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Westport Elementary and Middle Schools to Reopen to Full Time Learning

MiddleSchoolCafeteriaPlexiglass divides a lunch table in a middle school cafeteria.Westport Connecticut is like Scarsdale in many ways. It is a train-ride away from Manhattan, it is socially progressive, wealthy and has a similar number of kids in the public school system. Like Scarsdale, Westport places a huge emphasis on public education.

Beginning next week, K-8 students in Westport will return to full in-person learning, with the high school to follow.

The decision was made by Westport’s relatively new School Superintendent Thomas Scarice, who took the reins in July 2020 and vowed to safely and effectively fully open schools as soon as possible in the 20-21 school year.

Westport Public Schools began the 2020 school year in a hybrid learning model, similar to Scarsdale’s model. At the K-5 level, children were broken into two cohorts, A and B. These cohorts attended school in-person daily in the morning or the afternoon, switching schedules each quarter, with every other Wednesday scheduled for at-home learning. Anyone who had to quarantine due to exposure at school or on the bus, at the elementary level, missed two full weeks of in-person teaching as there was no at-home live teaching option, just self (or parent) guided learning.

Middle School and High School students were separated into cohorts a well, attending school twice a week for full in-person days. At home learning days were on Zoom with their teachers and classes. Wednesdays were live-Zoom half days. Quarantined kids could easily switch to remote learning.

Surveys were sent out to parents prior to the start of school and twice since then, asking parents to commit to distance learning or a hybrid model (and now distance learning or in-person, full time). Full distance learning will remain an option for all Westport Public School students during the 2020-21 school year.

When he announced the move to full- time school, Scarice wrote a lengthy position letter to all members of the school district. He cited, “four months of experience in preventing virus transmission in our buildings” as well as success of surrounding districts that have returned to full-time, in-person learning. He had given administrators a deadline of January 8th to submit tentative plans for reopening. Many internal discussions were held and the superintendent decided that schools could and would open with a stringent set of guidelines and a plan to rethink them if necessary.

Knowing that this would come with controversy, especially because vaccinations were just starting, Mr. Scarice outlined the reasons for his decision.

First and foremost, he stated, “…our primary mission is to serve and develop our students…we are also obligated to balance our public health responsibilities with perhaps less obvious risks that have impacted our children as a result of the reduction of on-site schooling.” He goes on to criticize the lack of news about the academic, social, emotional and psychological impact that COVID-19 has had on school-age children. Scarice believes we are just beginning to see the negative impact COVID has had on children. He argues that, “…it is time to move these two obligations a bit more into balance.”

At the elementary level, students will return to full on-site schooling (if their parents choose this option) on Monday, February 1. They will continue to be required to wear well-fitting masks properly at all times except when eating. Wednesdays will be on-site half days to be able to offer help to teachers with the new teaching environment in the afternoons. Lunch and snack will be in the classrooms although some students may be moved to other areas of the school for spacing purposes. Students will maintain social distancing to the greatest extent possible and all desks will have plexiglass barriers.

Middle Schools (of which there are two) will also begin full on-site schooling February 1. In February, Wednesdays will have half-day distance learning to give teachers time to transition with the goal of having middle school students back full time, five days a week beginning March 1. Lunch will be in the cafeteria and the school has set up tables with large plexiglass dividers in order to minimize interaction.

The high school will continue to operate under the hybrid model until further notice, but the plan is for full on-site learning as well in the coming weeks.

Mr. Scarice acknowledges the risks of the full re-opening. Increased numbers of students and staff may have to quarantine if they are in close contact with a positive case. School closures may occur due to staffing issues. Buses will be more crowded and drop-off and pick up will be busier. Furthermore, and importantly, he expects to see a 5-10% increase in people choosing the full distance learning option as has been evidenced by other schools opening up.

The superintendent closed his letter by saying “I am confident that through our resilience we will continue to maintain high levels of safety for staff and students,” noting that adjustments may need to be made along the way.

Responses have been very mixed in Westport. One parent said, “Hooray! I have been disheartened to see that if you’re a child, you can’t go to school but you can go bowling, out to dinner or on vacation to Vail.” Other parents are horrified that teachers are expected to teach to full classrooms prior to being vaccinated.

