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State officials say there are no plans for remote learning, despite COVID-19 case surge

Wallingford Covid test and mask distribution
Tony Spinelli
/
Connecticut Public
COVID test kits are unloaded from a Wallingford Fire Department vehicle at the Oakdale Theatre on Jan. 4, 2022. Home test kits and N95 masks were handed out to Wallingford residents in the parking lot.

State leaders offered new COVID-19 guidance for schools on Tuesday, emphasizing a priority on maintaining in-person learning amid Connecticut’s record-high infection rate, as students and their families struggled to get access to testing before returning to class after the holiday break.

Gov. Ned Lamont was joined by several state officials at a news conference to reiterate the state’s determination to keep schools open in the safest way possible. Attending were Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani and Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer.

Russell-Tucker said she understands the concerns families have about sending their children to school amid the rise in COVID-19 cases — the state set a record with a 24% test positivity rate on Tuesday. But Russell-Tucker stressed that schools are safe spaces, and with current state policies, remote learning is not an option.

“If the legislature, you know, came in and made some changes on remote learning, they can certainly do that. Right now, it is not permitted,” Russell-Tucker said.

Schools statewide pivoted to remote learning during spring 2020 and the 2020-21 school year in response to the coronavirus state of emergency. The governor was able to sanction this through executive orders under the state’s expanded authority during a public health emergency.

Prior to the pandemic, state law had no provisions that allowed public schools to count remote learning toward its 180-day requirement. Currently, if a student has symptoms, or is immunocompromised and/or lives with immunocompromised family members, remote learning is permitted through programming that’s greenlit by the local district.

Russell-Tucker said it’s important for families to understand how much effort schools are making to ensure that classrooms are safe for students.

“What we’re working on here is to make sure that educators have the strategies that they’re employing and the supplies that they need, and for families to understand how much effort is being made to make sure that classrooms are really a safer place and to really develop that confidence that everyone is working hard to keep their kids safe,” said Russell-Tucker.

Based on published research, Juthani said data has shown that strategies like mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing are working to keep transmission rates low in schools.

“What we need to remember is wearing a mask is going to be what is the most protective — actually wearing it, not having it be on the chin or somewhere else,” Juthani said.

Her department released new guidelines for COVID-19 exposure and recovery on Monday following national recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Juthani clarified those guidelines: Vaccinated students who are exposed can now continue to monitor symptoms and stay in the classroom with their masks on. Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated students must quarantine for five days, down from 10 days.

The state said schools would discontinue traditional contact tracing and redouble efforts to help officials notify parents when a known positive case is reported in their child’s classroom. Juthani said this allows nurses to identify cases earlier and get students into isolation faster.

Lamont emphasized that those feeling sick should stay home and get tested.

“If you have a child that’s displaying flu-like symptoms, or if you’re not sure if it’s the flu, stay home,” he said.

State officials said they did not have up-to-date data on how many students or teachers stayed home from school so far this week.

The state distributed 670,000 COVID-19 rapid self-tests to public and private K-12 schools and early child care providers on Tuesday. More will come, as demand is expected to remain high.

“I think there’s nothing more important for our state and for our kids than doing everything we can to keep them in the classroom safely,” Lamont said.