Saying they hope COVID-19 infection rates continue to go down after a post-holiday peak, district officials last week proposed a series of changes to mitigation strategies that could take effect after winter break.
Starting Feb. 28, school cafeterias could return to full capacity during lunch if the COVID trends continue to move in a good direction, while classrooms could have more flexible seating arrangements and New Canaan Public Schools could start hosting in-person school events and meetings again, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi said during the Jan. 24 Board of Education meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.
While a requirement to wear masks is in place at least through Feb. 15 as per an executive order from the governor (and could be extended further—see below), the schools also could welcome in all volunteers regardless of their vaccination status, allow for full locker access and increase the allowable attendance at sports and visual and performing arts performances to 50%, Luizzi said.
The schools would continue to ensure that classrooms are adequately ventilated and that “high-touch” areas such as bathrooms continue to get enhanced cleaning, Luizzi said.
The district also will “look at the mask breaks,” he said.
“I have heard some feedback from people who have said they aren’t frequent enough, and certainly we don’t want kids to be uncomfortable as far as temperature and other things,” Luizzi said. “I will talk to the principals again and see where we are and make sure there’s a certain protocol around that.”
Luizzi said, “Our commitment has been and continues to be, first and foremost, to keep our buildings safe, our classroom doors open and our kids engaged in their classrooms in their schools. So for us we are going to continue fighting and capitalizing where they present. We are working as hard as we can to minimize the impact of the pandemic on our kids. We recognize a lot of what’s been said and we have done things like adding to the ranks of mental health, our clinical team, we have done training around how best to help, we know the social-emotional challenges here, we have our own kids, we understand that dimension of this work and are committed to doing everything we can.”
He referred to concerns and criticisms lodged during a public comment section of the meeting that the Board of Ed voted to extend in order to hear from more people. There, parents and some students voiced concerns regarding the effectiveness and cost-benefit of mask-wearing in schools given the high rates of vaccination in New Canaan and the educational, social and mental health-related challenges they bring. Speaking through tears at times about their children’s experiences in school during the pandemic, those taking to the podium urged Luizzi and the Board of Ed to do whatever they can to get New Canaan out from under the requirement.
Some Board of Ed members questioned the administration’s approach.
Bob Naughton asked what are the key metrics that will help get New Canaan Public Schools to the point where mitigation strategies can be loosened.
Luizzi said that staff attendance is critical. Absences are undramatically and people are not signing as substitute teachers, he said.
“We have more unfilled classrooms this past month than we had total teacher absences in 2020,” he said. “That’s what we are managing on a day-to-day basis. It’s really thanks to our principals, our administrators, our nurses, our teachers for doing what they can do. And really covering for each other and helping out. But this is the disruption that COVID and specifically omicron presented to schools and this is what we have been managing through as we’ve gone through the year.”
Responding to Naughton’s question, Luizzi said that the rate of absences—up from 20 to 25 in a normal year to 120 to 140 now—is “not sustainable.”
“We know why we are doing this,” Luizzi said. “We know we keep doing it. We need to cover each other’s classes. We need to go days and days and days without a moment’s break, because we are running around. But it’s not sustainable. We can’t do this forever. There’s got to be a break. So, for me, it’s keeping the operation going.”
Naughton questioned the relevance of data points such as infection rates.
“I think at this point, everybody that I know that got COVID was vaccinated—whatever, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s just a thing. We’re going to get it and move on.”
Luizzi said the much depends on whether a person follows the “the Department of Public Health’s logic around mitigation strategies, reducing the spread of COVID in schools.”
“If you do think those strategies work, then this does help to keep our teachers healthy because they’re in the room for the seven hours they’re around,” Luizzi said. “So if you keep some of the distancing, the ventilation, whatever strategies you have, then the argument would flow, if you—again, that is an assumption—if you start from that assumption, that you slow down the spread, you keep your teachers less likely to contract it and more likely to come to school.”
