Monday, December 06, 2021

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In Connecticut Briefing, Fauci Urges a Return to Classroom

While consistent on favoring a return to classroom instructions should the virus allow, Lamont has given mixed messages in recent weeks on whether the decision should rest with the State Board of Education or local school boards. Last week, he tried to split the difference — setting a standard, but not mandating a course.

That has put school superintendents on the hook. They are navigating between unionized teachers dubious of the safety of classroom instruction and parents, many desperate for their children to resume their education and others questioning whether school can be safe, even in a state with a low infection rate.

The debate could be succinctly summarized in three messages quickly sent to the governor on Twitter when he tweeted that Fauci would be joining him in a briefing.

”Please, be open to whatever he has to say about opening schools,” one person said. “Let him know he has the freedom to speak in our state, unlike so many others. We need his wisdom and expertise. Families need to fully understand the risks involved.”

That was followed by a plea to indefinitely postpone a return to the classroom.

“Please rethink opening universities & schools for in person learning. Schools across the country that are doing it are seeing spikes with staff & children. It is not going to be safe. Protect them.”

And another pleaded to open them.

“Open the schools, Ned. I cannot teach my kids and work. One thing is going to be put on the back burner and it’s not going to be my kids.”

Connecticut has outlined three options: Classroom instruction, distant learning or a mix of the two..

The state’s primary indicator for a safe return to school is a rolling seven-day average of new COVID cases staying below 10 per 100,000, which will be monitored weekly on a county basis. The state average is currently 2 per 100,000, with no county above 3.

But school systems already are looking beyond the metrics. Greenwich, for example, said it saw no way for its high school students to maintain social distancing.

Wethersfield has informed parents it will opt for a hybrid plan, allowing small classes and regular cleaning. Students will be divided into two cohorts, with one cohort attending school on Monday and Tuesday and the other on Thursday and Friday. On Wednesday, the schools will be cleaned. Online learning will supplement the classroom instruction.

Others are making similar decisions.

Fauci, whose daughter is schoolteacher in New Orleans, said Connecticut currently has “the upper hand” in fighting the virus, broadly hinting that a return to school with strict rules on masks and social distancing is advisable.

“My approach is always, and I’ll say it whether I’m in Connecticut or in any other place, is that the default position should be to try, as best as you possibly can, to open up the schools for in-person learning,” Fauci said.

“It’s important for the children because of the psychological benefit and in some places, even for the nutrition of children who rely on the breakfast and lunches in school for proper nutrition.”

Fauci said negative consequences of keeping schools closed ripple widely, but there is no precise way to balance the public-health risk of reopening schools against the educational and economic losses of keeping them closed.

“It’s a tough thing to balance, because it becomes a judgment call,” Fauci said..

He echoed remarks made recently by Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner and Westport resident who has been advising Lamont. Gottlieb said students would benefit from classroom instruction even for a month or two, even if COVID metrics dictate a return to distant learning.

Fauci warned no plan was likely to remain unchanged for the school year.

”You need to be very flexible, with the primary motivating force being the safety and welfare of the children and the teachers,” Fauci said.

Lamont told reporters earlier today that he wanted Fauci to join him in a briefing, because he is a trusted voice, even if the White House has worked assiduously to undermine his message of continued caution and vigilance.

“We had a couple of informal conversations over the last couple of months. You know me, I tend to pick up the phone … and introduce myself and try to get the best insights I can,” Lamont said. “And along the way I invited him, just because he can explain the science of these pandemics in a way that people understand and in a way people trust.”

The governor declined to address President Donald Trump’s criticism today of Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force. Trump took issue with Birx saying over the weekend that the pandemic was “extraordinarily widespread” in the U.S., calling her performance in the interview “pathetic.”

“I don’t have to get into that, but I trust Dr. Fauci,” Lamont said. “He has the experience, he has the judgment, he has the independence. I think we’ve known that. He’s stood up and done what’s always right from the very beginning.”

Lamont, whose administration no longer updates COVID data over the weekend, released statistics for the past three days: Only 252 of the 35,173 tests over the period yielded new cases, a positivity rate of seven-tenths of one percent. There were five deaths, and hospitalization fell below 60.

The most troubling metric, Lamont said earlier today, was a spike in cases among teens that he attributed in part to parties.

