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State Working To Return All Students To Connecticut Schools, As COVID Numbers Inch Upward

File Photo: Children that go to the Expeditionary Learning Academy at Moylan School dig right into their meals served by Hartford Public Schools at Samuel Valentine Arroyo Recreation Center in Hartford.  
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public/NENC
In this file photo, children who attend the Expeditionary Learning Academy at Moylan School dig into their meals served by Hartford public schools at Samuel Valentine Arroyo Recreation Center in Hartford.   "

Connecticut’s Department of Education says that state COVID-19 data will guide the decision-making process regarding how K-12 students should learn in the fall, but Thursday's numbers inched in the wrong direction:  The state reported 101 new positive COVID-19 test results and an uptick in the number of hospitalizations by two.

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Speaking on a YouTube webinar Thursday, Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said the state is considering three scenarios for the coming school year: a full opening, a hybrid of online and in-person participation, and distance learning only.

“We want schools to open, but only as long as public health data continues to support moving in that direction,” Cardona said. “Public health data matters, and while Connecticut’s health data is among the best in the country -- thanks in part to all of you -- a change in the data for Connecticut will mean different things for the reopening of schools in the fall.”

Gov. Ned Lamont closed in-person instruction in schools on March 16 to keep students and faculty safe from the spread of COVID-19. Distance learning was the primary delivery of education during that time.

“I think because we were cautious and because we put public health first, we’ve been more successful as we try and slowly get back,” Lamont said.

During the webinar, the governor said the consideration of public health would be his “North Star” on whether to send kids back into classrooms. He included emotional health under that public health umbrella and then brought up the hundreds of calls from youth in distress to 2-1-1 during the pandemic.

“[With regard to] social and emotional learning, there’s nothing in my mind that replaces the classroom, as long as we can do that safely,” Lamont said.

Distance learning is a key topic in Connecticut’s back-to-school discussion. Lamont considers distance learning a way to comfort parents worried about sending their children back amid a pandemic, alluding to a combination of online and in-person participation being available to parents.

“But we really want folks to get back into that classroom, and we think we can do that safely,” Lamont said.

Logistical issues continue to hamper the distance learning capabilities of students from the state’s neediest districts. Desi Nesmith, a state deputy education commissioner, addressed a digital divide that he said disproportionately affects students of color.

“Equity needs to be at the front and center as we look to address the digital divide,” Nesmith said during the webinar. “That means we have to prioritize our resources to be deployed first to districts that are in the most need.”

Nesmith said his team is trying to get more laptops for students in these districts, in addition to the 60,000 secured through the now-disbanded Partnership for Connecticut cooperative between state officials and Dalio Philanthropies. He also said he’s trying to get money to resolve student connectivity issues.

Deidre Gifford, the state’s acting Department of Public Health commissioner, weighed in on the move to get back to school.

“All of the work that the governor has been leading and we have been doing to contain the pandemic in Connecticut is really key to the safe school reopening,” Gifford said. “That includes our gradual reopening of the economy that’s been slow and measured and careful, our face coverings, which are essential and as you know feature prominently in the school guidance, continued physical distancing, and, for those who are older adults or with underlying chronic conditions, to remain home as much as possible, our rigorous testing and tracing strategies that we’re putting in place, and, of course, continued hand-washing.”

Upon the reopening, students and faculty will be required to wear masks. If someone doesn’t have a face covering, Gifford said districts must provide one.

Officials were asked about whether people in Connecticut schools would be subject to temperature checks. Gifford pivoted back to the state’s mask requirement as the chief way to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. She also said the consensus among those involved in the planning was that issues with monitoring body temperature -- like creating bottlenecks at school entrances -- outweighed the benefits.

COVID-19 Cases, Hospitalizations Move Slightly Upward

Since Monday, when the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 dipped to 69, Connecticut has seen a gradual increase.

“I’d be worried that we see a little tick up in hospitalizations if not for the fact that our admissions are flat, or even on a slight downward trend,” Lamont said. “That means that we don’t have the flare-ups that you see in some of the other states.”

Lamont cited limited capacity in intensive care units in Florida hospitals as that state continues to experience high infection rates -- 8,948 new cases were reported since Wednesday.

Still, Connecticut’s positivity rate inched upward to 1.2% of tests conducted.

Gifford spoke to the reliability of the positivity rate during Thursday’s coronavirus update. She said this type of data would be harder to interpret if the spread of coronavirus in Connecticut were rising in a manner similar to states experiencing higher infections rates while seeing increased testing capacity.

“We’re not in that position in Connecticut,” Gifford said. “We’ve been relatively stable in our testing numbers and in our community spread and positivity rate.”

Lamont said a red flag for him would be a positive test rate closer to 5%.

Frankie Graziano is the host of The Wheelhouse, focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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