Phone calls from a demented human being to police departments around the state — while many were honoring 2 slain officers at a Rentschler Field ceremony — forced high-level security measures.
At Staples High School, nearly 2,000 students and scores of staff members went into lockdown. At nearby Bedford Middle School, a “shelter in place” order was given.
Nearly an hour after Staples High School went into lockdown Friday morning, an ambulance and police car sat outside the building. (Photo/Jim Honeycutt)
Officials — rightly — erred on the side of caution. Before the lockdown was lifted, armed officers checked every room.
With police weapons visible to students and staff, superintendent of school Thomas Scarice asked teachers were to focus the rest of the day on the social/emotional needs of students. Emotional support was available for anyone who needed it.
Welcome to America, 2022.
That afternoon, longtime Westporter (and Staples High School graduate) Stacie Curran wrote:
“Once again (and sadly), please publicly recognize all of our teachers, staff, administrators, and our incredible police force for their attention, their dedication, their care and brave protection our children through this lockdown.”
Stacie is right. Scarice, his staff, and administrators at Staples and Bedford acted swiftly and decisively. Police officers were on the scene quickly. Working with Staples’ school resource officer, they believed soon that the call was a hoax.
Still, they made absolutely certain that the school was safe. Meanwhile, Westport’s Emergency Medical Services were on hand, standing by if needed.
The response and collaboration of all involved was impressive. As Stacie notes, we owe thanks to all of Friday’s Unsung Heroes, for keeping our community secure.
(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email firstname.lastname@example.org)
(“06880 celebrates an Unsung Hero every Wednesday. To help support this and all other featus, please click here.)
Forget January 1. Pshaw, Rosh Hashanah. Today — at least for Westport parents and students — is the real start of the new year.
It’s the first day of school.
Whether you’re a kindergartner heading off on your own, a Staples senior already counting the days to graduation, or a mom or dad feeling pride, trepidation and the warp-speed passage of time — or anyone else, who has ever gone to school — this story is for you. It was first published a few years ago, but is back by popular request.
Summer vacation ends with a thud tomorrow. Each year it’s the same: One day a kid’s free as a cat; the next he’s trapped, chained to the rhythm of the school calendar for 10 long months.
Greens Farms Elementary School.
Some youngsters love this time of year; they’re eager to greet old friends, and meet new ones. Or they can’t wait for the smell of newly waxed floors, the security of assigned seats, the praise they know will be lavished on them day after day.
Others abhor it. The thought of entering a strange building filled with strange faces, or trying to be part of a group of peers who won’t accept them, or sitting for hours at a time, doing work they can’t stand, is excruciating — even physically sickening.
Around this time each year, I think about the entire school experience. I wonder which kindergartner will hate school for the rest of the year because his teacher makes a face the morning he throws up in front of everyone, and which will love school because an aide congratulates her the afternoon she almost puts on her coat all by herself.
Which 1st grader will invent any excuse not to go to gym because he can’t throw a ball, and which will get through the school day only because he knows gym is coming soon?
Saugatuck Elementary School
Which 4th grader will walk meekly into class each morning with just one ambition — to get through the day without anyone noticing how ugly, or stupid, or poorly dressed she is — and which will look back on 4th grade as a turning point in her life because a guidance counselor took the time to talk to her, to show her how to comb her hair better, to make her feel good about herself?
Which 5th grader will have a teacher who does nothing when she catches him cheating on a test — too much effort to raise such a touchy issue — and which will have a teacher who scares him so much when he’s caught that he vows to never cheat in school again?
Which 6th grader will enter middle school intent on making a name for himself as the best fighter in his class, and which with the aim of never getting a grade lower than an A? Which 6th grader’s ambition will change, and which will remain the same?
Bedford Middle School.
Which 9th grader will temper his fledgling interest in current events with the feeling “it’s not cool; no one else in class cares,” and which will visit the New York Times website every day because her class is working on “this really neat project”?
