NORWALK, Conn. – With the number of cases continuing to rise across Norwalk, the state of Connecticut, and across the country, the leaders of the City and school district held a virtual town hall to answer the community’s questions related to the pandemic. More than 500 people joined the virtual event, according to Council Member Greg Burnett (D, At-Large), moderator of the forum.
“We know these times are tough,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “We know that things have gotten worse over the past several weeks, worse than they were at the beginning of this pandemic. So we need to do everything that we possibly can as a community to make sure that we keep our citizens safe and healthy.”
Finding a test, learning where community resources are, and understanding the school district’s policies around remote learning were some of the main topics discussed.
Deanna D’Amore, the City’s health director, and Norwalk Chief of Social Services Chief Lamond Daniels said that they understand there’s a high demand for testing and the City is working to meet that need. Daniels said they’ve brought the National Guard to help with the testing at Veteran’s Park, while other service providers, particularly the Community Health Center Inc. at Day Street, Norwalk Community Health Center, and Norwalk Hospital, are also trying to increase testing capacities.
“We know that there is a huge demand, right for testing,” she said. “We see it all throughout the state. So we’re continuing to look for additional opportunities to bring testing.”
Daniels said the National Guard had 15 members helping out at Veterans’ Park on Thursday.
“We’re working diligently every day to identify locations, to identify partners, and to identify key places where we can set up the testing,” Daniels said. “So I’m just asking you all to be patient. And if you’re going to Veterans Park, we just consider saying thank you to those that are out there every day. They’re on the water. So it’s very, very cold out there every day. But they’re committed to provide these services to us.”
Rilling said that the distribution of testing is also serving as “practice” for the city for how they will work to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, when one becomes widely available.
“We know that this is a practice because when the vaccine comes out, there’s going to be a demand even far greater, like 10 times greater or more than the demand for the testing,” Rilling said. “And everybody is going to be in line to get the vaccine. So we really have to prepare for that. But this is pretty much a practice for what we’re going to be experiencing come January, February, March whenever we’re able to get the vaccines out.”
Both Daniels and D’Amore emphasized that even if a person tests negative that doesn’t mean they can just do what they want.
“We know how important testing is, but I just want to remind everyone that you can test negative one day and you can be positive the next,” D’Amore said. “So while testing is really important … but we just want to remind everyone that even if you have a negative test, that’s not an OK to not wear your face mask or face covering while you’re out in public when you’re in close proximity to other people.”
Remote and hybrid learning
Many questions submitted during the evening surrounded what would happen if the schools had to go remote, and how was the virus affecting the schools?
Ralph Valenzisi, Chief of Digital Learning and Development, said that they were better prepared now than in the spring as all students and staff now have devices, and there has been some additional help provided to families in need who lacked internet access.
“We have K-12 devices for everybody,” he said. “We have devices for all the teachers, but devices aren’t enough, really in order to make this equitable and to make sure that all students have access, we need to make sure that they can connect with these computers … thanks to a generous donation from the Dalio Family Foundation, we have been providing internet access for families that need that service.”
Daniels said that if families need this service, they can reach out to their school principal to be connected. Valenzisi also said that they’re using the opportunity of families reaching out to provide more services through community navigators.
Norwalk Public Schools Superintendent Alexandra Estrella said that she and her staff are in contact with the City health department daily to look into positive cases and how those might affect the schools.
“Deanna D’Amore is someone that we constantly engage in conversation in looking at positive cases, looking at trends and patterns within the community, and the impact of those trends and patterns in our schools,” she said. “We really focus a lot of our decision on data, and what we learn about each case on a case-by-case basis, because there are multiple factors that we have to take into consideration to determine whether or not we should close a school.”
Estrella said that when schools have had to go fully remote for a few weeks, it’s mainly due to a lack of staff available to cover everything rather than the number of cases. Part of the reason why, Estrella said, is because they’re quarantining more people than required, out of an abundance of caution. The CDC and State health department require people who are within six feet of a positive case to quarantine. Estrella said they’re requiring all students and staff in a class with a positive case to quarantine even if the person was further away.
“And in many cases, it’s been less about the number of positive cases and more about the fact that we don’t have enough staff to cover the school in a safe manner to fulfill the programming needs for students,” she said. “If we have a positive case in the classroom, we decided to quarantine the entire class, because we want to make sure that there is no risk in any situation. In any decision that we’re making, we try to limit any mitigating concerns that might arise because someone is positive within our schools.”
JoAnn Malinowski, NPS health services coordinator, reviewed the district’s contact tracing procedures on when students have to quarantine and what that means for the rest of the family.
She also emphasized to parents that when they send students home, for symptoms such as headaches or sore throats, their goal is to protect everyone, not be an inconvenience. She said that 136 students were sent home last week.
