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Persistent uptick in school COVID cases, but no plans for remote learning

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TYLER RUSSELL
/
CONNECTICUT PUBLIC RADIO
Educators around the state are grappling with rising COVID cases in the schools. A hallway of S.A.N.D Elementary in Hartford at the start of the school year.

When Connecticut’s COVID infection rate peaked at over 8% last week, educators around the state had what one called “a real pause moment.” But while numbers like that a year ago might have alarmed officials into shutting down schools, this year they are better prepared.

Confirmed cases in schools have risen steadily over the last several weeks. The state reported Thursday that 2,483 K-12 students tested positive for COVID over the last seven days — a 408% increase over the number of positive cases on Nov. 3. Of those students, 1,951 were not fully vaccinated, 294 were fully vaccinated and 238 were unknown.

“We continue to hear anecdotally that some districts are experiencing a slight uptick in cases and this is likely related to the holiday,” said Eric Scoville, a spokesperson from the state’s education department. “Our districts definitely have mitigation measures in place, such as masking and social distancing, and they have strong muscle memories of the previous two years on how to really mitigate that spread. So we’re confident our districts will be able to implement those procedures.”

Scoville added that because the state is not requiring districts to offer remote learning, there are no plans or standards in place to implement remote learning in schools at this time. The only students currently engaging in that learning model are those who have to quarantine.

“With that being said, there is a remote learning commission that’s currently meeting and kind of studying this issue and they have to come up with recommendations on the feasibility of a statewide remote learning system in the future,” Scoville said, adding, “that would be for next year.”

Some districts have used the screen and stay program the state launched in November to help keep students in classrooms. Screen and Stay is a voluntary protocol for districts that allows students who come in contact with a COVID-infected classmate to be screened for symptoms and remain in class instead of having to stay home, sometimes for up to two weeks.

In Hartford, a total of 149 students have participated in Screen and Stay since the district implemented the program last month, said the district’s Director of Nursing and Clinical Services Deb Chameides.

“It certainly keeps children in the classroom,” Chameides said, explaining that those 149 children were considered close contacts to a positive case and either quarantined for 10 days or returned back to class on the eighth day of quarantine after testing negative.

“We also offer quarantine with a test option on days five through seven and return on day eight,” she said. “So those are children who would have missed school, in-person learning had parents not opted for screen and stay for them.”

One school in Hartford reported having fewer than six cases last week, according to the state’s data. The district’s cumulative numbers, from July 1-Dec. 8, show that there have been 454 student cases, 123 staff cases and 2,723 student quarantines.

Chameides said Hartford is continuing to stress to school administrators, educators, students and their families that the mitigation strategies they’ve had in place since last year are still important to follow a year later.

“Masks are still required per governor’s order and are strictly adhered to in all of our school buildings. All of our students are still masking,” she said, adding that they are also promoting as much distancing as possible in the schools, reminding children to wash their hands frequently, reminding families not to send their students to school when they’re sick, and to let them know if their child is considered a close contact or has been exposed to somebody with COVID-19.

“This school year, we have not seen many cases of in-school transmission, which tells us that our mitigation practices really do work, that we’re not seeing COVID spread in school, that it’s a result of community transmission, and I think the increased cases in the schools are the result of increased cases of community transmission.”

Connecticut Education Association (CEA) President Kate Dias said the higher positivity rates are not surprising.

“I think we weren’t sure how high they were going to go. We weren’t sure what that was going to look like,” Dias said, adding that the CEA has been tracking the numbers very closely for conversations they are having about masking protocols and to see if the Screen and Stay protocol provides enough protection.

“The majority of my educators are cautious about this, but they’re not looking for a giant reversal or change,” she said.

Dias explained that educators are supportive of Screen and Stay, but express concerns about whether schools should be testing a random sample of people to see where there might be hotspots since they do not understand how the virus transmits differently among the vaccinated and unvaccinated, how Screen and Stay is being implemented, how schools are following through with it, and what the efficacy of the program is.

“We recognize the importance of keeping kids in school, but want to do that in the most responsible way possible,” Dias said. “So if there are questions about the implementation of [screen and stay], I think they’re trying to flush those out with their administration. And that’s really on a case-by-case because districts have some discretion about how to implement that protocol so that it’s smoothly entered into their system, be it computer-based or paper system.”

Dias said the positivity rate in the state peaking above 8% last week was “a real pause moment” and numbers like that would have frightened schools a year ago and forced many to go into shutdown.

But she explained because schools now know more about positivity rates after having to plan and prepare safety measures for the last year, what hospitalizations “looks like matters significantly” and that is what many school and district officials are keeping a close eye on as well.

Dias added that it is important for people to remember that the pandemic is still a “third party in education” — schools are dealing with quarantining students and staff, who are dealing with their own families being affected.

“It’s not as present when you go out Christmas shopping,” she said. “Schools are still heavily involved in protocols trying to protect people because they’re still the largest place that unvaccinated people can congregate knowingly. We just have a large number of students who aren’t vaccinated yet and as long as that’s the case, we’re still going to have this sense of the pandemic as very present.”

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