Westport schools prepare for possible full return this month

Kids arrive for the first day of school at Coleytown Elementary School. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020

Kids arrive for the first day of school at Coleytown Elementary School. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020

Scott Mullin / For Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Younger students could return to in-person learning this month due to the district’s successful mitigation measures, officials said, even as COVID cases rise again.

“We’re still following the same course of action that I had recommended on Dec. 21,” Superintendent Thomas Scarice said to the Board of Education this week. “We still have time to review things between now and as we get towards the end of the month.”

Scarice said he didn’t want to name a date, but is looking at late January as a possibility for when students in kindergarten through eighth grade may return. He said the decision on a full return will be predicated on the district continuing to show resilience through its mitigating measures.

Administration will also continue to watch case numbers, which have been on the rise since winter break.

Sue Levasseur, the district’s health supervisor, said the rate of new cases per 100,000 rose from 43.8 to 50 in Fairfield County, and 21.6 to 27.2 in town in the past two weeks.

“I anticipate these numbers are going to go up next week,” Levasseur said. “Certainly Westport has seen an increase of numbers in their health department and the state is expecting a little bit of a surge too, probably still from the holiday and people getting together.”

She said officials will continue to look at trends over the next couple of weeks, but noted most, if not all, of the district’s nurses have been able to get vaccinated or have a pending vaccination. The state’s next stage of vaccinations is for seniors and essential workers, including teachers, she said.

Scarice said principals submitted possible plans last week for the administration to review some of the lingering concerns, including lunch at the elementary level.

He said parents and staff have continued to be split on a possible full return, with some worried about safety while others highlighted students’ challenges due to a lack of in-person learning.

“However, I do think based on our experience and our mitigating measures we’re doing really good jobs as a profession of preventing and minimizing spread within our schools,” Scarice said.

Concerns from staff were reiterated in a joint statement from the Westport Education Association’s leaders.

“We the membership of the WEA do not feel that it is prudent to move to a full-in model at this time,” John Horrigan and Karen Defelice, co-presidents of the WEA, said. “Until the vaccination can be administered and provided opportunity for efficacy, the membership feels the loss of the mitigating measure will compromise the safety of all students and staff.”

But some residents voiced support of a full return for students.

Dorie Hordon, a Westport resident, said she supported a full return and was surprised elementary students were still off each Wednesday.

“We now have two middle schools open so we should take advantage of the space,” Hordon said. “We also need a plan for the high school. There seems to be no movement forward and this is disappointing.”

Some board members also questioned the possibility of a full return at the high school.

BOE member Jeannie Smith said she feels the urgency to get high school students more than one day a week for in-person learning. She said students needed connection not just with their peers, but with their teachers.

“We know that they need their guidance” she said. “Online learning is not cutting it for most of these high school kids that I’m engaged in talking with, and have in my own home.”

The district’s administration plans to continue reviewing how to implement a full-return. The BOE may discuss reopening plans again at its next meeting on Jan. 19.

“I think it’s important to make the best decision and not necessarily by a specific deadline or timeline, we’re doing the best we can,” Scarice said. “But I do think we’re going to stay the course at this point in time.”

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com