“I can’t discern whether or not this child’s headache is COVID, or whether it’s something else,” Malinowski said. “When we call parents and pick up their child, sometimes, you know, they’re at work, they’re very upset — ‘my kid has a headache. Why are you calling me?’ We’re really trying to keep everybody safe. That’s what this is all about.”
Deciding when/if to close
Rilling and Estrella said they’re constantly monitoring the situation across the city to see if restrictions or policies need to change. Rilling emphasized that they don’t want to have to go back to the spring lockdowns that closed businesses and caused economic pain.
“It’s very challenging, because many of the businesses when we first went into what I would call pretty much a lockdown—with restaurants being closed and service businesses being closed, they struggled,” he said. “They weren’t able to pay their rent, they weren’t able to pay their employees. A lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of people who lost their jobs, or who were laid off, have not come back. So it’s a big challenge to close businesses right now.”
He said that they are doing spot checks to make sure businesses are in compliance with the regulations from the Governor’s Office, particularly since the State has rolled back to a “modified Phase 2 stage.”
“We constantly monitor the situation—try to determine why we are having an increase in cases and if we can identify any commonalities as to where the cases are occurring,” he said. “For instance, indoor dining, beauty salons, barber shops, large stores, wherever we can find commonality, we continually constantly monitor, and we try to make sure that we make the decisions we need to make.”
D’Amore stated that most of the transmission they’re seeing is from one member of the family bringing it home and spreading it to the whole household.
“It could be somebody within one household who goes to another household and it could be a close friend, or it could be a family (member) or it could be a cousin or something—you’re going and you’re getting together and it could spread that way and then you could bring it back to your household and spread it to your loved one,” she said. “So we continue to see close contacts of families within households, ending up positive themselves.”
Malinowski said that most of the cases in the schools have come from contacts outside of the schools, although they are investigating a few cases that may have been spread within.
“Up to this point, we’ve really had most of our cases come from out of the school, actually, parties, ball games, just not really doing the social distancing,” she said. “We are looking at a few cases that may possibly be transmitted within the schools, but we are still working on getting documentation of that—one or two at the moment. We’ve had more of an uptick, obviously, in the last couple of weeks, just as the entire city of Norwalk has had, the entire state has had.”
Those smaller gatherings causing the spread are particularly worrisome to the public health officials with the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner. D’Amore recommended wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping distance as much as possible, perhaps hosting a Zoom event to keep families safe.
“You really want to be staying with people that are in your own household, because we’re seeing a lot of spread with like small gatherings—you’re around your family, your friends, and trust them, of course, because they’re your family and friends,” she said. “But that’s one way that this virus is spreading is you tend to let your guard down.”
Officials reminded everyone that if they do travel to a state on the advisory list, they must quarantine for 14 days.
Estrella said that they plan to have schools open on the Monday following the holiday but will be in touch with public health officials to monitor the situation.
“We will just continue to closely monitor any positive cases and the trends in the schools and staffing and usually we use staffing as part of the factors to determine whether or not we need to close out of school, besides looking at the number of positive cases,” Estrella said.
Community Resources Available
Daniels stressed that there are resources available for those in need during this time, particularly those struggling with food, loss of income, and mental health. He advocated that people use the 2-1-1 line to access a list of resources and can also check out the city’s website to learn more.
“This is a time where we have to think about neighbors helping neighbors, families helping families, and people helping people,” he said. “To those that are on today’s call, if you know of the organizations that are helping—share that with your neighbors, share that with a friend.”
The city is still working to help distribute food to those in need, as are the schools, Daniels and Costanzo said. Costanzo said since the start of the school year, more than 365,000 meals have been provided for students through the schools.
More information on available resources can be found at norwalkct.org/citynews
Estrella said they’re working to provide mindfulness and wellness services to teachers and staff members who have been feeling “fatigue” working under these circumstances. She also said they’re providing the staff time to collaborate on Mondays to provide additional support for each other.
“They’re doing incredible work to ensure that our students are successful,” she said. “They are our heroes.”
Snow day sidebar
One side note that came up during the town hall meeting, unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic, was what would happen in the event of a snow day.
Estrella said that no decisions have been made on how to handle a snow day, but noted that there is an increased ability to move virtual with the enhancements in technology. However, snow usually causes power outages, she said, which could impact the ability of students and staff to get online.
“We haven’t yet made a determination in terms of how we proceed and around snow days,” she said. “The one thing I can say that it’s very easy to—if we don’t have our outages—to transition learning to remote now that every child has a device, but we have not yet decided or discussed what we will do if there is a snow day in terms of transitioning to full remote or not. Our biggest challenge is usually when there’s a storm we had power outages and that creates challenges for certain students.”