing; we gather once again in large groups, and greet relatives and friends with hugs and kisses.

But we would be foolish to let our guards down too much and too fast, says Zane Saul.

He should know. The 32-year resident of Westport and Weston is Bridgeport Hospital’s chief of infectious diseases.

Dr. Zane Saul

He was on the front lines, when the coronavirus roared across the globe. He remembers those early days of terror, confusion, and the all-hands-on-deck, throw-whatever-we’ve-got-at-it approach that was all he and his colleagues could do for nearly a year, until vaccines were developed, produced and shipped.

Now, he says, most people in this area have been vaccinated. That, along with monoclonal antibodies, means that although people still contract COVID, they’re not as sick as before.

They’re not intubated as often. They’re not dying as much.

Dr. Saul says a very obese, unvaccinated woman was admitted this fall to Bridgeport Hospital. She spent several weeks on a respirator.

But she made it. Two years ago, she would not have.

Now, the weather is turning cold. People spend more time indoors. We’re excited for the first big holiday gatherings in 3 years.

The number of COVID cases will rise again, Dr. Saul says.

It’s not back. It never left.

So will diagnoses of flu and respiratory syncytial virus — RSV, which is especially dangerous to infants and young children. Bridgeport Hospital’s pediatric wing is already full of young RSV patients, Dr. Saul says.

The reason for the triple rise is simple. After 2 years of masks — which limited the spread of not only COVID, but other diseases — we are once again breathing on and close to each other.

What can we do?

“Get a flu shot!” Dr. Saul urges. “It’s effective. The match to this year’s strain is very good.

“If you’re sick, stay home. COVID quarantine is only 5 days now. Basic handwashing is important too.”

Dr. Zane Saul says …

And of course: Get your vaccines and booster shots.

Dr. Saul knows that “COVID fatigue” is real. He understands that people are tired of hearing they should get yet another booster vaccine.

But they should.

“I can’t blame them for how they feel,” Dr. Saul says. “Still, COVID isn’t gone. The latest variant lasts longer. It’s not a walk in the park.

“But with vaccines and boosters, you won’t get as sick. You won’t get hospitalized. You won’t die.”

Dr. Saul began training in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. For years, patients died. Then in 1995, “cocktail” medications became available. HIV is now a manageable disease.

He thought AIDS was the worst he’d ever see. Three decades later, he faced the “exhausting and terrifying” COVID pandemic.

Though everyone is eager to get back to their pre-2020 lives, the threat remains.

So, Dr. Saul says: Be smart. Take advice seriously.

And “listen to science. Science is good. It’s gotten us to where we are now.”

Which — even in Bridgeport Hospital — is a pretty good place.

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Bridgeport Hospital

COVID And Divorce: Carole Orland Splits The Difference

The crucible of COVID drew many couples together.

Spending much more time than usual together, sharing parenting and household and professional duties like never before, they found strength and bonds that may have frayed over the years.

But the pandemic also caused many marriages to founder.

Stuck at home, without the usual distractions of offices and friends, some couples grew apart. Partners magnified their spouses’ flaws — real or imagined. Add in kid issues, mental health challenges and more, and the stresses mounted.

Maybe they had talked about divorce before the virus. Maybe not.

Either way, Carole Orland says, they’re talking about it now.

She should know. A partner at Westport-based Broder Orland Murray & DeMattie, she — and the firm — specialize in family law.

Which often means “divorce.”

Carole Orland

It sounds like a difficult specialty. But, the Worcester native and longtime Westport resident says, it is “an opportunity to help people who are in a bad way. It’s rewarding to see the process. By the end they feel better about themselves and their circumstances. They’re ready for their lives to really take off.”

Orland also likes the chance to be involved in other areas of law, like trusts and estates, and torts. She has a wide range of clients — in finance, business, sports, entertainment and blue-collar jobs — and learns something new in every case.

She learns about law. And she learns about human nature.

Is it depressing?

“That’s not the right word,” she counters. “It’s sad, sometimes. You see emotions, afflictions, addictions, abuse — bad stuff. My challenge is to get them to a better place. It’s not just about the divorce itself. We don’t just drop them off at the end.”

