New superintendent of schools Thomas Scarice sent this email to all Westport families last night:
Last night [Monday] I had the fortune of participating in my first business meeting of the Westport Board of Education as the superintendent of schools. I am honored to serve in this role and it is indeed humbling to lead this esteemed school community.
However, like most things in our lives right now, my transition into this role is unusual. Similar to the patterns of our personal and professional lives that have undergone profound changes over the past four months or so, I have foregone the typical incremental induction period for full immersion into the work before us.
Although I am disappointed to abandon the opportunities to meet and develop rapport with individuals across the system, I am fully aware of the community’s urgency to not only develop, but to communicate the reopening plans for the 2020-2021 school year.
With that, I will dive into an update on our work in preparing our schools for the upcoming school year and reserve a more traditional written statement to the community for a future date.
As I shared at the Board of Education meeting last night, I have found that there is a great deal of fear and uncertainty in communities across the country and it is a fragile time. To complicate matters, there are some contradictions in professional recommendations and guidelines in how to effectively respond to the pandemic. Additionally, there are demands from our state leaders and questions from our parents, our faculty and staff, and our larger community,
Yet, as the public health community confronts this novel virus and learns more by the day, and after considering the fundamental role schools play in child and adolescent development, confidence has grown among many in the medical field that reopening our schools for all students for on-site full day schooling is the appropriate, and necessary, course of action.
Such professional organizations as the American Academy of Pediatrics have weighed the benefits of mitigating measures such as school closures and concluded that the goal of the coming school year should start with all students physically present in school. In addition, Governor Lamont has also called on Connecticut towns and cities to welcome all students for on-site full day schooling for the start of the 2020-2021 school year.
In response to this call, we will work as a system to institute the necessary safety measures to ensure a high quality learning environment, including social and emotional learning, for all students.
However, these calls come with caveats. First, endorsements of a full reopening of schools for all students are predicated on low transmission rates of the virus in communities. Currently, the transmission rates are such that a full return to school in the fall is justified.
Secondly, any return to school must include mitigating measures such as physically distancing to the extent possible, limiting transitions, cohorting groups of students where possible, regular facility disinfecting, compulsory hygiene practices, effective screening measures, and face coverings.
With low transmission rates and rigorous mitigating measures, I encourage the community to welcome a full return to school this fall. Although this approach will not eliminate risk as there are no ”zero risk” approaches, evidence has emerged that schools appear to be low risk settings for virus transmission if the community transmission rates remain low and the mitigating measures are followed with fidelity.
The district will respond with a hybrid, or full distance learning model, if transmission rates surge. The metrics for this decision will be provided by the Connecticut State Department of Public Health and the local Westport/Weston Health District.
As we move forward into the summer months we are obligated to submit a plan to the Connecticut State Department of Educations for the reopening of our schools. This plan is due July 24. However, there will be a full preview and deliberation on the components of the plan at the July 20 public meeting of the Board of Education. This plan will be posted for review prior to the meeting.
The final product will be a comprehensive document crafted by the education and health professionals serving on our “Westport Reopening School Committee.” This plan will contain the volumes of work conducted over the past month related to:
- Health and Safety – the specific mitigating measures that will be employed to minimize the transmission of the virus while supporting the social and emotional wellness of our children and adolescents
- Facilities and Operations – the cleaning, disinfecting and infection control measures that will be in place to limit the transmission of the virus, as well as the transportation and food services practices that will be instituted
- Teaching and Learning – the pedagogy, scheduling and overall learning experiences that will provide purposeful and regular live interactions between teachers in students, whether engaged in on-site schooling, or a blended/distance model
- Co-Curricular Programming – the extra-curricular experiences that provide programming to meet the physical, artistic, and enrichment needs of our children and adolescents.
Critical partnerships with local medical professionals and public health experts have provided a framework for the development and implementation of the plan. In addition, these professionals will provide ongoing consultation in advancing mitigating measures, identifying and treating cases of transmission, and effectively tracing contacts after transmission.
Lessons learned from the spring distance learning have provided our professional educators with valuable experience in the pursuit to continually improve our teaching and learning. Live instruction, naturally when students are engaged in on-site schooling, has emerged as a necessity for any blended or distance learning model. These approaches will augment the current pedagogy employed by our teaching staff.
As confidence grows in an environment with low transmission rates and strong mitigating measures, it is important for parents to understand that the Governor’s call for a full return to school comes with an important option for parents. You, as a parent, have the option to choose a distance learning model for your child in lieu of on-site schooling.
The primary features of this model will be included in the Westport reopening plan. In the near future, the school district will follow up on the initial parent survey recently administered to accurately project the number of parents that will invoke this option in order to appropriately plan for upcoming school year. You will have the option to subsequently modify your choice. Further information will be provided related to these procedures.
As superintendent, I am committed to increasing the frequency and substance of communication to the school community. In the future, I intend to provide brief insights to our work on a regular basis. This initial communication is critical in setting the stage for the next steps in our plan to return to reopening our schools. Thank you for your attention and support as we work to serve the children and adolescents of the Westport community.