Following his announcement, recent headlines included a report released by the CDC that found that the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the schools is minimal when mitigation factors are in place like masks and social distancing. Margaret A. Honein, the lead author of the JAMA/CDC report, said, “…the data has really accumulated,” something they didn’t have at the start of the school year. The researchers said they were far more concerned about indoor sports and other extracurricular activities that do not allow for distancing and mask use than the controlled environment of a school setting.

Furthermore, this week the CDC urged schools to reopen with precautions in place and a New York Times article documented a rash of child and teen suicides in a Las Vegas school district.

Read Mr. Scarice’s letter below:

Welcome to 2021
As we complete our second week since returning from the winter break I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Happy New Year and to provide updates to the school community.

In the short time since our return, we have experienced the tragic loss of a beloved member of the student body, Staples senior Timari Rivera, and an historic and unspeakable act of violence on our nation’s capital, all while we continue to confront educating our students in a pandemic.

This school year has been a physical, emotional and psychological test of our collective endurance. We close out the first half of the school year at the end of this month. In the midst of the uncertainty and episodic chaos, I hold a very optimistic perspective for the second half of the school year.

What’s Next
As I shared with the parent community on December 22, 2020, I recommended a cautious approach to our school reopening this year. However, based on four months of our experience in preventing virus transmission in our buildings, and the similar success of peer districts in our region who have been fully reopened, along with the reopening of Coleytown Middle School, I began conversations to intended increase access to on-site schooling for the second half of the school year. These discussions included a full reopening of on-site schooling for all K-8 students and increased access for on-site schooling at Staples.

As a refresher, I asked the administration from each of the three levels to have plans ready for my review by January 8. I received those plans and held numerous discussions this week to determine the most appropriate approach. More specific plans are ready to be shared. Yet, this week was critical in conducting internal discussions.

We have remained on the course I illustrated for the school community on December 22. There is a great deal of work that has been done, and continues to be done, to safely welcome our students back for additional on-site schooling. However, we remain on the timeline shared on December 22.

I will share the overall next steps in this communication, while each building principal will share the details as it relates to their school and their students in the coming days.

The “Why?”
Those who serve our students, namely our faculty and support staff, are the reason for our success. Our collective support of these professionals is critical to the success we have enjoyed for decades. Yet, as a system, our primary mission is to serve and develop our students. In the course of this work, challenges emerge in an ordinary year. In a pandemic the challenges grow exponentially.

As a community, we are faced with obvious public health obligations to ensure that we are responsibly doing our part as a school system to minimize virus transmission. However, we are also obligated to balance our public health responsibilities with the perhaps less obvious risks that have impacted our children as a result of the reduction of on-site schooling.

The academic, social/emotional, and psychological impact on our students is not captured each evening on the news in cases per 100,000, or in positive test rates. Yet, the impact is real, consequential, and warrants mitigation.

It is time to move to bring these two obligations a bit more into balance.

In October, the district partnered with the Tri State Consortium and conducted focus groups with almost 250 teachers, students and parents to identify critical problems for us to solve this year as a result of delivering a pandemic education. Many of the problems that were identified can be addressed, in part, through greater access to additional on-site schooling. The lack of connections with peers and adults, the academic struggles, and the ongoing challenge of engaging students can all be tempered with additional on-site schooling. This move will not eliminate these problems, nor will it eliminate the profound social/emotional and psychological issues that have emerged for some children, but it will ease the effects on the children we serve.

The benefits full on-site schooling are so important, particularly after long periods of remote and hybrid instruction this year and last year, that bringing our responsibilities to public health and our students into balance is warranted.

With less pandemic experience in the fall, I was less inclined to increase the levels of on-site schooling, particularly at the elementary level which provided an “everyday” model. A move to a “pandemic classroom” was not warranted given the uncertainty of the coming months in the fall. That said, given our experience since then, and the experience of our peers in the region, along with the significant benefits of full on-site schooling, in my judgement it is time to begin this transition.

