'We need to remain flexible': Greenwich private schools draft tentative plans amid increasing COVID cases

GREENWICH — Thomas Philip had imagined a mask-less return to normalcy for the fall.

In May and June, after an up-and-down school year amid COVID-19, it appeared that Connecticut was turning a corner. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths were low. Vaccines were being widely distributed. Businesses were operating without restrictions. And schools had ended the year on a triumphant note, with in-person graduations and end-of-year ceremonies.

But the summer brought with it yet another round of pandemic-related uncertainty. The delta variant has spread rapidly around the country. In Connecticut, COVID cases and hospitalizations started inching back up in late July, just as school leaders, like Philip, headmaster of Brunswick School in Greenwich, were trying to solidify back-to-school protocols and procedures.

“Maybe it was naivety,” Philip said. “But I think a lot of people, myself included, felt really good about the prospects for this year, of getting back to a more normal situation than even last year. As delta has spread I think everyone has grown more reserved and concerned. But it’s just the nature of this epidemic. We just have to role with it.”

Brunswick students won’t return for the first day of school until Sept. 8. And, a little more than a month from the beginning of the year, answers are starting to emerge.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, recommended last week that all students from kindergarten through grade 12 should wear masks. But in many regards, it remains unclear what exactly school will look like in the fall at Greenwich private schools.

“It’s definitely a moving target,” Philip said. “Every week it feels like it changes.”

Perhaps the largest unanswered question — at least now that guidance has been given on mask wearing — has to do with vaccination. Whether or not organizations or schools can mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for employees has been the subject of ardent debate.

At both Brunswick and Sacred Heart Academy, staff must get vaccinated before the school year starts, school officials said. Philip said the notice went out to his faculty in mid-July, to allow ample time. Representative from Greenwich Academy and Greenwich Country Day School did not respond to questions about the potential for vaccine mandates.

At Brunswick, all students competing in interscholastic sports must also get vaccinated, Philip said. According to the headmaster, that requirement is in keeping with newly-drafted league rules. Sacred Heart, too, is recommending all student-athletes get vaccinated as soon as possible, partly in anticipation of playing restrictions for non-exempt, unvaccinated students.

Both schools, as well as Greenwich Academy, are recommending the vaccine for all eligible students before returning to classes.

“It is one of the strongest mitigation strategies we have available and gives us the best chance to return to some levels of pre-pandemic normalcy,” said Haley Sonneland, director of communications at Sacred Heart.

At Greenwich Academy, which utilized an innovative pool testing technique to ward off outbreaks of the virus for much of last year, all unvaccinated students will receive PCR testing on a weekly basis, according to the school’s Director of Communications Asha Marsh.

The result of regular COVID testing, mask-wearing and vaccination efforts will be a start to school that, in many ways, will resemble the 2020-21 pandemic year.

But there is at least one bright spot: the CDC’s revision of its distancing policy. The federal agency had previously recommended 6 feet of distancing, but downgraded that suggestion to 3 feet — meaning that cohorting and the creation of alternative classroom sites may be a thing of the past. Greenwich Academy, Marsh said, will return to its normal class sizes and configurations.

Or, at least, that’s the plan today. As the first day approaches, Philip, Sonneland and Marsh agreed, plans are very likely to change.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past year and half, it’s that we need to remain flexible, follow the advice of experts in the medical and public health community, and maintain our priority of keeping students safely in the classroom,” Marsh said.

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586