Monday, April 22, 2024

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Superintendent Says No to Full-Time In-Person School for Now

By Jarret Liotta

Schools will remain in the hybrid model at least through December, largely based on expectations that virus infection numbers will trend upward in the coming weeks.

At a Special Meeting of the Board of Education (BOE) Tuesday night Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice shared his decision—part of which is based on his belief that the current hybrid model is also offering students the best educational experience during the pandemic.

“I don’t think bringing kids back fully for four weeks in a pandemic model is really in the best interest right now when we have a model that is working,” he said, stating that health officials are warning of “significant upticks” in virus numbers by Thanksgiving.

“The prudent approach right now is the correct approach to take,” he said.

But many in the community are in disagreement, based on written public comments and a variety of emails that continue to be sent to administrators and BOE members.

“It is time for fulltime in-person schooling, as most of our neighboring districts have already done,” wrote one parent, calling the data “clear” and referencing surrounding districts that have brought elementary school back fulltime in-person.

“Why is Weston in school and we’re not. if we rely on the same data?” another parent wrote.

“This is a complete and utter failure for our children,” still another wrote, stating her second-grade daughter is “falling behind and losing her love of learning.”

Yet other parents applauded the decision, taking note of Scarice’s claim that—given the restrictions of social distancing—a hybrid model with half the number of students in class at a time—affords better educational instruction, with more chances for movement and safe engagement.

“I’m fully in support of your decision,” one mother wrote, echoing a number of statements that simultaneously expressed praise for school staff and extended sympathy for the district’s dilemma in trying to make things work.

“Clearly there’s not any clear consensus among the community and that makes sense,” noted Chair Candice Savin, citing many competing factors.

But once again, beginning the meeting, she reminded the community that this was ultimately Scarice’s decision, though she called it “a collaborative process.”

She said that while board members were giving input—and she said several even requested having Tuesday night’s Special Meeting to have more public examination of the issue—state law placed the decision in the hands of district superintendents based on their best judgment.

“It’s my job and I do take on that responsibility,” Scarice said, beginning the meeting with a lengthy repeat of what he’s shared previously regarding his decision-making process and its driving factors.

“The decision will be based on what I think is best for our school community,” he said, with the evaluation drawn from virus rates and trends, the effectiveness of virus mitigating measures, and the efficacy of the education model in relation to the plan of operation.

Scarice said, however, in his report last week he hadn’t realized the significance of the education model as it would be impacted by a return to full time in-person instruction.

“We’re seeing some really high-powered instruction right now … That becomes compromised in a pandemic classroom,” he said, where the number of students would double, adding additional furniture and limited space for movement.

He cautioned that with a full return—and some elementary classes reaching up to 24 students—children would be constricted to stay at desks in a more old-fashioned approach to instruction.

“We wouldn’t be going back to what we had last October,” he said.

Scarice’s report helped convince at least one board member of his logic, buoyed by comments from elementary administrators pointing out the benefits of the small-class instruction at this time.

“Last week I looked at the handouts and said, ‘Why is everybody going back and not us?’” Vice Chair Jeannie Smith said, noting she now understood the thinking behind his choice.

“I think it’s really helpful to get your insights and to understand from your standpoint,” she said.

“It’s really interesting to me as a educator to see what this model is doing to kids,” said Allison Moran, curriculum coordinator, noting the positive aspects.

“It’s not something that we necessarily were looking for when we implemented this model … but we’ve really come to appreciate this silver lining,” she said.

Kings Highway School principal Mary Lou DiBella pointed out that the public may be forgetting the impact the pandemic—and related deaths and trauma—have had on children, especially as time has passed and the community is becoming more acclimated to it.

“They do have some social and emotional scars,” she said.

“We forget,” she said. “We were the epicenter for a really long time … and so the kids walked in with that at the beginning of the year.”

Likewise, Coleytown Elementary School principal Janna Sirowich pointed out that the current hybrid model has brought a trickle-down effect to students from staff, who feel safe with the current situation.

“It’s very calm … The students also feel that way. You can’t negate the value of that,” she said, citing a focus on social and emotional wellbeing.

Scarice received push back from BOE member Liz Heyer, who asked if the district had “an obligation to offer full time school if we know we can do it and we can contain the virus while we’re doing it, which I think we’ve successfully proved.”

“How do we define educational efficacy? Is it purely the amount of space that we have to move around in our classrooms?” she said, asking there be qualitative measures put in place to evaluate whether the current model is really showing success.

