By Jarret Liotta
There will very likely be a delay in reopening Coleytown Middle School (CMS), Don O’Day, chair of the CMS Building Committee, told the Board of Education (BOE) tonight.
The management group, Newfield Construction, will be providing his committee with a revised timetable the first week of May, but O’Day said he was anticipating it might be at least Oct. 1 before students can return to CMS.
“My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that the delay could be a month, could be a little bit more, but not multiple months,” he said.
The BOE is now faced with deciding whether to schedule a move-in deadline for CMS staff and students, assuming the building does become inhabitable this fall, or whether it should plan on having all of Westport’s middle school students remain at Bedford Middle School (BMS) for another full year.
School administrators are hoping to have that decision before June 1 at the latest in order to facilitate planning and hiring.
Owing to fears of catching COVID-19, numerous trade groups have been quarantining entire teams from the CMS site for periods of up to two weeks to take precautions when workers — or even their family members — have tested positive for the virus or even been suspected of having it.
“Last week only two of the 13 trades were actually on the job site for most of the days and productivity for the trades that were actually there really fell quite a bit,” O’Day said.
Given guidelines and attempts to practice social distancing on the site, work has in some cases been much slower, he said, particularly where multiple workers have to do tasks in proximity.
“Productivity is definitely down because of that (because) it’s hard to monitor a six-foot distance,” O’Day said.
“Based on everything I know now I believe it’s reasonable to expect a delay when Newfield responds with its schedule,” he said. “I don’t know how long that delay will be and as painful as this is for everyone, I have to accept the reality that there are things that we simply can’t control.”
“Obviously the news is disappointing but I can’t imagine surprising, given everything that’s going on in the world right now,” BOE Chair Candice Savin said.
Following O’Day’s report, the BOE also heard details on two different scheduling scenarios — one for a CMS reopening transition in the fall sometime before December break, and another for a repeat of the current townwide middle school model.
The two scenarios are markedly different, as the first would keep the two school populations operating separately in the BMS building, with dedicated teams teaching in reduced space due to necessary additional staff, in order for the transition to keep those CMS students intact with their team.
In order to avoid the overcrowding shortfalls of the 2018-19 school year, the second scenario would run like the current year’s organization, with students from BMS and CMS fully integrated. This would mean, however, that if the CMS students were to be relocated during the year, potentially most students in both schools would get different teams, different teachers and a vastly different schedule thrust upon them in the middle of the year.
Though the first scenario was given as an option through Dec. 15, Anthony Buono, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said he didn’t feel it was viable for more than two months without very negative ramifications.
“I see this as an option that we could sustain without having that big an impact on teaching and learning for a couple of months … I think beyond that it starts to get very questionable,” he said.
He suggested it shouldn’t continue past the end of October.
Adam Rosen, BMS principal, explained that it would be nearly impossible to switch the scenarios in midyear, as there will be staffing and scheduling commitments made for each.
“We’d have to reschedule the entire building,” he said.
“We’re going to have to make a decision about what date we’re going to say we’re going to spend the rest of the year at Bedford,” Buono said.
“This is such a disheartening update,” Vice Chair Jeannie Smith said.
While she said it was understandable given the circumstances that issues might have arisen at the CMS building site, Smith raised the question of whether there might be other options to see the work through in terms of outsourcing or other creative means.
O’Day explained that technically Newfield could force the hand of the subcontractors, who were technically not meeting their commitment, but that given the current state of things this was not the proper approach to take.
“People aren’t going to play that card, nor should they,” he said.
He told the story of one worker who did not live with any family, but had been on the site since “day one.” He suddenly stopped showing up at the site and it was only after Newfield did an exhaustive search that it discovered he was, in fact, hospitalized with the virus.
“Newfield is doing their best,” O’Day said.
“You can’t get people who are feeling ill … or who are feeling anxious about showing up for work, to show up,” he said.
As far as the supply chain was concerned, O’Day said that there was going to also be a delay on the delivery of the new CMS HVAC system, though it might only result in several days of delay.
“It won’t be a lot, but it’ll be some,” he said, because the producing factory was being shutdown for an extensive cleaning related to COVID-19.
“We’ll monitor that delivery carefully and we’ll continue to monitor the entire supply chain,” he said.
O’Day said First Selectman Jim Marpe had reached out to Gov. Ned Lamont by phone to be specifically told that construction projects are still considered essential in the state of Connecticut.
Still, he said, construction projects throughout the state are experiencing similar problems with their workforce and, in some cases, are simply being shutdown.
“They are definitely doing all they can to manage and do all they can in a difficult scenario,” O’Day said of Newfield.
“I hate to say it,” Chair Candice Savin said, “but at least for now we don’t really have a choice but to plan for both scenarios, at least for the next few weeks while we try to get a clear picture of what’s going on with the building.”
“We had originally planned to make the call by mid-April, but we have adjusted that,” she said, noting more discussion will follow at the April 27 board meeting.