“I’m aggravated by these parties I keep hearing about, one up here in northeast Connecticut,” Lamont told reporters after an event at UConn in Storrs. “We’ve had more infections of young people the last five days than they’ve had in the last three months, and it’s outrageous. And you’re putting your family and your community at risk.”

New BOE Member Appointed

Heyer, a Staples High School graduate herself, received an MBA from the Columbia Business School, following a 10-year career at American Express. She has been an active PTA member, working on various committees, and also coaches soccer.

Town Clark Patty Strauss went to Heyer’s home tonight to swear her in live, alongside her husband and three children, so she became a participating member of the board immediately.

BOE Secretary Elaine Whitney said six candidates applied for the open seat last month, which was left for a Republican to fill.

“We have been extremely fortunate in Westport to have an exceptional pool of candidates for this vacancy,” she said, noting that three of the candidates were actually interviewed by the board, with Heyer and one other candidate undergoing a second interview.

“I’m looking forward to working with all the existing board members, as well as the administration … as we really work to navigate a path forward in what (is a) very unexpected and challenging time,” Heyer said.

“I know there’s definitely some work there,” she said.

Lamont Doubled Down on Opening Schools – But Says the State Won’t Enforce It

Throughout this time, teachers – and their unions – have been adamantly opposed to schools reopening until a cohesive strategy is in place to regularly test students and staff for COVID-19, social distancing can take place, and other safety procedures are implemented.

As the governor’s views have shifted, the unions have remained consistent: today hundreds of teachers across the state participated in 30 car caravan protests to step up pressure on their local officials to delay reopening schools, some of them leaving a meeting with Lamont to join in.

“Six feet apart or no school restart,” a sign from the Hartford protest read.

“Safe schools or no school. Keep children safe online learning,” a sign from the Stamford caravan read.

With pressure building on local officials to keep schools closed in the fall, Lamont’s announcement – with University of Pennsylvania Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel joining for backup – reiterated the state’s position, but without teeth to enforce it.

They pointed out that public health experts have said it is safe enough to return and emphasized the negative impact closures will have on the state’s most vulnerable students.

When school closed last spring, one-in-four students either didn’t participate in remote learning at all, or only did so very minimally, according to a survey completed by the state of nearly every school district.

School districts with high proportions of students from low-income families have seen the largest share of students who went MIA, either because they didn’t have internet access or a computer to participate in remote learning. Competing priorities at home — such as a family member losing their job, a sibling watching younger students, or an illness — also are hindering student participation in remote learning, according to the survey.

Lamont also emphasized challenges that are even harder to quantify and address, such as lack of student interest, and lack of parental understanding and support.

“If a kid has a chance to get to a classroom, I want that kid to have the opportunity to be in a classroom,” he said.

Emanuel seconded Lamont’s assessment, citing the increased educational attainment, socialization, and access to social services that in-person schooling brings. He said that Connecticut has been successfully implementing steps to control COVID-19, including closing nonessential businesses and mandating mask wearing, and the addition of in-school precautions such as distancing measures will make a safe return to school possible

“Connecticut is in a perfect place to open up schools, given its low transmission rate, and low test positivity rate,” Emanuel said.

The state reported just six new COVID-19 deaths in Connecticut today and 130 new cases, compared to nearly 1,500 deaths and 63,255 new cases nationally. There were 13 new hospitalizations after a streak of days where numbers dipped, for a total of 66 COVID-19 cases inpatient.

There’s also been a spike in positive cases among younger age groups, Lamont said. In the last week, the number of people ages 10-19 who tested positive for COVID-19 doubled, he said, with an upsurge in the 20-29 age group as well. He blamed many of these cases on irresponsible behavior such as partying.

Despite these trends, Lamont maintained his hard stance on school reopening, punting the responsibility to parents for explaining to their kids why COVID-19 protocols are important and encouraging them to follow them, and cracking down when they make irresponsible decisions.

“The power of shame is very powerful, more than anything I can do by edict or punishment,” he said.

Lamont Modifies School Reopening Guidelines

Lamont said he believes most districts still will opt to open and offer students full-time, in-person instruction.

“You know every town, every city’s got very different metrics. So, in the majority of the cases — the vast majority — will be able to have in-classroom, especially in the lower grades. But in some situations you’ve got to give them that flexibility,” said Lamont.

He pointed out that most students and teachers want to return, according to a survey that the State Department of Education recently completed. That survey found 76% of students are expected to return and 81% of teachers plan to teach in-person.

