How COVID cases rose and fell again and again in Greenwich: A look back at an 'overwhelming' school year

GREENWICH — From the very first day of the 2020-21 school year, uncertainty emerged as the theme.

Greenwich teachers and students were among the earliest to return to in-school learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the leadership of Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones, the district offered a remote school option for students, but since September had most of its students in-person, with some modifications.

With the school year over, Jones’ push for some sense of normalcy has mostly drawn praise. But at the time, there was a palpable sense of unease among teachers, students and parents. Many made attempts to predict how a decidedly unpredictable year would go.

“In the beginning, we were all nervous about going back and, frankly, not too happy about. There was a fair amount of dread at the beginning,” said Lee Bowbeer, a Greenwich High School social worker and parent. “And we were all kind of jokingly — but not so jokingly — making bets about how long it would be before we were back home.”

And though there were large scale quarantines, and at times hundreds of students and staff sent home because of COVID-19 protocol, Greenwich Schools remained open.

For the duration of the year, the district traced the spread of the virus in its buildings and among its staff and students via a tracker, which was updated twice a week. The tracker provided the number of new cases, the number of total cases, information on the origin of cases — undetermined, in-school, outside activity or family — and listed cases by school. It also offers a glimpse at how, and when, the virus spread through Greenwich Public Schools.

“All year it was overwhelming,” said Andrea Abbott, a North Street School fourth grade teacher. “The stress of the pandemic was overwhelming.”

Riding the waves

The COVID-19 pandemic came in waves, each of which brought a surge of cases and its own brand of uncertainty.

After the 2019-20 year came to a screeching halt at the onset of the pandemic, the fall semester of 2020-21 began on an encouraging note. Statewide, COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations hit a relative low in summer 2020, and that trend continued through the early fall. The district’s first confirmed case of the school year came in mid-September and, until late October, cases remained in the single digits district-wide.

But around Halloween, and in the weeks immediately following, the district saw its first explosion of COVID-19 cases. In just over a month, case totals had climbed into the triple digits. On Dec. 4, there were 126 confirmed cases in the district. By Jan. 3, there were more than 200.

In the second half of the year, the district would record more than a quarter of all its total COVID-19 cases, with significant upticks especially after breaks. There were periods of intense quarantining and high case totals following holiday and winter break in January and February, respectively, as well as following spring break in April.

That last uptick came at a particularly difficult time of year, according to Bowbeer. By that point, teachers, along with many Connecticut residents over a certain age, had already started getting vaccinated. The long, dark winter months had recently passed and the summer seemed close at hand.

And yet, there were roughly 17 new cases reported in each bi-weekly tracker update in April, higher than any other month in the calendar year, including January, February and December, each of which also had high case counts.

In the spring, “It was rough to see every single day another email from Dr. Jones,” Bowbeer said. “Then there was sort of this crossroads when those numbers went down and we knew vaccinations were going up.”

That final surge, however, was thankfully short lived, she said.

By early May, new cases slowed considerably. By June, they were nearly non-existent. In the last month of school leading up to Greenwich High’s graduation, which was held outdoors but in-person, there were five cases, in total, reported in Greenwich Schools. The total number reported this school year sits at 697.

“The COVID-19 tracker provided a transparent and consistent update for our school community as we navigated the pandemic throughout this school year,” Jones said. “Our nursing staff did a tremendous job monitoring the health situation at all of our school sites, and while we did experience spikes in positive cases at points throughout the year, we were fortunate to close out the school year with very few positive cases over the last several weeks of the school year.”

‘A waiting game’

Jones announced recently that the district would not be updating its COVID-19 tracker over the summer, though some staff and students will be attending in-person summer school. The district will determine closer to the start of the school year whether or not the tracker will continue in the fall, she said.

“We were thrilled to end the year with a sense of normalcy with such events like an in-person GHS graduation, moving up ceremonies and field days,” Jones said. “The first day of school and the last month of school were certainly two high points.”

But coming out of the pandemic, there is some rebuilding, and some healing, that must occur, educators said.

From Bowbeer’s perspective, as a social worker, the impact of the pandemic on students has been tremendous. The psychological effects of COVID-19 will not be easy to undo, he said, but continuing to move toward normalcy could help.

“I do think they can bounce back,” Bowbeer said. “As a social worker, I’ve got to have that optimism or else I wouldn’t be able to do this job.”

And for teachers, Abbott said the year has taken a profound mental toll. To adapt to COVID-19, educators had to relearn how to teach with masks and maintain proper distancing and stand in classrooms with both remote and in-person learners. COVID-19 work days became longer and stress mounted, she said.

The end of the year was positive, no doubt. But questions linger.

Will the Delta variant, which is spreading rapidly in many parts of the country, bring on yet another COVID-19 wave? Will masks and distancing be required next school year? Will remote school continue to be an option? Will students and teachers ever fully feel safe in class again?

“It’s as if it were the beginning of COVID, in some ways, because we don’t have answers,” Abbott said. “It’s a waiting game.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586