The Transition Process

Elementary Schools
The transition to full time on-site schooling will begin with a full asynchronous remote day for all elementary students on Wednesday January 27 in order to provide teachers the time needed to accommodate their classrooms for full enrollment. A special two day transition schedule (January 28 and 29) will be shared next week by the elementary principals to their school communities which will illustrate how they will gradually welcome back their entire student body, with the first full K-5 day of on-site schooling scheduled for the first day of the second half of the school year, Monday February 1.

From that point forward, elementary students will engage in full school days, with changes made to arrival/dismissal, bus seating assignments, lunch, and recess. The principals will communicate this information, and more, to their families in the coming days.
Given the need for our elementary faculty to deliver their instruction in a pandemic setting, and all of the professional challenges associated with this, like most districts in our region, Wednesdays will remain an on-site half day for students. Afternoons will be reserved for teachers to work with colleagues as they continue to solve instructional problems unlike any they have experienced in their careers as a result of COVID-19.

Lunch will be served in homerooms and efforts will be made to “dedensify” the classrooms where appropriate when serving lunch by accessing other areas of the school building. There will be no cohort switch on January 25.

A parent survey is forthcoming which will gather information on any changes in distance learning requests from parents and transportation intentions (i.e bus or bring your child to school).

The distance learning option will remain for students and this program will be largely unchanged, providing consistency for this population of students. More information about the distance learning option will be provided by the elementary principals in communication to their families.

Middle School
The middle schools will also transition to full time on-site schooling on the first day of the third quarter, February 1. The middle schools will transition the first phase during the month of February and the second phase on March 1. Phase 1 will have all students return in person for full day instruction on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, while maintaining the existing Distance Learning half-day schedule on Wednesdays (February 3, 10 and 24 only). Phase 2 will commence on March 1 with students attending school in person all five days; eliminating the

Distance Learning Wednesday
The middle school principals will communicate directly with their families in the coming weeks. In short, the current daily schedule will continue to be implemented to make the transition easier for our students. Additional mitigation measures will be implemented where appropriate.

A parent survey is forthcoming which will gather information on any changes in distance learning requests from parents and transportation intentions (i.e bus or bring your child to school). Distance learners at the middle school level will continue to have access to live streaming.

High School
Like the elementary and middle school levels, the Staples team has also developed plans for an increase in on-site schooling for students. However, given our tragic loss last week and the impact on the school of working with students to process the events at the nation’s capital, for good reasons, the Staples plans are a week or so behind schedule. In full candor, my expectation last week was that the Staples team would fasten their attention to the work of supporting students and staff as a result of a heartbreaking loss to the school community.

That said, it is expected that these plans will be reviewed and considered for implementation in the coming weeks. The perhaps less obvious effects of the pandemic (social/emotional, psychological) have hit our high school population particularly hard and we have an obligation to respond. I am confident that we will.

The Unintended Consequences
Along with perhaps lessening the negative academic, social/emotional and psychological effects of the pandemic on our students, there will be some unintended consequences. With more students on site it is very likely that we will see increased numbers of students and staff recommended to quarantine in light of being considered a close contact to a positive case.

Additionally, it is also likely that in some instances, a full, temporary school closure might be warranted in response to a positive case that includes many close contacts. Staffing our schools has been a challenge and that challenge has the potential to grow during full on-site schooling.

We expect an increase in the number of distance learners as this has been the case with our regional peers. Districts in the region that have successfully transitioned to full on-site schooling have reported a 5%-10% increase in distance learners at the outset of implementing full on-site schooling.

Finally, our buses will likely see more students on board. Vigilance in mask wearing on our buses, and in all settings will be critical to our continued success.

Final Note
As I shared on December 22, given the performance of public schools across the state, and here in Westport, I am confident that our resilience will continue to maintain high levels of safety for staff and students. It is clear that with continued vigilance in mask wearing, schools can remain resilient while serving more on-site learners safely. Of course, for this school year all parents will be afforded the right to distance learning for their child.

Communication throughout the system will be essential to making appropriate changes as necessary. We will continue to monitor our performance and the effectiveness of our safety measures. In response, we reserve the right to make programmatic adjustments along the way.

You can expect building principals to follow up with families in the coming days as we prepare for this change in learning models.
Sincerely,

Thomas Scarice
Superintendent of Schools

Writer Stacie M. Waldman is a mother of two and a former Westchester resident who now lives in Westport, CT.

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