District officials said Monday night that they intend to bring all students K-12 back for in-person learning at New Canaan Public Schools when the 2021-22 academic year starts in two weeks.
In addition, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi told members of the Board of Education during their regular meeting, revised social distancing guidance on what constitutes “close contact” likely will decrease the number of students and teachers who must quarantine in the event of a positive COVID-19 case. Specifically, a close contact has changed from someone within six feet of a known positive case for at least 15 continuous minutes to three feet for the same amount of time.
“That is a pretty significant change,” he said during the meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.
“We do anticipate that that’s going to help bring the down numbers in quarantine,” Luizzi said. (Under revised CDC guidelines, an individual’s quarantine can end with a negative test on or after the third day from exposure, after seven days of quarantining.)
The comments came during Luizzi’s “COVID-19 / School Preparation Update” to the Board.
“It is hard to believe that we are entering the third school year impacted by COVID,” he said. “That is just the reality of where we are. This was the end of [the academic year ending] 2020, it was all of 2021 and now it’s as we begin 2021-22. We have learned an enormous amount. We had a day together as an administrative team, and part of what we are doing is really reflecting on what we’ve learned and how that’s helped us and how we can continue to apply those things as we go into the new year. All of which has that focus on providing a world-class educational experience for every one of our children in a safe, open engaging environment. And that’s what all of this is about.”
The academic year will open the “cohorting” models that were in place in 2020-21, though they’ve been loosened in some cases, he said. And the public schools will rely on past successful strategies to minimize the transmission of COVID-19 virus and its variants, including hand-washing and ventilation. Students who are medically complex or live with medically fragile people also will have expanded remote learning options, under new guidance from the state, he said.
With respect to mask-wearing, Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order requiring masks inside school buildings remains in effect through Sept. 30, and it’s unclear whether or how that will change in coming weeks.
“That executive order is in place and there is not flexibility around following that,” Luizzi said. “The executive order has the force of a binding legal requirement for schools. Whether or not that is going to change, we watch and we listen and we pay attention to all of that. But right now that is enforced, and that is while individuals are in school buildings, public and private.”
So that district officials can make informed decisions around when quarantining is needed, the schools are also “looking at establishing an expectation around vaccination or testing” for NCPS’s approximately 750 employees, and is asking about each person’s vaccination status.
The district also will ask students 12-and-older for their vaccination status, he said.
“We need to know it around contact tracing, because still even with Delta [variant] and where we are, if an individual is vaccinated then they don’t have to quarantine if they are exposed, as long as they remain symptom-free,” Luizzi said. “That rule still is in effect. So it’s something we are going to need to know in order to do that work. Our numbers from what we know have been very strong.”
Luizzi also noted that statewide infection rates are at about the same level they had been last October.
“So as we are sort of thinking about reopening and schools and our mitigation strategies and things that are going to be in place, we have to do it in the context of the data and where we are with what is going on,” he said.
According to the state Department of Public Health, New Canaan has a rate of 12 positive COVID cases per 100,000 population in the most recent reporting period—compared to 6.6 for Darien, 7 for Wilton and 10.9 for Greenwich.
Board members asked Luizzi about the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths due to the virus now compared to last fall (Stamford and Norwalk Hospitals are both reporting about one new case per day after hovering around zero or one just two months ago), how quickly the district will get vaccination information on students, faculty and staff (the latter by the end of this week, students likely a bit later given the timing of surveying them), and whether NCPS has vaccination requirements for new hires (it’s not a requirement but the district is presenting an option for either vaccination or frequent testing).
Several members of the public addressed the Board in comment periods at the start and end of the meeting. In many cases, the speakers appeared to be anticipating the district’s ability to make its own decisions at some point with respect to mask-wearing in school buildings.
Those who spoke in favor of ending the mask mandates in school said they’re not effective, that Delta variant is not causing more hospitalizations or deaths in children, described mask-wearing in class as harmful to education and likely to cause psychological, social and other problems, said parents should have a choice in the matter and called on the superintendent to share his own view on mask-wearing requirements and push state officials to end them.
One speaker, Yolanda Gjuraj, said her daughter complained of breathing difficulties due to mask-wearing as a kindergartener at East School last year and came home from camp one day this summer with cuts behind her ear from a mask strap.
Those speaking in support of following guidance set by leaders in public health and government said mitigation strategies such as mask-wearing make sense in light of the Delta variant’s transmissibility, particularly for those yet unable to get vaccinated, that the town and district’s success is due to its adherence to trusted experts and scientists, and that New Canaanites should keep in mind the health and safety of the wider community,
Speakers on both sides praised the administration and Board members for their work last academic year to ensure that children could keep learning in public school buildings rather than remotely.