“I would be concerned if that would be the reason, or even one of the reasons, that we chose to keep this model,” Heyer said of the space issue, “because I’m not sure what that says about the future of elementary school classrooms.”

“We have to be realistic,” she said. “There’s just a cost per student for that unless we’re moving to half days forever.”

On Wednesday Scarice sent the following email to parents:

Dear Families of Westport Students,

Last night I was asked by the Board of Education to share my decision regarding the next phase in our school reopening plan.  I am most grateful for the opportunity to work through this process in collaboration with a team of committed Board of Education members, as well as all members of our school community.

Reopening Recommendation
In short, following a public examination of the advantages and disadvantages of a full reopening, last night I recommended that the prudent course of action at this particular point in time is to remain in our current model for at least the next four to six weeks while monitoring the trajectory of infection rates.

Rationale
This will be a year of responsiveness, i.e. responding to trends in changing data, responding to feedback from parents, students and educators regarding our performance, and responding to any possible breakthroughs that might alter the direction of our way of life during the pandemic (i.e. treatments, testing, vaccines, changes in the efficacy of specific mitigating measures).

I fully understand the entrusted responsibility of decisions such as these and I feel the weight of that responsibility.  That said, beyond delivering the best educational experience possible for our students, I also feel responsible for any efforts to pull the community together during polarizing decisions and possible divisiveness.

I intended to make a decision based solely on transmission rates and our ability to maintain our mitigating measures in a full return.  In full candor, what I did not anticipate was the impact that the current elementary instructional model would have on my thinking in the next phase of reopening.

It is true that a number of school districts across the region that originally began in a hybrid model are now fully opened for on-site schooling, particularly at the elementary level, and these districts have experienced very low rates of COVID incidences at the elementary level.

Furthermore, as promised, we administered an internal assessment of our mitigating measures.  The results are very promising in assuring that not only are the current measures effective, but with some modifications, they show promise to be maintained in a full return, with some exceptions.   

That said, I’d like to reiterate a comment from my last parent letter where I indicated that it is critical that any changes in our schooling models are responsive to trends in virus transmission rates.  Absolute rates remain in the low risk category, yet weekly data has demonstrated a consistent increase in virus transmission.  Yesterday our state experienced the highest positivity rate since June, and just over the border, Westchester County saw the largest jump in positive cases since May while hospitalization rates recently doubled.

Our local Westport/Weston Health District (WWHD) has advised that we take a cautious approach in any reopening moves as they expect an increase in infection rates.  There is evidence of an increase in rates of infection at the present moment.

Although there appears to be a window for a full return before the rates advance to a level that warrants additional restrictions, based on current trends in virus transmission, I do not see the value of what would likely be a temporary return.  The trade off is not our current elementary model for a “normal” classroom and schooling experience.  The trade off is the value of our current elementary model for a “pandemic classroom”.

As I articulated last night, with substantive support from the elementary principals and our Elementary Curriculum Coordinator, Ali Moran, our current model enables our faculty to deliver an instructional program during this time that would be restricted in the “pandemic classroom”.  Our current model empowers our teachers to work closely with individual students and small groups, actively moving within the confines of our mitigating measures to ensure that academic progress is not lost, but actually advanced.  It also supports social/emotional development in ways that would be compromised in a fully reopened “pandemic classroom.”

This week we have engaged in an analysis of our entire K-12 reopening instructional model with focus groups at each level for teachers, parents, and students. This information will be instrumental in our efforts to improve our programs for students.  There are clearly areas for improvement. Although we will stay the course, this feedback could alter our practices across all levels, elementary, middle and high.

If we are to be assured of anything it is that the landscape will continue to change.  We’ve seen this since the onset of the pandemic in March.  Guidance on masks, virus transmission on surfaces, and most recently on the effectiveness of neck gaiters, has evolved and changed regularly.  In fact, my own thinking has changed as I received input from the school community and was able to conduct classroom observations in each elementary school.  I anticipate that changes will continue and our responsiveness will mark our success.

Our next step is to receive the feedback from our focus groups and take action.  It is likely that this will begin with reconvening the district wide School Reopening Committee.  Updates will be forthcoming as we continue to move forward. 

Given the advantages and disadvantages of a full reopening, I am confident that we can balance safety with desirable instructional experiences for our students by taking the prudent course of action at this particular point in time.  We will continue to monitor the changing environment and look to fully return when infection rates stabilize and trend downward so that we are able to loosen the restrictions in the educational setting.

Sincerely,

Thomas Scarice
Superintendent

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