COVID shut down her office in March 2020, as it did many others. But they reopened in mid-May. Courts were closed; remote proceedings had not yet begun.

But the floodgates opened. And she has been busy ever since.

The pandemic changed how divorce looks, Orland says. As more fathers work and spend time at home, child custody arrangements evolve.

Employment is different too. COVID caused some people to reassess their work. “High flyers may not be in jobs that are as lucrative now,” Orland notes. “And other people lost their jobs.”

At the same time, people used the pandemic to move to higher-paying careers. Others found themselves in industries, like real estate, which boomed.

All of those situations force new looks at divorce settlements already in place. That’s even more work for Orland.

Not all of her job involves splits. She also arranges pre-nuptials. Marriages declined during the worst months of COVID. Now there’s a rush to the altar — and more clients.

“We were crazy busy before,” Orland says. “Now it’s really insane.”

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Friday Flashback #288

It was 2 years ago — right around now — that COVID came to Westport.

They’ve been 2 very, very long years. At times, it seems like 2 centuries.

There is so much about the virus we know now  And there was so much about what lay ahead that we had absolutely no clue of.

Here’s how “06880” reported that first day, when — suddenly, justlikethat — the entire town shut down.


The weather outside Town Hall was springlike and beautiful.

The faces on the officials arrayed on the front steps were grim.

First selectman Jim Marpe, Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper, Westport Public Schools director of administration John Bayers and others outlined today’s rapid developments regarding COVID-19.

Flanked by town officials, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announces the latest COVID-19 news. From left: Fire Chief and town emergency management head Robert Yost; Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper; Police Chief Foti Koskinas; Westport Public Schools director of administration John Bayers; 2nd Selectwoman Jen Tooker, and 3rd Selectwoman Melissa Kane.

Last Thursday (March 5), approximately 40 people attended a private party in Westport.

One attendee — a man from an unnamed other nation — was there. He’d been in the US, and was headed home. He did not feel ill.

When he returned to his home country, he developed flu-like symptoms. WWHD officials received verbal notification today that he tested positive for COVID-19.

Of the 40 or so attendees at the party, approximately 14 have since reported flu-like symptoms. “We’re making the assumption it’s COVID-19,” Cooper said. The Health District is compiling a list of all attendees, and assessing their conditions.

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

Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper.

The party included school-age children. When education officials learned the news, shortly before noon, they made the decision to close all Westport public schools.

Schools will be closed — along with all related activities — for an undetermined period of time. Meanwhile, deep cleaning of all buildings will begin.

“The schools have been working closely for several weeks with the Health District,” Bayers noted. “Our plans were accelerated today.”

His office will communicate information about next steps for students tonight and tomorrow. More updates will follow, in the days ahead.

Westport Public Schools director of administration John Bayers.

Also closed: Town Hall.

Marpe announced it will be shut tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday. Officials will spend time determining how best to offer essential services to the public, while maintenance staff performs deep cleaning.

All municipal meetings are canceled for “the foreseeable future,” Marpe said. The first casualties: Thursday’s Planning & Zoning and Board of Finance sessions.

Human Services Department head Elaine Daignault noted that — as announced earlier today — the Senior Center is closed. The Toquet Hall teen center is similarly shut.

Senior Center director Sue Pfister (far right) listens to the press conference.

Daignault reiterated that staff will assist anyone, such as seniors and people with financial need, despite the closures. Meals to homebound residents will continue to be delivered. For questions or more information, call 203-341-1050.

“We’ll maintain essential services,” she said, urging Westporters to be “good neighbors” to those in need.

Westport Library director Bill Harmer said that his facility will be closed tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday for deep cleaning. Meanwhile, the staff will devise plans moving forward.

The library will reopen Monday for “essential services” only: book checkouts, and reference questions. Harmer encouraged residents to use the library’s extensive digital resources.

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

The Parks & Recreation Department is limiting the use of fields. The goal is to “avoid gatherings,” Marpe said.

Marpe called the COVID-19 crisis “a constantly evolving situation,” then asked for questions.

In response to one about the availability of test kits, Cooper said that the Health District has been told, “they’re coming.”

Marpe has spoken with Governor Ned Lamont about the issue.