One local parent, Jeff Perconte, said, “It is remarkable what this town and the school board and you [Luizzi], sir, were able to pull off last year. I just recently moved to New Canaan four years ago from Chicago and I can tell you when I tell friends back home that my first-grader made it all the way through school last year in person, they are amazed. Because while I understand the concerns about not having the normal kindergarten experience, I can tell you that there are folks back home whose kids never saw a kindergarten classroom one day last year. So I rise to say thank you for what you did. I want you all to know that while I’m sure you’ve been peppered with emails from both sides—and there are folks who feel very strongly about this issue on both sides—I want you to know that there is a very strong majority of folks in this town who don’t want to see things changed. It’s an old saying, and its a cliche, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Our kids made it through school last year because they were wearing masks.”
Not everyone agreed.
Town resident Amanda Morgan, whose children are in preschool and will attend New Canaan Public Schools in the future said she wanted to share her concerns regarding masks “not just for my family but for the hundreds of mothers who share my sentiments in our town and county, but are too afraid to speak out of fear of judgment.”
“The solution should be simple–freedom of choice when it comes to masks,” Morgan said. “But it’s not simple. Masking or un-masking our children has become a politically charged argument, which in my eyes is an absolute disgrace to our community. As you’ve seen tonight and via our emails, placing masks on our children is not based on any scientific data or proof, but rather at this point has become an inhumane practice of virtue-signaling. According to the CDC, among children, the mortality risk from COVID including the Delta variant is lower than that of the flu. There is no current data that shows the Delta variant is more serious for children. Additionally, although Delta is more transmissible and there are more cases among children, the risk of hospitalization and deaths in children are not increasing. This data can be found directly on the American Academy of Pediatrics website, as can information as to why pediatric cases are inflated due to required testing by the CDC. Given this, I fail to understand how continuing to mask children, a population whose risks from COVID are so negligible, as founded in science or logic. Since, simply speaking, a child in this age group is more likely to be struck by lightning, drown or get in a car accident than die of COVID. Our children have put up with enough throughout this pandemic and yet our government, and by association our school boards are still holding them hostage with political theater and illogical fear-based policy masquerading as science.”
When Morgan began to speak beyond the allotted 2-minute time limit accorded to each speaker, the Board’s acting secretary advised her that the time had elapsed. Morgan kept talking, twice raising her finger to say, “I’m almost done.” Eventually some of those in attendance called for her to stop, saying “sit down.”
Morgan turned around and said “That is so rude,” and tried to finish her speech. When she said, “Can I just finish?” some of the other meeting attendees could be heard saying “No you cannot. You are done.”
Morgan took to the podium for a second public comment period at the end of the meeting to say that her point about intimidation on speaking out about mask-wearing had been proven during her earlier address.
“I was interrupted,” she said.
In response, Rita Bettino spoke to the school board saying she felt compelled “to shed light on the kind of gaslighting and misinformation being spread online.”
Motioning toward Morgan, she continued, “And this woman just added to it by suggesting that people are all of the same political party. You don’t even know what political party people are. She literally just posted, and I’m going to quote, ‘The beginning of my speech stated I was here for the many mothers’—by the way this is a post to 17,000 followers—‘The beginning of my speech stated I was here for the many mothers who share our opinions but didn’t want to speak, so I did. And the women in the front rows of our meeting just now interrupted my speech and told me to sit down (all pro-mask for the year).’ This is what she just posted, and it’s very disingenuous.”
Though it may seem trivial, Morgan in fact had mischaracterized “what happened in this meeting room because you went over your time and interrupted this wonderful BOE member,” Bettino said.
“Anyway it’s disingenuous at the very least. But what’s more, I’d say, dangerous, is some of the information that’s being peddled online, and we need to be concerned about that. Because this woman and other people are misleading other people into believing facts that aren’t true. So I am concerned as a parent and I think we all need to be aware of the gaslighting and the misinformation that is online and I feel bad for people who are misled by that.”
Also during the public comment period, Laurel Van Hooser reviewed data on COVID-related deaths among minors and said that the asteroid Bennu has a better chance of killing all life on Earth. Noting that the district is considering mitigation strategies to fight the pandemic, she called on the Board to explain what it plans to do to lessen the likelihood of an asteroidal extinction. Van Hooser added, “That’s not my real question” and asked the Board to define what “winning” over COVID looks like.
The final public speaker, town resident Fatou Niang, said, “The level of insanity that I am hearing—and I’m sorry to be characterizing with that word—but I think I understand the sentiment, I can understand the fear that is related to it, but we have to remember where we are and what we are here for. This is a Board of Education. We are not here to anticipate what will an asteroid do. We are not here to fight what is going to happen in Hartford. If people have those sentiments or those motivations, please take your fight into another arena. This arena is about our kids, how we educate them, and how we work with experts. So let’s stick to the facts and follow the recommendations of those experts that we respect.”
[Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional quotes and information from the meeting.]