Which 10th grader will hate English because all she does is read stupid books assigned by the stupid teacher from some stupid list, and which will go to Barnes & Noble on his own for the first time because his teacher suggests there are more books by the same author he might enjoy?
Which 12th grader will have the brains to apply to 3 Ivy League schools, but lack the common courtesy to thank a teacher who wrote glowing recommendation to all of them? And which will slip a note in a teacher’s box the morning of graduation that says, “Thanks. I’m really glad I had you this year”?
Staples High School
It’s easy to wrap our school years in nostalgic gauze, or try to stuff the bad memories down our mental garbage disposals.
We also tend not to think in concrete terms about what goes on inside school walls every day. Learning, we assume, happens. Kids read, write, use laptops, draw, eat and see their friends.
We seldom realize how much of an impact this institution we call “school” has on our kids.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As the week comes to a close, I would like to share the latest update on the Governor’s Executive Order mandating universal masking in schools. There are a number of steps involved, and I will outline below in detail.
The Governor’s Recommendation and the CT Legislative Process
The statewide mask mandate for schools in Connecticut is set to expire at midnight on February 15. On February 7 Governor Lamont held a press conference, and with the support of the state Department of Public Health, he recommended that the statewide mask mandate in Connecticut schools extend to February 28. Under the Governor’s recommended proposal, local school districts would have the authority to make decisions about mask requirements in schools.
Yesterday, the state House of Representatives voted to extend the current school mask requirements until February 28, after which local communities will determine their own school masking requirements.
The Senate is scheduled to act on this legislation on February 14. It is expected they will follow suit. and that the current state mandate requiring masks in schools will expire on February 28.
With these decisions and actions at the state level, I would like to make our school community aware that public transportation, i.e. school buses, continues to be governed by federal requirements for universal masking and the actions of the Governor and legislature do not change federal requirements. Unless there is action at the federal level, masks will continue to be required on our buses.
It is still uncertain at this time what the rules and public health guidance will be for masking in local school districts when the governor’s emergency powers expire and the State Senate takes final action. Therefore, at this time, it would be premature for us to make a final determination regarding masking in our schools. Yet all signs appear to indicate that this state universal masking requirement will sunset on February 28.
Next Steps – Superintendent’s Recommendation to End the Mask Mandate
In the coming days, as these final pieces of information are provided at the state level, I will continue to consult with our local health district and medical advisor. I intend to make a recommendation to the Board of Education at their anticipated special meeting on Wednesday February 16 to end the mask mandate in the Westport Public Schools when permitted at the state level, perhaps as early as February 28.
The governor’s recommendation, supported by the Department of Public Health, indicates that universal masking is not a necessary public health intervention at this point in time. Vaccination rates in our community, even across our student population, are among the highest in the state. In addition, as a result of the widespread infection rate of the Omicron variant, many have also developed natural immunity.
Daily infection rates have dropped precipitously over the past few weeks as noted by our daily reports. Notably, our daily case rates are reported for the entire school community population, which is over 5,000 students, and approximately 1,000 employees. We have averaged just over 5 new daily cases out of over 6,000 individuals this week. Furthermore, our recent weekly serial testing of 539 students surfaced only 2 positive cases on Monday.
All of these factors influence my final recommendation to the Board of Education to end the mask mandate in our schools.
However, there are many considerations we must take into account with any elimination of the universal masking mandate. It is important to note as the pandemic continues to evolve, it will be necessary to maintain mitigating measures. Ventilation, social distancing, hand hygiene, weekly testing, and self-isolation when testing positive, all continue to be effective means in controlling virus spread. We will continue to implement these measures to the extent possible.
Consideration for Others
Along with many issues in the modern world, the pandemic, vaccines, and masking, have become polarizing topics. It is not lost on me that while many rightfully feel ready to move forward, there are those in our community who experienced traumatic hardships and have lost loved ones during these past two years. It is our responsibility to be sensitive to those students we serve who have been most significantly affected by the pandemic.
