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Connecticut education head on back to school: 'It is absolutely calmer compared to last year'

Connecticut Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker speaking in front of a microphone in the studio on Connecticut Public’s “Where We Live”.
Julianne Varacchi
/
Connecticut Public
Connecticut Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker speaks on Connecticut Public’s “Where We Live” on Tuesday, August 23, 2022.

The lead-up to this school year certainly feels like more of a traditional start when compared to the lockdowns and remote schooling brought about by the coronavirus pandemic over the past two and a half years.

In the coming days, schools across Connecticut will reopen, only weeks after the nation’s top public health agency streamlined its COVID-19 guidance.

Connecticut Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said Tuesday that this year “is absolutely calmer” compared to last year, when anti-mask protesters forced state police to escort Gov. Ned Lamont out of a back-to-school briefing in Cheshire.

Speaking on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live, Russell-Tucker said that educators have learned much during the pandemic and that she is “very confident about where we are.”

“They minored in epidemiology these past two years,” Russell-Tucker said. “As educators – they were not prepared, none of us were prepared – for what was handed to us.”

“We’ve learned some things and what to do to keep schools as safe as possible, so let’s get on with the learning,” Russell-Tucker said.

While COVID guidelines have been relaxed, Russell-Tucker said that schools will continue to report COVID-19 cases to public health officials and that school leaders will monitor cases to see if new mitigation strategies are needed.

“It helps us to know what’s happening,” Russell-Tucker said. “They will be doing that – it’s just not leading with that at this point in time.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says students exposed to COVID-19 can regularly test — instead of quarantining at home — and keep attending school.

The CDC said certain students may return to school five days after infection, without proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Some public health officials are concerned about potential outbreaks that could force schools to temporarily close anyway if teachers get sick in large numbers.

COVID-19 vaccines for students are 'a tough question'

Russell-Tucker said requiring COVID-19 vaccines for public school students is “a tough question and I’ll leave that up to the medical professionals.

“But, in the interim – parents, talk with their medical providers, talk with the pediatricians, and really take that good guidance and make the best decisions for students,” she said.

More COVID-19 vaccines could be coming soon.

On Monday, Pfizer asked U.S. regulators to authorize its combination COVID-19 vaccine that adds protection against the newest omicron relatives. The move is a key step toward opening a fall booster campaign, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the CDC is relaxing other COVID-19 recommendations in the classroom.

In mid-August the CDC also removed recommendations to cohort students in grades K-12 and says masks are recommended only in areas where community transmission is deemed high, or if a person is considered at high risk of severe illness.

No Connecticut counties are listed as having “high” levels of community transmission, according to the CDC.

The American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation's largest teachers unions, has said it welcomes the new guidance.

“Every educator and every parent starts every school year with great hope, and this year even more so,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “After two years of uncertainty and disruption, we need as normal a year as possible so we can focus like a laser on what kids need.”

The average number of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths nationally has been relatively flat this summer, at around 100,000 cases a day and 300 to 400 deaths. In Connecticut, hospitalizations due to COVID have remained basically flat since July.

The CDC previously said that if people who are not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations come into close contact with a person who tests positive, they should stay home for at least five days.

Now the agency says quarantining at home is not necessary, but it urges those people to wear a high-quality mask for 10 days and get tested after five.

State Education Department 'very closely' following monkeypox, but classroom transmission concerns are minimal at this point

Students are returning to school as a new global outbreak of monkeypox has made its way into Connecticut. So far, the state has reported more than 80 cases of monkeypox.

Anyone can get monkeypox, but the disease is spreading mostly among gay and queer people, primarily men who have sex with men.

Russell-Tucker said her department is “very closely” following the guidance of the Department of Public Health about the monkeypox outbreak, but that so far, her department has not heard widespread concerns from teachers about monkeypox transmission in the classroom.

“We’ve learned a lot with COVID – the mitigation strategies are still in place,” Russell-Tucker said, “so there’s not a lot of questions regarding [monkeypox].”

Monkeypox is far less contagious than COVID-19 and people are very unlikely to catch monkeypox through casual contact with a contaminated surface or an infected person.

This story contains information from the Associated Press.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.
Lucy is the Executive Producer and Host of Connecticut Public's morning talk show, 'Where We Live.' She’s a longtime public radio reporter covering several beats including immigration, juvenile justice and child welfare issues, education, veterans affairs and the military.
Katie is a producer for Connecticut Public Radio's news-talk show Where We Live. She has previously worked for CNN and News 8-WTNH. She enjoys Victorian novels and walks with her dog Sonny.
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