The Measure of Safety for Connecticut’s Public Schools

Last year, again and again, I was told by educators and health professionals alike that “we are going to keep doing what works.” I heard the same this summer as schools reopened and prepared for in-person learning.

“We know the masks work,” said Dr. Tom Balcezak, chief medical officer at Yale New Haven Health System at a July press conference. 

“We have the same types of protocols as last year,” said Patty Cournoyer, the health teacher at Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School.

For Lyme-Old Lyme, that means masks, some outdoor classes and lunch times, one-way traffic in the hallways and using lockers only for lunch, at the beginning and end of the day. Since Lyme-Old Lyme was the only district to offer full, in-person learning throughout the 2020-2021 school year, they know this “works.” 

But what does it mean to work? 

Does it mean no cases? No, all school districts had some COVID-19 cases last year. Does it mean a threshold percent of students infected? Does it mean no hospitalizations? Or no deaths? 

Asked if there is a percent positivity or number of cases that would require school closures no one has been able to provide a clear answer.

“I don’t think I can answer that,” said Balcezak at a September press conference. “I know there are schools in other states that are closing for multiple cases, but there isn’t one number.” 

According to Charlene Russell-Tucker, the state commissioner of education, every decision regarding managing the spread of COVID-19 is a collaborative discussion between her department, the Department of Public Health and the Governor’s Office. 

In other words, there is no particular threshold of cases or hospitalizations for COVID-19 that would dictate a return to remote learning.

“Our districts … were saying to us, similarly, to the question that you asked, what is the threshold, or how high does these counts need to be before we’re saying enough is enough … And I understand your question, families would have to plan and all of that, but right now, we’re not, we don’t know what that point would be,” Russell-Tucker said.

Obviously, no one wants to return to remote or hybrid instructional models likely responsible for a steep decline in standardized test scores. But are the measures in place — like masks and physical distancing — necessary or effective to prevent that from happening? And are they even really being used? 

According to several teachers who reached out to the CT Examiner, most students are not taking these rules as seriously as in the past year.

“It’s just a lot more lax than last year. Students wear their mask below the nose, many of them at my school are vaccinated so the caution we all had last year seems to be gone,” one teacher at a vocational high school told CT Examiner.

It’s not even clear whether when the rules were mostly followed last year, they meaningfully prevented the spread of COVID-19.  Last year, the CT Examiner reported that children who were learning remotely were just as likely to test positive for COVID-19 as those learning in person.

Not only have we been given no clear threshold for switching over to remote learning, there is also no clear line for when students should stop wearing masks. And while many young people tolerate mask-wearing well, it’s also increasingly clear that these health measures have real health consequences.

Since March 2020, the incidence of suicides, eating disorders and other mental illnesses have increased in school aged children. Children in daycare and preschool where adults are masked are experiencing delays in speech.

Unfortunately, an open and honest conversation weighing the benefits, drawbacks and impacts of strategies used to prevent the spread of COVID is hard to come by when everything from vaccines to masks seems to have become a political statement. In Connecticut in particular, where the Governor’s emergency powers will remain in place through early 2022 after yet another extension yesterday, that conversation between elected state officials and the public is not even possible. 

If some level of COVID-19 infections are here to stay, then the question must be asked, is mask wearing, physical distancing for children at lunch and recess and other precautions the new normal?

Will my friend’s daughter always go to speech therapy with her and her therapist in a mask? Will it be accepted that many hearing-impaired children that relied on reading lips are out of luck? Will the days of group projects and lunch time gossiping really be over?

While elected and government officials, public health experts and educators try to balance the scale between risks and harms, childhoods are slipping by. 

Eighteen months may seem short in an adult life, but for children it’s the difference between birth and walking, that first day of kindergarten and reading their first chapter book, the middle of high school and the start of college.

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