Reopening plan: Westport schools stock up with about 40,000 gloves, 80,000 masks

WESTPORT — With the new school year starting in eight weeks, the district’s administration is stocking up on disposable supplies as it pushes for students to return to in-person learning safely.

“I encourage the community to welcome the return to school in the fall for all kids and to implement the governor’s recommendations,” new Superintendent Thomas Scarice said at a Board of Education meeting on Monday.

He cited a medical professional that said there could be damage to kids if they do not return to school. Scarice also cited a study by the Washington state Department of Health that said there’s a lack of scientific consensus for children’s susceptibility to contracting COVID-19, children’s role in community transmission, and the impact on the role of school closures in community transmission.

Scarice said uncertainty about the duration of how long these conditions will be and how life will be lived has heightened fear for families. Politics surrounding the pandemic and media coverage has also added to this, he said.

He noted the heightened fear in families during the pandemic shares some similarities to fear felt in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“The defining difference is that after Sandy Hook there was a playbook that was there,” Scarice said.

In comparison, he said the playbook for the pandemic is unfolding in front of everyone.

“This is not hyperbole. It’s sometimes changing by the day,” he said, adding the world is facing a novel virus and a novel problem.

While he shared concern of the state’s deadline of July 24 to provide a plan, Scarice said he was assured by the district’s counsel that this would not lock the district into the plan.

“We will learn more, we will come up with more, we’re not going to sit with that plan. ... We’ll continue to work on this all summer long,” he said.

On Tuesday, the state Board of Education voted to waive the 180-day requirement for classes. Districts are now required to fulfill 177 days with three extra days for additional COVID-related training.

But Scarice noted community transmission rates will be the single most critical factor in the fall.

“Those rates will be measured by state and local agencies and they will largely dictate all of our decisions,” he said.

The town’s School Reopening Steering Committee emphasized health and safety of staff and students as a major focus in its plans. Members outlined several changes that were being reviewed such as spacing of desks and arrows on the floor if hallways are wide enough. The district has also purchased 40,000 disposable gloves and nearly twice as many disposable masks. Officials said parents will still be asked to provide masks for their children as the supply would only last three-to-four weeks if the district were to serve as the primary source.

“I do feel confident that health and safety as far as the state guidelines go, we will meet their recommendations,” said Suzanne Levasseur, the district’s health services supervisor.

A robust training module to address the changes is being developed for the staff and students, she said.

Officials also noted there would be a review of buildings’ ventilation systems, which if used correctly could help slow the spread of the virus.

Board members expressed concern of sports starting back up, as well as younger students adhering to the new rules.

Board of Education Chair Candice Savin said guidelines from the state that illustrates when a district will have to close or go to a hybrid model is needed.

“This is the piece of information we need from the state. Obviously we need it, but also to give our parents confidence,” Savin said. “So we know that if ‘x’ happens we’re changing.”

Scarice said superintendents have been assured the state will provid the thresholds to make those decisions.

“We will have that answer,” he said. “We will not be able to open schools on Sept. 1 without that answer. So it will come.”

The school board is scheduled to continue this discussion at its next meeting on July 20.