“He’s as frustrated as we are that the kits are not available yet,” the first selectman said. “He’s using every technique possible to get them.”

Marpe reiterated the basic health advice — “wash your hands!” — and noted the importance of avoiding large gatherings.

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

Long COVID: One Woman’s Story

Laurie* was active. She led full, rewarding professional and social lives. She’d always eaten well, taken vitamins and supplements, and exercised faithfully. She was double vaxxed against COVID, and boosted.

On December 28 she tested positive for the virus. Besides a brief period when her oxygen level plummeted, she had mild symptoms: a slight sniffle and cough.

“That was easy,” she thought.

Six weeks later, the after-effects hit.

Laurie felt like she was hungover — all the time. Her eyes were sensitive to light. Her brain was foggy. She forgot things, like what day it was or where she’d parked her car. Her hands shook.

She was constantly exhausted. At 11:30 a.m., she could barely hold her head up. She napped for 2 hours at midday. At night she had trouble sleeping.

After 20 years of yoga and Pilates, she could not even walk down the street.

“I had no life, no vitality,” Laurie says.

Laurie’s internist did blood work, but said nothing could help.

Week after week, Laurie’s symptoms dragged on. Fortunately, she says, she did not feel sorry for herself, or fall into depression.

“Maybe it’s because I was proactive,” she suggests. “I tried to find solutions. I didn’t sit around thinking ‘woe is me.'”

Finally, her holistic chiropractor suggested increasing her daily dose of curcumin. She also started red light therapy and infrared saunas at Restore Cryotherapy.

Over the past few days, Laurie has started to feel better. She is not sure she’s out of the woods, though. She knows she could relapse.

She’s telling her story because she wants to help people understand COVID. Many friends were sympathetic. Colleagues covered for her at work.

But some people could not empathize. She hopes that sharing her struggle will help readers become more knowledgeable about the effects of the virus.

Laurie is not “the” face of COVID. The disease takes many forms. It runs its course in many ways.

But she is one face of COVID.

And she is a reminder that our fight against it is a long way from over.

*Not her real name. For medical privacy, she asked to be identified by a different name.

Unmasked Monday

Today, the masks come off.

Since August 2020, Westport schools have been under a mask mandate. For 18 months, everyone — students, staff, custodians, cafeteria workers, the few visitors allowed in — has spent every minute inside with half their face covered.

Seniors in high school, kindergarteners, principals — it did not matter how old or young you were. If you were in school, you wore a mask.

Students watching lessons at home via Zoom saw their teachers covered (and heard their voices muffled). Chorus members sang and actors acted with masks. Indoor athletes practiced and played with masks (though this winter, they were generally worn around the neck).

Masks at this year’s Candlelight Concert. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Today, teachers will see this year’s students’ faces for the first time. And vice versa.

It will be different. Odd. For some it will be liberating. For others, scary.

It’s a major step on the road back to normalcy — or at least, to the Before Times. It’s a significant indicator that although COVID is still with us, we’re now figuring out how to live with it, rather than be ruled by it.

We’ve come a long way from just 6 weeks ago, when Omicron stunned us with its sudden surge. Just as the experts predicted though, it ebbed as quickly as it flowed.

A new variant no doubt awaits. It may be more or less transmissible than others. It may target a different population. It may affect people in different ways, or be a more or less lethal version of what we’ve seen.

We may go back to masks, temporarily. Some people will continue to wear them, everywhere or in certain places. But I can’t imagine we’ll go back to another 18 months of masks in schools.

Just as we won’t go back to washing our hands like OCD sufferers, for 2 “Happy Birthday” stanzas at a time. Nor will we once again quarantine our food outdoors for 48 hours, after wiping down every piece of fruit, carton of milk and box of cereal.

Still, we’ll take some lessons from the 18 months of masks. We’ve learned that they prevent more than COVID. It’s been a long time since I’ve had even a cold, and this flu season has been a breeze. The next time something is “going around,” we’ll see masks again — and no one will think twice about them.

Another lesson: We can do this. If you had told me in March of 2020 that 2 years later we’d still be battling COVID — and that, despite a vaccine developed in record time, huge swaths of Americans refused to take it — I’d have said, “No way can we hang in that long.”

