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With No Official State Mandate, School Districts Must Decide When To Shut Down

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public Radio

As in-person learning continues throughout Connecticut, at least eight schools have closed their doors temporarily or imposed restrictions after confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

There is no official state mandate on how many cases it would take for a school district to shut down entirely, but guidelines from the state Department of Education offer a working document for districts to consider as they determine how to address potential exposure. 

East Hartford became the latest town to announce a closure -- the high school was shut down for Monday and Tuesday after a student tested positive for COVID-19. 

Speaking on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live, Gov. Ned Lamont said he’d rather see quarantines as a response instead of complete closures. 

“So, if there happens to be an infection in that one class, it’s just those 20 students and that teacher who would have to quarantine, not the entire school,” he said. “But our schools are handling this well, I think -- they are finding those isolated cases where there have been some infections.”

Schools have varied in their decisions to close or quarantine. After a senior tested positive for COVID-19 this past Wednesday, Naugatuck High School announced early dismissal and began planning for distance learning. At Kendall School in Norwalk, 10 staff members were expected to quarantine after coming into contact with a person who tested positive. In Monroe, one positive case was not deemed a potential threat of exposure, and the town’s community school remained open with bus transportation operational. 

According to guidelines from the state Education and Public Health departments, the leading indicator for those decisions is the seven-day rolling average of new cases per 100,000 population per day. Twenty-five or more new cases per 100,000 population would favor a move to full remote learning. 

In Wilton, a high school student tested positive for COVID-19 last Friday. In a letter to parents, Superintendent Kevin J. Smith said Wilton Public Schools would collaborate with the DPH on contact tracing. As part of the containment plan, individuals who had  “close contact” would be contacted by officials from the local health department. Additionally, the school building was closed for a deep cleaning so that students could return Monday. However, students were returning in cohorts. 

Back in May, Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, supported adopting a statewide plan. At the time, she thought it would help teachers with children in school synchronize their schedules. But now she believes a district-by-district model is the only way because the story is different in each district. 

“Ownership of a plan at the district level is much more important than having a statewide model,” Rabinowitz said. “Local context really does make a difference, and that is the way it should be decided.”

Rabinowitz said between the likelihood of community spread and population differences across Connecticut towns, a statewide plan would not work. Student populations range from 21,000 to just 100 across the state. Populous counties like Fairfield and Hartford are more likely to see spread than others. Factors like this would make a uniform plan difficult, she said.  

And those plans could remain subject to change. Rabinowitz added a word of advice for administrators and teachers: Don’t fall in love with a plan. In-person learning is ideal for students' social and emotional health, according to Rabinowitz, but the guidance of public health officials will take highest priority. 

Brenda Leon and Ali Oshinskie are corps members with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. 

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