The state reported three days worth of COVID-19 data Monday showing that the number of patients hospitalized with the disease continues to drop. As of Monday, there were 59 people hospitalized in the state, 12 fewer than there were Friday.

The state also reported an additional 207 positive COVID-19 cases since Friday, for a total of 48,983, and five additional deaths. The number of people who have died in Connecticut from the disease now stands at 4,418.

Parents’ plans for sending their children back to school vary vastly by district.

In Wilton, 12% of families said they plan to opt out of in-person instruction. In Fairfield, 18% of families favored remote learning. In Bridgeport, however, 47% of students are expected to remain home.

Lamont’s announcement comes as pushback builds from the teachers’ unions to delay a full reopening and after his hometown of Greenwich released a plan that contradicts his instructions from late June, when he told districts to offer every student the option to return to school full time in the fall.

Greenwich parents were told recently that high school students would not be able to return full-time because there are too many students enrolled in the school to socially distance.

In late June the administration announced that COVID infection rates were low and that districts should plan to reopen full-time in the fall.

“Given the Connecticut health data as of today, districts should plan for fall reopening for all students every day,” said Cardona, adding that plan could change if there is an uptick in the spread of the virus.

Last week, Cardona emailed superintendents that they must have a plan for students to return in-person to school full-time.

“Any plan submitted to the Connecticut State Department of Education on July 24, 2020 that does not include a full reopening option as one of the three models, where all public school students have the opportunity to access school in-person 5 days a week, will not be in compliance with current state law regarding the number of school days, or the expectations of State leadership,” he wrote.

Lamont said in June he made the decision to tell local school districts to plan for reopening because it’s what is best for students and the economy.

“We wanted to have as close to possible a normal school day in a normal school week,” he said. “It also allows employers to be able to plan in terms of what the workday is.”

He also said having a statewide standard was best.

“We wanted to have some consistency across all 169 of our towns. We wanted to do that for the sake of making sure the quality and the experience was consistent for everybody,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOE Dissatisfied with Reopening Plans

SHS officials defended their model, however, on the basis that teachers will need that extra time to interact effectively with the population of students who will remain at home doing distance learning.

A recent school survey showed at least 10% of families would be keeping their children home if school reopens full time in-person, but there could be as many as 17% who would do so.

SHS officials also said that the time taken from classroom instruction under the plan will still be used by students to complete work independently, so that in essence they’ll have more work homework.

“The school day does not end at 1:10,” said SHS teacher Stacey Delmhorst, who copresented the model of full-time in-school learning. “That has to be made very clear to the students and to the parents.”

“They might have a little more to do than they might normally have (outside the classroom), so the school day does not end, it just looks a little different,” she said, touting the opportunity for the increased independence and freedom that she said distance learning created this past spring.

“I need to be honest. It feels like the full in-person model is already starting off as a hybrid with the reduction of the real interaction with the teacher,” said BOE member Yuan Su Chao, raising the question of whether it could even adversely impact the district’s legal obligation to provide 900 hours of instruction throughout 177 school days next year.

“The thing we miss most is the real quality interaction with the teachers … I wish we could figure out a way of getting more quality instructional interaction with the teachers and students,” she said, noting this model feels “like a loss of instructional time.”

“I completely hear what you’re saying,” Delmhorst said. “I don’t even necessarily disagree, as a teacher.”

She said, however, that with 10 to 15% of the students still likely staying at home during an in-person reopening — taking part largely through live online feeds — this extra time provides an opportunity for one-on-one interaction with them.

“They’re still my kids,” she said. “They’re still in my class, and I can’t feel good if I’m not giving them that same equitable time.”

By today, Friday, each Connecticut district is required to submit three plans to the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) regarding schools reopening in the fall — one plan for a full reopening with in-person instruction, one for a solely continued distancing learning practice, and one for a hybrid model combining the two.

On Tuesday Miguel Cardona, commissioner for the CSDE, wrote a memo to Connecticut superintendents stating that — while each plan is required to be submitted — at this time the state will not legally recognize either the distance learning or the hybrid models as legally qualifying as school days if implemented.

“Current statutes do not anticipate that remote learning programming ‘counts’ toward the required number of days in school year,” Cardona wrote. “The CSDE expects to issue further guidance on this issue should it become necessary for districts to move to remote learning models in some capacity during the 2020-21 school year, should public health data require it.”

But Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice — who did not publicly mention the memo to the BOE — indicated that it would be a local decision whether Westport goes with one model or another.

“If it’s growing and spiking in the community, we can make a local decision in that regard,” he said, acknowledging that there would be both a formal tracing protocol and specific case-number guidelines in place before the schools reopened.

“I think the governor could do a directive and make a decision for the state (but) I also think if we had an uptick … we could make a decision to move to a hybrid novel,” said Suzanne Levasseur, supervisor of health services.

“I believe that could happen in either of those ways,” she said.

“I think they’re waiting to see what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks … so I think they’re reluctant to give information too quickly and then have to go back,” she said.

The question was raised of exactly how far apart students will be during transitions in the hallway, as well as in classrooms, but there was no direct answer.

“We really are in the process of taking a deep dive in every school,” Levasseur said, “looking at alternative places, and really being quite transparent about what we can and what can’t be done.”

“The plan is being fully developed, but it is not complete,” she said.

Several school officials noted, however, that creating the necessary social distancing at the high school is virtually impossible given space limitations.

“When we’re all full-in we were struggling to get the desks even three feet apart,” Delmhorst said.

“Social distance in the full open model is severely limited and likely not possible in most instances and areas,” BMS principal Adam Rosen said of the combined middle school, which will be in operation at least until early November, when Coleytown Middle School is due to reopen.

“Again, that’s not the only strategy … We have a number of other strategies in place as well,” Scarice said, to deter virus transmission.

“Full time in the middle school with this model, I don’t think it works,” said BOE member Lee Goldstein. “I don’t think it’s safe. I think it’s irresponsible.”

“This is a place where Westport has a very specific circumstance,” she said, questioning once again if obtaining a waver from the state weren’t feasible.

“It seems crazy to me to put all those kids in there,” she said.

“I don’t think you’re saying anything that’s not on the minds of the educators around the table tonight,” Scarice said, noting he couldn’t “in good conscience” endorse it.

He said, however, there was time before school starts to see how things would play out.

“I would just caution the board and the community (to) just be patient … I think we have to have a little bit of patience and see how things unfold,” he said.

“I think there will be some very substantive talks around the state about the mandate,” he said.

Schools Super: Schools Preparing for On-Site Schooling

These include 1) on-site schooling for all students on a full-time basis 2) a hybrid of both on-site and remote learning limiting the student population on school premises, and 3) complete remote learning in the event of a prolonged cancellation of on-site schooling.

He said the Board of Education Thursday evening will be presented with the “Westport:  Reopening Our Schools” plan at 7 p.m.

BOE Reviews Plans for Reopening

By Jarret Liotta

Despite a wide range of unknowns, Westport’s new Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice is adamant that Westport kids should attend school in person this September.

“I encourage the community to welcome the return to school in the fall for all kids,” he told the Board of Education (BOE) Monday night, citing the emotional impact of children remaining at home with distance learning.

“There is really damage to kids if they don’t go back to school,” he said.

Still, Scarice himself expressed concern about what Bedford Middle School (BMS) will look like this year, with more than 1,100 students, plus staff, inhabiting that facility at least through October.

New School Boss Outlines Preferred Communications Methods

By Jarret Liotta

Holding its first in-person meeting in months, the Board of Education (BOE) today met at Staples High School to talk about communication with its new Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice.

WestportNow.com Image
Thomas Scarice, Westport’s new superintendent of schools, takes part in his first Board of Education meeting today. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com

In a meeting facilitated by Marty Brooks, executive director of the Tri-State Consortium, the BOE reviewed various procedures and how it might want to update them with the start of Scarice’s tenure.

Scarice shared experiences about some of his own practices in the Madison School District where he served for eight years until being named Westport’s top educator in April

He spoke of how board meetings are held, how public comment is included, how board members communicate with him and central office, and how staff presentations are done at board meetings

BOE Hears Early Reopening Plans

By Jarret Liotta

The Board of Education (BOE) got its first official look at some of the plans and protocols to potentially be put in place for bringing the school population back to school in the fall.

Last week the state announced the edict that it wants to see all Connecticut students back in school in person for the 2020-21 school year.

Monday night members of Westport’s School Reopening Committee gave detailed reports on facets of their work over the past month with the proviso that they haven’t had the chance to incorporate new state guidelines, including more details that came from the state only Monday afternoon.

“This is a work in progress,” said Anthony Buono, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, who co-chairs the committee.