As local school officials wait for critical guidance from Gov. Ned Lamont about whether masks will be required for students and staff, district by district school officials are finalizing plans for what other health and safety measures — like cohorting, distancing and cleaning — will stay in place when the schools open in the fall.
One significant change is that the state will not count remote learning days toward the minimum required instructional days, which means that districts will no longer offer remote learning as an instructional option. Last year, the Governor’s emergency orders allowed the use of remote learning days to slow the spread of COVID-10 — but guidance from the State Department of Education says that “students enrolled in grades K-8 should not be included in district policies relating to remote learning as a regular part of the curriculum.”
Remote learning will be allowed if a student must quarantine for COVID or if a school must close temporarily because of an outbreak of COVID. In 2022-3, the state will allow, but not require, districts to offer remote learning for high schoolers.
Kristina Martineau, superintendent of Westbrook schools, said at a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday that if a student has to quarantine for COVID-related reasons, the classroom teacher will not have to teach both the remote student and her regular classroom at the same time. Instead, Martineau told CT Examiner, the district will develop an individualized plan with students in quarantine so that the child has one-on-one learning time for part of the day with the teacher, interventionists or tutors.
Martineau said the district will be in touch with quarantined students’ family members to make sure that the remote learning is going smoothly, and offer support and possibly after-school tutoring for the student after he or she returns to the classroom.
“I think our quarantine numbers, based on what we know, will be much lower [this year],” Martineau said at the meeting.
Maryann O’Donnell, superintendent of schools in Clinton, said in an email to CT Examiner the district would use technology platforms like Google Classrooms and SeeSaw to make sure that teachers and students stay connected in the event of a quarantine.
Quarantines themselves also have the potential to change. Martineau said at the Board of Education meeting that while the current quarantine period for non-vaccinated individuals is 10 days, she said it might be possible for the quarantine to be shortened.The CDC has released guidance that quarantine periods can end if after seven days if an individual has a negative COVID test on the fifth day and has not presented any symptoms.
Fully vaccinated individuals who are identified as being in contact with someone who has COVID will not be required to quarantine. Students who are seated at least three feet away from a positive case also do not need to be quarantined, according to guidance from the CDC and the state’s Department of Education.
The Department of Education is also no longer requiring cohorting, though such plans vary by district. Old Saybrook intends to continue cohorting its students.Superintendent Jan Perruccio said in an email that the district would cohort grades K through 8 by grade and have four classes at the high school.
Clinton and Guilford will not be strictly cohorting, and Lyme-Old Lyme and Madison will not be implementing any cohorting practices. Superintendent of Madison Public Schools Craig Cooke said that they were “excited” that students would be able to go back to a normal school day.
“We know it was hard for students to continually be with a small number of students and not be able to see their friends from other classes at recess,” said Cooke.
School officials said they will try to maintain at least three feet of distance between students whenever possible, as per recommendations from the Center for Disease Control. Old Saybrook’s reopening plan asks that the schools keep six feet of distance between teacher and student desks in the classroom.
The CDC and the Department of Education have also reduced requirements for cleaning, recommending that normal procedures, along with daily disinfecting of bathrooms, is sufficient.
Schools are also preparing to return to normal afterschool activities. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference is planning a normal schedule for fall sports.
“For our students and staff, besides the indoor mask requirement, this year will feel far closer to a normal school year than last year as we return to our cafeterias for lunch, our buses for transportation, and participate fully in after school activities and athletics,” Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser wrote in a letter to parents on August 11.
Guilford Superintendent Paul Freeman said that other mitigation strategies, like plexiglass, would also be largely discontinued, except possibly in the high school during lunch, where he said it could make people feel more comfortable.
“The studies are telling us that all the plexiglass we put in place didn’t really do a lot,” said Freeman. He added that the mitigating factors that made a real difference were the vaccines and masking.
“The masks are the most important protection that we have,” he said.
As of now, whether masks will be required in schools remains an open question. Until September 30, all students and staff are required to wear masks, according to an executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont. Local school officials are waiting to see this week whether Lamont will extend or modify that order.