But hang in we did. We had to. The coronavirus hung around too. We had no choice.

So now we look ahead. Restaurants are filling back up. The newcomers who flooded into Westport over the past 2 years — families that loved discovering their new community, even during a lockdown — are starting to see just how great this place really is.

The biggest party in town — the 4th of July fireworks — is back on. (Actually, they’re June 30th. That’s just 4 days fewer to wait.)

Fireworks return on June 30th. (Photo/David Squires)

But back to the start of this story: the kids.

There may be collateral damage from the past 18 months. The youngest children — those who have never known a mask-free school — may carry this with them forever.

I think about everyone who grew up in the Depression. For the rest of their lives — no matter how well-off and secure they were — they ate everything on their plate. And they turned off every light when they left a room, to “save the electric.”

But I also know that kids are resilient. They’re adaptable. They’re flexible.

And they’ve complained far less about masks than adults.

There may be some strange moments today, when the masks come off in school. Soon enough though, it will be back to normal.

Or whatever passes for the New Normal these days.

Tooker: Westport Is Mask Optional On February 28

On February 28, Westport becomes a “mask optional community.”

First Selectwoman Jen Tooker made that announcement today, on behalf of the town’s COVID-19 Emergency Management Team.

The date corresponds with similar lifting of restrictions by the state of Connecticut, and the anticipated ending of mandatory masks in Westport Public Schools.

Masks may still be required in other locations outside the municipal authority. They include healthcare facilities, those housing vulnerable populations, and public and private transit. Some Westport establishments and locations may continue to maintain a full mask policy.

Most Westporters will no longer be required to wear masks. (Photo/Topsy Siderowf)

Tooker says, “We are comfortable and confident that requiring masks in municipal buildings is no longer a necessity, with the exceptions noted. Certainly, there are those who will continue to wear a mask in certain circumstances, and we respect and encourage that personal choice.

“I am very proud to be leading this resilient community. Since early 2020, we have all  had to navigate the many phases of COVID. Being mask optional is an encouraging development in yet another phase that we will navigate together.”

Scarice Explains Mask Mandate Elimination

At last night’s Board of Education meeting, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice recommended an elimination of the mask mandate for all students and staff effective February 28, the day the winter break ends.

In a community message today, he elaborated on his rationale:

The elimination of the universal mask mandate by the governor, supported by the Commissioner of the Department of Public Health, indicates that universal masking is not a necessary public health intervention at this point in time. If this were a necessary public health intervention, the mandate would continue as it was renewed in the past by the Governor when necessitated.

The infection rates in the region, and in particular the Westport community and Westport Public Schools, have dropped precipitously over the past month. Virus prevalence is a significant factor in determining the need for various mitigating measures, including masking. The prevalence rate is bottoming out, and possibly reaching a level that could be expected to be our new normal.

Average daily COVID cases in Fairfield County, May 2020 to February 2022.

Westport is among the highest vaccinated communities in the state, providing strong support against health complications as a result of contracting the virus.  In addition, the widespread infection rate of the Omicron variant also provided significant levels of natural immunity to our community. Furthermore, this most recent virus strain appears to be less virulent than earlier variants, such as Delta.

Fidelity to mask wearing is critical to the success of this intervention.  Throughout the pandemic our students and staff were vigilant in properly wearing masks, and most importantly, time outside of school was largely reinforced by consistency in mask wearing as this was an expectation in all settings for our students (i.e. community places, extracurricular activities, etc.).

However, for our students now, school is one of the few locations where masks are regularly worn and mandated. Additionally, the fidelity of proper mask wearing has waned significantly over the past few months according to faculty and building administrators, particularly at the secondary level. Mask quality has also been called into question during the Omicron surge.

Maintaining a mandate when proper mask wearing is limited, and when most students do not wear masks outside of the school setting while interacting with each other, provides a false sense of security and a false impression of the efficacy of mandated universal masking in our schools.

Scarice noted that mitigation measures like ventilation, social distancing and hand hygiene will continue to be implemented. Serial testing will continue through the end of March. Daily reports of new cases will also continue, and local conditions will be monitored closely.

He added:

Students, their families, and anyone on our WPS team may choose to continue to wear a mask, commonly referred to as “one-way” masking. “One-way” masking works and provides protection for an individual.

