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Education Commissioner Seeks Full In-Person Return Despite Rising COVID Cases

Chion Wolf
Connecticut Public
A file photo of Miguel Cardona in 2012. The state Department of Education commissioner is encouraging full in-person learning, citing low infection rates in schools, despite recent uptick in cases statewide.

State education officials say their information shows that local students aren’t catching COVID-19 in schools; that’s part of their plea to parents to allow their kids to return to the classroom amid the pandemic.

While the state experiences an uptick in cases, Connecticut’s Department of Education reports that less than 1% of the K-12 student body has tested positive for COVID-19 since students were allowed to return to in-person learning for the fall.

“The evidence so far suggests that the cases that schools are reporting to us may really be originating from activities that happen outside of school rather than transmission within the school, so we’re really not hearing from [the state Department of Public Health] that transmission is happening in our schools,” said Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer for the education department.

As of Oct. 7, 421 students and 143 staff members have been infected since schools began hosting students on Aug. 27. These numbers were released at an informational hearing held by the state legislature’s education committee on Thursday, Oct. 8.

That’s where Miguel Cardona, education department commissioner, called on superintendents to encourage in-person learning for those who hadn’t yet come back. It was part of his testimony to the committee on how the 2020-21 school year is going amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re proud of the work that’s happened in your districts,” Cardona said, “and we know that this is possible because of the work that we’ve done with your leadership as well to reduce COVID spread and to support those strategies that we know help reduce the spread such as social distancing, mask wearing. And Connecticut’s done well, and that’s the reason why we’re able to reopen at the rate that we do when you compare it to other states around us,” Cardona said.

The commissioner touted the number of kids learning in the era of the “new normal,” saying that more than 364,000 students have either stepped foot in school or are participating in a hybrid in-person and remote learning model. Cardona also reported that 96% of students currently enrolled in remote-only learning are engaging with their teachers.

But State Sen. Douglas McCrory (D, Hartford) has heard different -- that many students are actually disengaged.

“I don’t want to call out the school districts by name, but they are large school districts and for the people who are working in the buildings,” McCrory said, “they’re telling me the attendance is very poor. Also, they’re telling me the fact that a lot of the children -- even though we have done a great job of getting devices to them -- they’re not signing on.”

The numbers the state has provided are based on the weekly surveying of school districts. Department officials promise more detailed data will be available monthly -- numbers on engagement that usually come out at the end of the year -- but the September numbers haven’t been released yet.

Connecting students to remote learning has been a major priority for the education department’s leadership since the potential for COVID-19 infection forced the governor to temporarily shut down in-person learning back in March. To make inroads, the department had to address Connecticut’s digital divide between students in alliance districts and kids that are better off.

“We’ve been able to prioritize devices for our districts most in need, and we’re also able to fulfill the need statewide that every district gave us, so we will be 100 percent responsive to the barrier that districts let us know existed for kids who needed a device,” said Desi Nesmith, the department's deputy commissioner.

“When all is said and done, we will have pumped in about 141,000 devices.”

That number includes 60,000 devices obtained through a public-private partnership the state had with Dalio Philanthropies. The Partnership for CT formed last year, but ultimately it disbanded during the pandemic.

Another way the state says it’s helping kids in need is by feeding them. The department reports more than 12 million meals served. 

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

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