Board of Ed Secretary Dan Bennett said he appreciated some of the steps that Luizzi outlined, “but to me this is insufficient progress on a lot of the fronts.”
Bennett called for the school board to review and vote on each of the changes to mitigation strategies that Luizzi outlined during a special meeting planned for Jan. 31.
“And I think there is a whole host of issues that I think we as a Board and the administration and community should opine on, and frankly should opine on in short order,” he said. “But I think the goal of that meeting is going to be go point-by-point and where we as a Board want to set direction, we are going to have a vote and set direction on it. And maybe get educated, too, on some of the constraints, so that maybe something we want to do we are going to delay. But there’s stuff that we want to be leading on and we want to be pushing on and I don’t think this goes far enough and I don’t think the timeline works.”
Board of Ed Chair Katrina Parkhill noted that the Feb. 28 return from winter break was just 18 school days away at the time of the meeting (now 14).
At least three times during the meeting, those in attendance began speaking loudly while Board of Ed held their public discussion—at one point, someone yelled, “You’re wrong, Katrina”—promoting the chair to remind them to be civil. One parent refused to stop talking after time at the podium had run out.
A different attendee, Danielle McRedmond, mom to a son in the first grade at South School and a daughter in preschool, said, “I am here to tell you, many parents are no longer willing to tolerate hearing our kids are resilient. They are not. They are breaking. Our kids are at the lowest risk, but yet continue to suffer and sacrifice the most. My son’s class is back to wearing face shields while eating snack and lunch has returned to isolating kids. Today, they were forced to eat outside in below-freezing temperatures. The ‘feel-like’ temperature, 10 a.m.? Seventeen degrees. Adults are out eating next to each other, socializing, laughing. They are living. While life has returned to normal for all of us in this room, the joy has been taken out of schools, the only place in society where the ineffective, dehumanizing measures continue to be enforced. I beg you to tell me how kids are supposed to have a positive outlook on school given this environment? My first-grader no longer enjoys school. He cries, consistently, going to school. It is time to admit we are failing our children. Parents have also been completely separated from playing an active role in their children’s education. Communication completely broken down. For two years, not allowed in the buildings. Here we are, still not allowed inside. The data show the virus has become less severe, yet our COVID policies grow more aggressive. The data and science show we must put our children first. It is time this Board steps up. The Board must demand local control, as Governor Lamont attempts yet again to extend his emergency powers. The Board must immediately lift all the current mitigation strategies that are unnecessary and ineffective. Please admit we are betraying our children. We have had enough of our children being used as pawns in this political nightmare.”
The comments from parents came days after Gov. Ned Lamont asked the state legislature to extend emergency declarations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the executive orders that Lamont has asked the General Assembly to consider extending requires wearing masks in schools, among other indoor settings.
This is an election year at the state level.
State Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125th) also took to the podium, urging those in attendance to make their voices heard by addressing New Canaan’s delegation to the General Assembly at a public forum to be held at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Saxe Middle School auditorium. O’Dea said that he wanted to “defend our Board of Ed and Dr. Luizzi, in particular.”
“They are working very hard,” O’Dea said.
He said that New Canaan was the first town in the state to launch remote learning two years ago, possibly the first in the nation and that the Board of Ed and Luizzi “are fantastic.”
“Please make your voices heard,” O’Dea said. Referring to Lamont’s request for an extension of executive powers, he added, “This is unacceptable, do not extend.”
Board of Ed Vice Chair Brendan Hayes said he appreciated O’Dea’s comments, adding that “if we think about the reasons that we have been successful as a district … it’s because we have been able to keep our school doors open and we have actually engendered trust with all of the people that have come through the doors of New Canaan Public Schools, whether it’s students, teachers or staff.”