A number of districts have already released statements indicating their preferences on requiring masks if the Governor leaves the decision to local school officials.
Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, in its reopening plan, indicated that the district “will only require masks for all students, staff and visitors should public health measures dictate such need.”
Neviaser wrote in the August 11 communication to families that if the mask mandate expires on September 30, “we will revisit our indoor mask requirement and make any adjustments based on public health measures at that time.”
In Guilford, Freeman indicated that even if the state does not mandate masks, the schools would continue masking as long as health experts recommend it.
“We will follow any mandates, and I want to suggest tonight that we will follow any recommendations around masking that come from our state medical experts,” Freeman said at a Monday night board meeting.
In Madison, Cooke said that in the event that masks are not mandated, he would speak with the local health district.
“One thing we’ve certainly learned from all this is just how small our communities are and how much interaction there is between communities,” said Cooke.
The Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias issued a statement on July 27 in support of universal masking in schools.
“Vaccinations are the best protection against the virus, but we have large populations of unvaccinated students, because vaccines are not available to them at this point, so the next best way to protect them, their educators, and their families is to wear masks,” said Dias.
The American Federation of Teachers issued a statement in support of requiring masks for all students. AFT Connecticut Vice President for PreK-12 educators Mary Yordon said in a statement that members will wear masks “if that is required for the safety of our members and the school community.”
“We know that vaccinations are the best protection against this virus, and that masks are also very effective to reduce the spread … ” said Yordon. “Our union members wish nothing more than to return to no-mask, in-person classrooms. Such convenience and comfort should not come at a risk to anyone’s health.”
The AFT also said it supports continuing six feet distancing in schools, despite the CDC recommendation of three feet.
“The lesser of two evils”
Connecticut has reported a recent increase in cases of COVID among all age groups, including children ages 0-19. In the two week period from June 20 to July 3, a total of 138 children between the ages of 0 and 19 tested positive for COVID across the state. In the period between July 18 and July 31, that number reached 1,046.
However, in Connecticut, hospitalization rates for children diagnosed with COVID do not appear to be increasing. In late May and early June, the hospitalization rate for children was 1.5 per 100,000. Since then, the rate has not risen above 0.5 per 100,000.
John Schreiber, the Interim Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center said the center had seen only a “slight increase” in covid-related hospitalizations. Dr. Tom Murray at the Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital said that they were not seeing an increase in children hospitalized for COVID. He said that 1 to 2 children per week were being admitted to the hospital with a positive COVID test.
Doctors that CT Examiner spoke with continue to advocate for having students wear masks.
Jody Terranova, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and president-elect and immunization representative for the Connecticut chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said she believed children should wear masks. She said there had been cases where vaccinated individuals had contracted COVID.
“The vaccine still works and still protects people from getting [the Delta variant]. But the vaccines aren’t a hundred percent protective. So, if you’re vaccinated, you could still get it and you could still spread it,” said Terranova. “So making sure that you’re masked, whether you’re vaccinated or not, when you’re in an indoor setting, especially a school setting, is going to be important.”
Terranova said that children can transmit the virus to adults, who could get seriously ill from the virus. She also said that doctors were concerned about the development of new, more serious variants.
Dr. Carlos Oliveira, a physician and expert in pediatric infectious diseases who chairs the multidisciplinary pediatric COVID-19 and MIS-C treatment team, said that since children under the age of 12 remain unvaccinated, and since the Delta variant is more contagious, he expects to see a higher number of children contracting the virus. Oliveira said he was concerned that the virus could adapt and become more proficient at infecting unvaccinated populations, which include children under the age of 12.
“From my point of view, there’s very little reason to withhold masks from children as they go to school, because it’s only going to increase the rate of infections in that particular school and lead to closures of schools or remote learning, which we know is subpar,” he said. “So if we can keep the kids in school with masks, that seems to me like the lesser of two evils.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated with additional communications from schools and hospitals