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As COVID rates rise, state remains committed to keeping schools open

Yehyun Kim

As Connecticut’s daily COVID-19 test positivity rate reached 23.85% Tuesday, state leaders stressed their commitment to keeping schools open, despite school districts throughout the state using professional development days or inclement weather days to delay students’ return to classrooms due to COVID concerns.

“I’m going to do everything I can to keep kids in classrooms safely,” Gov. Ned Lamont said. “Nothing compares to a great teacher in a classroom.”

Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, said during a Tuesday news conference that 620,000 at-home tests have been sent directly to school districts for students and staff, with another 50,000 sent to child care providers. He added that a large delivery came in overnight and there are “millions more tests that are in the procurement pipeline that we expect to receive in the coming days and weeks.”

“In addition, we’ve recognized the importance of and value of having high-quality masks available to people, particularly given how transmissible this variant is, and so we’ve now distributed over 3.2 million N95 masks statewide and encourage anyone who is wearing a mask, certainly people out on the front lines, to access those if they have not already done so,” Geballe said.

The daily test positivity rate of 23.8% reflected 10,602 new COVID-19 cases. Hospitalizations increased by 110 to 1,562.

Union officials representing more than 60,000 school employees asked the state on Monday to implement stricter safety standards as increasing positive COVID-19 cases affect bus driver availability and mitigation concerns in schools heading back from the holidays.

Union members sent a list of requests to state leaders, including more aggressive protocols as students and teachers enter school, cost-free and weekly COVID testing, distribution of N95 masks and test kits to schools, a prohibition of combined classes due to staff shortages, and ensuring that staff does not have to use sick time while quarantining.

“Those are rules that we’ve established as a coalition to try to provide a plan where we found that there was no plan,” said Mary Yordon, president of the Norwalk Federation of Teachers and vice president for PreK-12, AFT Connecticut. “This may not be the only plan that can provide safety for our schools. But we are determined to suggest some practical solutions to provide safety in our workplaces so we can serve the students who need us, to whom we are dedicated and we’ve dedicated our careers.”

Union members said that returning to school buildings after the holidays while COVID cases are on the rise was “very stressful.” Some said there were no N95 masks or tests available and that many students were absent.

“I think everything feels intensified, and I think that’s one of the things that people need to really appreciate … that the intensity level in these buildings is high,” said Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association. “People have families, and they don’t want to get COVID.”

The unions’ demands follow recently updated guidance released by the Department of Public Health regarding quarantine, isolation, testing and returning to activities in schools.

DPH’s updated guidance says that people who test positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for five days, instead of 10 days, unless symptoms persist and should wear a mask around others for the remaining five days. DPH also loosened guidance regarding contact tracing in the update as well.

Dr. Manisha Juthani, the commissioner of public health, explained on Tuesday that those who want to continue with the previous guidance have the option to do so but that they wanted to provide alternatives “to be able to have schools refocus their efforts on the things that are the best practices in terms of infection prevention.”

“We are asking our school nurses no longer to be focused on contact tracing within the schools,” Juthani said. “This does not mean we have stopped efforts across the board in our communities in terms of educating our public. However, now we can focus more on those practices within school that we know keep students and staff safe.”

Dias said that while state leaders share many ideas with the unions about safety measures in schools, they’re differing in getting all the mitigation efforts in place before having everyone back into school buildings, adding that there needed to be a better and clearer execution of plans because “that’s really where the frustration lies. That didn’t happen.”

Although the priority for the unions is to also keep students in class, one proposal Dias said she made in December was for schools to go remote for about a week to buy school employees more time to distribute tests and masks, set up classrooms differently and implement new protocols for the surging cases after the holidays so that people felt more prepared.

“Again, you’re told, ‘Listen, we really don’t want to open the door for remote for that, if districts need to take the days, they’ll take the day off,’ so ultimately, that’s what you’re starting to see happen around the state,” she said. “There are things that are very practical that take time to figure out. So it was really left in [the districts’] hands to determine, ‘OK, what are you going to do?'”

According to guidance released by the state Department of Education, remote learning is not permitted this school year other than on case-by-case circumstances related to COVID or as an accommodation for students with disabilities. Remote learning days are also not counted toward the 180-day requirement this school year unless it’s under those circumstances.

“Districts can make local decisions, as they do on a snow day,” said Charlene Russell-Tucker, Connecticut’s education commissioner. “However, they would have to make up that day.”

Ansonia Mayor David Cassetti said he decided to close the schools this week because there weren’t enough bus drivers to get kids to school and possibly teachers to teach even if they got there.

“We waited for the Governor to make a decision, but he hasn’t made one, so we made it for him,” Cassetti said. “I just told the superintendent to close it down for a week and see where we are, because right now we didn’t have enough bus drivers.”

Cassetti said he’s prepared to keep schools closed next week, if necessary.

“It means we’d have to go to school until the middle of June, because the state isn’t allowing remote learning, but at this point I didn’t see a better option,” Cassetti said.

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