Eliminating the universal mandate does not eliminate all measures of protection. As we evolve through the stages of the pandemic, I suspect that a gradual lifting of individual choice in masking will unfold. Some will choose to no longer wear a mask and, perhaps over time, others will choose the same. In the interim, “one-way” masking will be honored and respected in our schools, and it will provide additional protection for individuals.

Some students will continue to wear masks. This painting — “Masked COVID Portrait” is by Westport teenager Dereje Tarrant.

Scarice said that the elimination of the governor’s emergency order means that school districts will no longer need to require proof of vaccination or approval of a medical or religious exemption from vaccination for prospective employees.

Also eliminated: the requirement for employees to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. And the district will no longer require vaccination, or proof of a negative test, for visitors. 

Scarice’s recommendations apply to all students and stuff, including Stepping Stones Preschool.

Federal requirements still mandates that masks be worn on school buses.

Scarice continued:

It has been pointed out that students return from the February break when the mask mandate is lifted. There have been concerns about a potential spike in infection rates upon return from vacation.

I do not see the recent winter break as an appropriate comparison since that surge was driven by the Omicron variant.However, we did experience a number of families traveling during the Thanksgiving break and did not experience an increase in infection rates.

Furthermore, I believe that a continued mandate in response to the vacation break would have minimal impact in mitigation as students are largely not wearing masks in any other activities or events in the community.

As mentioned earlier, throughout the pandemic students were vigilant in properly wearing masks, and most importantly, time outside of school was largely reinforced by consistency in mask wearing as this was an expectation in all settings for our students (i.e. community places, extracurricular activities, etc.).

However, if school is the only location where masks will be mandated following the vacation, I believe that we would gain little more than a false sense of security and a false impression of the efficacy of mandating masks in schools for an additional week or two. Again, students and staff may continue with “one-way” masking.

Given our high vaccination rates, the lack of an increase in infection rates after Thanksgiving, and the inconsistency in the fidelity of mask wearing, in and outside of our school environment, I do not believe that postponing the elimination of the mask mandate is necessary.

As to enforcing “one-way masking,” Scarice said:

Individuals (i.e. students and staff) may choose to continue to wear a mask.  The district, all faculty, support staff and administrators, support this choice for individuals. However, we will not have the capacity to track and enforce individual choice for each student if parents require their child to continue wearing masks. As a district, we will honor and support each family’s choice, yet we will not enforce “one-way” masking for each child.

Scarice asked that parents help with the transition away from a mask mandate:

Preparing for change by engaging in a conversation and allowing your child to ask questions can reduce any stress and anxiety.

Some students may be eager to remove their mask and return to some sense of normalcy. For others, this change can create anxiety for a variety of reasons, including health concerns and fears about being judged for wearing or not wearing a mask.

As in most situations, children follow the example of their parents and primary caregivers. Expressing your thoughts and feelings about masking and unmasking will be important to help your child understand why your family has made the choice to continue or discontinue wearing a mask in school.

Students will be reminded at school that each family is making a decision based on what is best for them, as we all have different circumstances. There is no right or wrong. We want to be sure everyone feels safe and accepted in school, whether they are wearing a mask or not.

Children should be encouraged to state that they feel more comfortable wearing or not wearing a mask and that it’s OK if their friend chooses something different. If at any time your child feels that others are making them feel uncomfortable about wearing or not wearing a mask, they should let their teacher or another trusted adult at school know immediately.

Similarly, parents are encouraged to contact their child’s teacher or building principal if they have concerns. School psychologists, counselors, and social workers are available to support students if needed.

Navigating this transition in school is new for everyone, and we will need to work together to support our children through this new experience.

Scarice concluded:

As I stated in my message to the community on Friday, many issues in the modern world have become polarizing, including universal masking. The district team is committed to supporting the personal choice of each individual student and staff member, and to protecting everyone in our school community from unwelcome comments and behaviors.

Lack of respect or inappropriate comments or behaviors will not be tolerated as families consider what is best for their child and family.

We will continue to carefully monitor case rates and attendance and evaluate any new guidance issued by the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Adjustments to our approach will be made as necessary.