WALLINGFORD — The town's high schools and middle schools will halt in-person classes until mid-January to help contain a burgeoning spread of coronavirus that might infect more than 400 town residents just this month.
The Board of Education voted unanimously late Tuesday night to keep Lyman Hall and Mark T. Sheehan high schools on remote-learning schedules and start remote learning at Dag Hammarskjold and Moran middle schools on Monday. In person classes are scheduled to resume Jan. 19, Superintendent of Schools Salvatore Menzo said.
Meanwhile, the town's eight elementary schools and special education programs will continue in-person classes.
The school board emergency session, which more than 450 people watched on YouTube, came in response to the 214 COVID-19 cases reported townwide from Oct. 25 to Tuesday — by far the town's biggest outbreak since the pandemic began, Health Department Director Stephen Civitelli told the board.
The increase in cases came suddenly but not without warning. Health experts nationwide said they expected a surge come fall. It really hit within the last month, after Wallingford had 57 cases in September and 190 in October, Civitelli said. Of the 214 cases, 103 came between Oct. 25 and Nov. 1, and 127 from Nov. 2 and Nov. 7, Civitelli said.
And the surge will likely worsen in December, Civitelli said.
"My assumption is that for the month of November we will be over 400 cases," he said.
Wallingford's 13 public schools managed to remain relatively virus-free until last week, Menzo said. The school system's first confirmed case was reported on Sept. 13, a Sunday, and the schools had only 50 cases through Nov 8.
Then things went sour. From Nov. 9 to Nov. 13, 28 cases were reported in town schools, and 611 students who attended school during that period went into quarantine, said the school system's nursing coordinator, Kathy Neelon.
Of the 611 students, 436 were middle- and high school students and 179 were pre-kindergarten to fifth-graders. All were in-person learners, Neelon said.
Among staff, meanwhile, 166 went into quarantine, including 80 middle- and high school employees and 88 pre-kindergarten to fifth-grade staff members, Neelon said.
The number of coronavirus cases in the schools will almost certainly continue to rise. The system has 177 possible COVID-19 cases — 108 from pre-K to fifth grade and 69 at the middle- and high school levels, Neelon said.
Menzo said that he felt keeping the high- and middle schools closed to onsite student attendance while keeping younger and special-needs students at school reflected both the safety the schools afford against the virus and the best learning environments for students of those ages.
Keeping the schools either in remote-learning mode or opening them to classes for long stretches will give parents and students the consistency they need for planning, good study habits and comfort, he said.
Civitelli said he thought that the schools would remain a safe place for students even as cases increase.
“I just want to stress,” he said, “that we are of the belief still that the in-person school experience is safe with the mitigation methods" school officials have developed since March.
"Those strategies we believe have worked,” Civitelli added. “We have not seen sustained transmission within the classroom, which is an indication to us [of success]."
Civitelli and Menzo praised school staff for rigorously enforcing social distancing, mask wearing and frequent hand washing. The staff, they said, has performed valiantly, moving quickly to identify and quarantine virus cases while adjusting well to remote learning and the stress of the pandemic.
“This is not the Dr. Menzo show,” Menzo said. “This is a highly qualified staff, working together.”
The board went into executive session after deadline to discuss hiring five more educators to help the school offset its coronavirus losses among staff. Besides those struck ill or placed in quarantine, 40 staffers were forced to home-school their children during the worst of the spike in cases.
The board urged Menzo to allow educators to decide whether they can teach remotely or in person.