On Thursday I met with the district administrative team, all principals, assistant principals and coordinators. We discussed the importance of supporting each and every one of our students as we approach the next phase of the pandemic. At some point, perhaps as soon as February 28, families will make decisions for their children with regards to masking. When that happens, we are 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. To that end, we will be providing resources and talking points next week as a support.
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.
Horace Lewis — Staples High School’s hugely respected, always helpful, ever-smiling head custodian for many years — died last night.
He suffered a major stroke this summer, just a few months after retiring from the Westport Public Schools. For 32 years, he gave his heart and soul to our district
After fighting to recover, he suffered a setback earlier this month when he was diagnosed with COVID. His wife Bonnie said:
Horace went quietly and comfortably. He was just too tired too fight. The love, concern,. and support from all is amazing. He would be humbled, and so grateful for everything. All the thoughtful, kind, encouraging words have lifted his spirits.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
In September, “06880” honored Horace Lewis. Here is that post:
For 32 years, Horace Lewis did everything for everyone in Westport.
Now it’s time for Westport to do something for him.
When he retired in July of 2020, he was honored as “06880’s” Unsung Hero of the Week. I wrote about his devotion to Staples High School. Horace was head custodian there — following the same role at Coleytown Middle School — and though he was a stay-out-of-the-limelight guy, I wanted to shine a light on the care and love he lavished on the building.
Classrooms, hallways, auditorium, a gym and fieldhouse and athletic fields, a cafeteria and 2 teaching kitchens, a library, TV studio, storage areas, boilers and HVAC systems — Horace knew them all. He made them sparkle, shine and work.
Horace Lewis, in a typical pose.
He hired and supervised a superb staff. He held them to high standards. But whenever something went wrong, he was the one who got the call. Broken pipes, a bad odor, a security alarm: Horace was there.
His was a stressful job. But never stopped smiling, working, or serving the building and everyone in it.
Horace Lewis (right) and shift supervisor Tom Cataudo greet the staff and students during the 2015 graduation processional.
Even after his official retirement, stayed on. Staples was coping with COVID. Every hand was needed, so Horace lent his.
Five months ago, he got the chance to retire fully. He helped his daughter with her business. He enjoyed his kids and grandchildren. It was what retirement should be.
But on the day of his 35th anniversary a major stroke derailed his plans, and his life with his wife Bonnie.
Horace went into cardiac arrest twice. He is now in recovery, working to regain his motor skills, speech, and walking capabilities.
When Horace returns home, he will need a wheelchair ramp and other necessities. Meanwhile, bills not covered by insurance pile up. It’s a very tough situation for the entire family.
Horace faced many tough situations, at Staples and Coleytown. With intelligence, creativity, patience — and always a smile — he solved them all.
Family and friends have set up a GoFundMe page. Click here, to pay forward a little bit of the large debt we all owe Horace Lewis.
Yesterday, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice sent this message to all Westport Public Schools parents:
Late yesterday [Wednesday] afternoon, the district was informed of a disturbing trend of school violence threats on social media. Social media posts have mentioned acts of school violence on December 17.
The state Department of Education shared information this morning [Thursday] that state law enforcement officials have determined that these threats are not credible. The posts have not originated in our town, and there have been no specific threats to our schools. However, some of our students have mentioned this trend to faculty and administrators today.
We are fortunate to have a very effective partnership with our local law enforcement experts, the Westport Police Department. In addition, a security guard is assigned to each school, there is a School Resource Officer at our high school, and the WPD has assigned an additional police officer dedicated exclusively to our school campuses.
As a precaution, the Westport Police Department has offered to station an officer outside each of our schools tomorrow [Friday] for the school day. Again, although these threats are not deemed credible or specific to Westport, at a minimum this presence will serve to reassure any members of our school community who might have concerns about this social media trend, particularly for tomorrow.
If you or your child receive any information related to specific threats to our school community, it is critically important that you make a report to the WPD and school immediately.
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