Westport schools set to shift to full in-person model despite teacher, student concerns

With the impending change to full in-person learning district-wide, schools at all levels are going about the process differently.

Finnegan Courtney ’23

With the impending change to full in-person learning district-wide, schools at all levels are going about the process differently.

All Westport Public Schools plan to transition from the hybrid model to a fully in-person school model per Superintendent Thomas Scarice’s directive, the Board of Education (BOE) announced during a meeting on Jan. 19.

Elementary and middle schools are scheduled to shift into full in-person learning on Feb. 1. All elementary schools will move into full in-person learning, with a distinct schedule including a half-day on Wednesdays with students dismissed at 11:50 AM. 

Middle schools will begin their transition on Feb. 1, but Wednesdays will serve as a half-day of distance learning for the first three weeks of the shift, with an eventual full reopening of five days of in-person learning on March 1.

The plan for Staples to return to full on-site learning was delayed due to the death of a Staples student. Reopening plans are about a week behind schedule, and the exact transition date is not yet determined.

Many students at Staples, however, do not support a shift to in-person learning due to the increase in COVID-19 rates over the winter along with the new, more dangerous strain of the virus. Jasper Cahn ’22 feels that he would rather switch to full distance learning out of safety concerns if the school transitions to a fully in-person model.

“If we decide to fully reopen schools during this time of mass outbreak, we’re basically throwing away the months we’ve had in quarantine and counterintuitively harming the current learning environment that we have,” Cahn said.

Many Westport teachers are unhappy with the decision to drop the hybrid model, especially in light of the recent change placing them lower on the statewide vaccination list. The BOE received over 60 letters from teachers and parents expressing concerns over health, and about half of them were read aloud during the Jan. 19 meeting.

“I find it ironic that I must submit my comments electronically to this Board, while you are holding a virtual meeting to ensure your own safety,” Westport resident and spouse of a WPS teacher Adrian Bowles wrote. “If only you would see fit to be that cautious for our elementary school children and the faculty and staff of their schools.”

Saugatuck Elementary School music teacher Kerri Kohlun is similarly concerned and stresses the need for the finalized full reopening plans to be shared with parents and teachers now so that they can prepare for the modifications that will be needed. She feels that the administration has not been responsive to teacher feedback.

“We as teachers in Westport are not ‘ok,’” Kohlun wrote in a letter that was read aloud. “We have not felt heard or respected and we cannot be ignored. Letters have been sent from our union and the response given to [our] concerns for our lives has been ‘Thank you, we care about your health and safety’ […] We have not had any meetings with our Superintendent or the BOE via Zoom or [by] social distancing to listen to us and see our concerned and worried faces.” 

Scarice assured community members that a full reopening of schools is a safe next step for the district to undertake, particularly given the low COVID-19 transmission rates of schools in towns like Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan and Wilton that have kept their elementary schools open for full on-site instruction since the start of the year.

“Balancing our public health responsibility with the needs that our students have, I think the benefits of full on-site in-person schooling is so important,” Scarice said during the meeting. “It is very counterintuitive, given the spread in the community and in the state, but what we’ve been able to do in our schools is quite remarkable.”