‘We are just trying to keep our doors open’: Wilton school officials debate COVID-safe practices

Photo of J.D. Freda
Superintendent of School Kevin Smith and Board of Education Chair Deborah Low were part of a discussion Thursday night about how the district will handle mitigation strategies.

Superintendent of School Kevin Smith and Board of Education Chair Deborah Low were part of a discussion Thursday night about how the district will handle mitigation strategies.

Jarret Liotta / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Mandatory quarantine periods, temporary remote learning and social distancing methods were just some of the topics debated by the superintendent and Board of Education to combat the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the schools.

“We are just trying to keep our doors open,” Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith said Thursday to the school board.

As of Friday, the district reported 308 positive cases. Wilton High School had 131 total cases between students and staff, while Middlebrook Middle School accounted for 63 cases, Miller-Driscoll for 61 and Cider Mill for 49. The district staff also accounted for four more cases.

“It’s been a tough, tough week here in the Wilton Public Schools,” Smith said. “Our teachers, our administrators have been scrambling.”

With such high rates of COVID positivity in the district between both students and staff, Smith said teachers and building staff have been “trying to patch together coverage for all of the absences” while also launching a temporary remote learning option.

“The case count for Fairfield County today is 240.7 per 100,000,” said Smith, describing that number as “meteoric.” He compared the district number to that of Wilton’s, per the state Department of Public Health, which sat at 138.6 per 100,000.

In addition to remote learning, the district has rolled out further distancing measures during lunch periods and are once again using the fieldhouse as an extra space for students to eat. Smith also said the schools have focused on the functionality of their ventilation systems to ensure proper airflow.

Maria Coleman, Wilton’s director of human resources and general admission, laid out the school’s current isolation and return to school policy.

As of the most recently adopted measures, staff who test positive must quarantine for five days. If the staff member shows no symptoms by the sixth day, they are eligible to return to the school community. They are asked to wear a mask around other staff and students while they reacclimate into the school buildings.

Students, on the other hand, will remain under a mandatory 10-day quarantine period after testing positive, Coleman said, with the ability to return on the 11th day if experiencing no symptoms.

Some BOE members, including chairperson Deborah Low, questioned the difference in quarantine periods.

BOE member Mandi Schmauch first said she appreciated where the district was in comparison to a year ago at the same point. But she then questioned why the district strayed from “federal guidelines,” referencing newly announced five-day isolation periods.

Smith admitted that the “vast majority” of surrounding districts have adopted the fie -day guidelines with the exception of Norwalk.

He called the decision a “conservative decsision” for the health and well-being of their students. He shared that while some mitigation strategies might suit some high school students who have been eligible to receive boosters, younger students in the district have not been able to receive a booster yet.

BOE member Jen Lalor inquired if it were possible for children who are asymptomatic to return after five days and be isolated during certain school-day activities, such as “eat in a seperate room.”

The superintendent noted these were short-term decsisions as the district continues to monitor the evolving environment.

“The good news is that we’re not debating whether we should be hybrid or remote or any of that,” Low said. “I’m glad the conversation is getting down to length of quarantine versus ‘are we all remote or not?’”

Five letters from parents were read aloud during the meeting as well, their sentiments revolving around options for temporary masking, quarantine periods and vaccination requirements.

Resident Andrew Warren called for policy change, asking that unvaccinated visitors once again be allowed in the school buildings.

Another resident asked the board to change their mandatory isolating period for students and review masking policies.

The superintendent and the board will reevaluate mitigation measures as the district’s COVID numbers continue to change over the next few weeks.