“Of course all of us want all of this to go away,” Hayes said. “But we can’t just sit here as a Board and ask the administration to do X, Y or Z. It’s really important that whatever we do, we are bringing all of those stakeholders around us and making sure that people feel comfortable coming through the doors of New Canaan Public Schools. It may not be something that is easy to do, but we have to do it, otherwise we are risk of people just not getting comfortable, not showing up. It’s not workable. We have to do it in a way that our kids’ families feel safe, as well as everyone who comes here every day. That could be that we are making a change in three weeks. It could be that we are making a change in three months, but we have to do it carefully. We cannot just sit here and say, ‘We must make these changes in three weeks.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
Board of Ed member Erica Schwedel said she wanted to “remind everyone that our teachers have been really tremendous partners to us last two years.”
Bennett said that although he understood the mask mandate came in the form of an executive order, the Board should think about whether it needs to “continue to follow religiously” the guidance it is getting from the CDC and state Department of Public Health.
“A lot of these public health people have been wrong about a ton of things and they continue to be wrong about a lot of things,” Bennett said. “And we shouldn’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend like they’re infallible. It’s not malicious. It’s just we are getting new information and we should be thinking about that as it relates to how we are advancing this. Our job is to have the cost-benefit discussion because it’s not all about stopping cases. That is not the paramount goal. there are other factors, social-emotional wellbeing of the kids, education, how long they’ve been dealing with this stuff.”
Board of Ed member Penny said the school board is a “high-level” and “policy” board that is designed to be “representative of people who live in the community,” and therefore should hear “different viewpoints” from those presented during one meeting.
When she started to say further that “nobody on this board is an epidemiologist,” a groan went up from those in attendance, prompting Parkhill to restore order.
Rashin continued, “We all do a lot of reading and we all have our own opinions but I think it’s overstating—I am happy to have a discussion—but I think it’s overstating that we as a board have the expertise to make decisions on certain of these protocols at this point, because we have received in-depth analysis on both sides. This is not a public opinion poll. We are trying to set important policy.”
She added, “We are two years into this pandemic and I just frankly don’t agree with the need within another week, there is not an immediate urgency to take an action next Monday night and I think that type of analysis and sort of political outcome is not going to serve the students in this district well.”
At one point the Board discussed possibly voting during the meeting on a letter that would be drafted in the future and sent to the governor, urging him to allow New Canaan’s district officials to decide for themselves what is best for the public schools here.
Bennett said the letter should be drafted and voted on as soon as possible, because it’s timely.
Some Board of Ed members said it would be important to hear from the wider community prior to such an action.
Rashin said she’s heard from neighbors and parents that they’re “very pleased with how the schools have handled the crisis and the mitigation strategies that are used.”
“I do think it’s important to make certain that those who are satisfied understand that there is another group of parents that isn’t and have an opportunity to come forward,” she said.
At one point in the meeting, Board of Ed member Phil Hogan asked whether there’s “any plan to rehire any of the teachers we fired for not getting vaccinated?” (Applause went up from many of those in attendance, with at least one person saying, “woo.”)
Hogan continued, “If we are in such desperate need for substitute teachers that moms are volunteering, that would seem like a pretty good place to start. I don’t know how many there are but that feels like a decent pool given that these people know the terrain, they’ve obviously have worked up a fair amount of capital in the schools.”
Luizzi clarified for Hogan that there was just one person in New Canaan Public Schools who mutually agreed with the district to resign.
After the meeting, in a letter sent Friday to the New Canaan Public Schools community (full text available here), Luizzi addressed what he called “confusion and misinformation circulating about our schools.”
He spelled out what a Board of Ed can and cannot do, what steps are to be taken now regarding Lamont’s executive orders, and clarified information regarding masks, parent volunteers, ventilation and physical distancing in school cafeterias, among other matters.
Luizzi closed the letter with this: “I invite everyone to join me in choosing agency; placing ownership over blame and action over rhetoric as we continue to chart our course forward no matter what obstacles lie ahead. Without a doubt, this journey has been long and challenging. Yet we’ve shown time and again that, with courage, resolve, and compassion, we can thrive – and, along the way, we’ve shown the state and the country what’s possible. By keeping our NCPS Community strong, we will continue to create a better reality for our students, ourselves, and each other.”