The recent rise in cases of COVID, and an especially burdensome process for contact tracing, has Connecticut schools debating whether to continue a policy that allows unvaccinated students to attend classes after exposure to COVID-19.
The protocol, called Screen and Stay, was implemented by the state’s Department of Education in early November. Under the program, unvaccinated students who were exposed to a COVID positive case in their classroom are allowed to continue attending school as long as they do not show symptoms. The department initially hailed the proposal as a way to address the large number of school days that students were missing as a result of quarantines.
But the protocol as it’s currently written only allows students to return to the classroom if they were exposed in the classroom. The policy doesn’t apply to students who were exposed in the cafeteria, during athletic activities or anywhere outside of school. Those students are allowed to attend class, but are still prevented from participating in athletic and extracurricular activities.
Guilford Superintendent of Schools Paul Freeman told members of the town’s Board of Education on Monday that Screen and Stay, combined with the rise in COVID cases, was forcing their nurse directors, nurses, principals and central office staff to put in long hours contact tracing.
“We were contact tracing last night at nine o’clock on a Sunday evening,” said Freeman.
Data reported by Guilford shows that 17 students were identified as COVID-positive cases the week of November 29, and an additional 50 non-COVID positive students were required to quarantine. Freeman told CT Examiner on Tuesday that 10 students were identified as COVID-positive last week, and 7 so far this week. In comparison, he said, the district had a total of 13 positive COVID cases in the whole month of September.
Patrick McCormack, director of the UNCAS Health District, serving Norwich and the surrounding rural towns, said he had heard from the districts in his area that they are at “max capacity” in terms of contact tracing.
McCormack said that he’d heard from districts that Screen and Stay was helpful at first, but as the numbers of COVID cases began to rise, the policy created more work for the district. He said that Screen and Stay requires that parents monitor their children each day to make sure they don’t have symptoms, and that districts have to keep track of who can and can’t return to school and which students can or can’t participate in extracurriculars.
Freeman said that the contact tracing procedures meant that in addition to identifying which children were exposed to the virus, the schools now also need to identify whether that exposure took place solely in the classroom.
Freeman said that this was putting undue pressure on the administrators at a time when they were already stretched thin.
“This comes on top of running their schools every day in a labor shortage where our principals aren’t just doing contact tracing after school, they are covering classes and being teachers during school,” he said.
Craig Cooke, superintendent of Madison Public Schools, said that the district had decided not to implement Screen and Stay in part because of the challenges it presented.
Screen and Stay allows children who were exposed to COVID-19 in a classroom setting to take part only in regular classes. Those students still can’t participate in things like physical education, singing and recess. The district, said Cooke, would have to provide an alternate place for these students to go for one to two periods a day — an arrangement that is impossible with the staff that the district currently has.
“We’re short every day on substitutes and paraprofessionals as it is,” said Cooke.
Cooke also said that the majority of exposures that happen in Madison happen over the weekend or in places where students don’t wear masks, like in the cafeteria — all places not covered under Screen and Stay.
According to Cooke, the district revisits the idea of Screen and Stay on a weekly basis, and that they anticipate implementing the policy sometime in 2022.
But, both Freeman and Cooke said that they didn’t believe it was the right time to implement Screen and Stay now that cases in the state were on the rise.
“Screen and Stay is probably not a reasonable response when we are seeing case numbers go up dramatically,” said Freeman.
A rise in cases
Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme schools, said the district had seen an uptick in cases in the last month, but he said he didn’t believe that this had to do with screen and stay. Instead, he said, the problem was the nationwide increase in cases.
The total number of weekly student cases across Connecticut has increased steadily from 487 at the start of November to 1,881 this past week, according to state data.
Neviaser said that Lyme-Old Lyme, which was open fully-in-person all year last year, saw between 42 and 46 cases of COVID between March of 2020 and June of 2021. He said that the district has already exceeded that number since the start of this school year. In the last month, he said, the district has had to deal with about one positive case per day.
Kris Magnussen, a communicable disease prevention supervisor for Ledge Light Health District, which serves much of the shoreline in southeast Connecticut, said that Ledge Light had provided contact tracing for the districts at the start of the pandemic, but became overwhelmed by the time consuming nature of the process.
McCormack said that it also makes sense for schools to take the lead on contact tracing given that they have established relationships with the parents and families.
Both Lyme-Old Lyme and Clinton are considering hiring additional staff for the contact tracing. Neviaser said he was thinking of hiring someone per diem, a cost that would have to come out of the budget. At a Board of Education meeting on Dec. 6, Clinton Superintendent of Schools Maryann O’Donnell said that the district was considering hiring administrative assistants or district staff on an hourly basis to help out with contact tracing in the evenings.
“I’m very worried about what we’re going to see, and we have to respond,” O’Donnell said at the meeting.
Clinton Public Schools have also reported an uptick in cases. Of the 42 positive cases the district has recorded this year, 24 occurred within the last two weeks, according to the district’s online dashboard.
O’Donnell told CT Examiner in an email that Clinton planned to continue with Screen and Stay, despite the burden it was putting on staffing, since the protocol was helping students remain in classes and reducing quarantines.
Magnussen and McCormack both said that the districts should be allowed to decide whether to implement Screen and Stay, given that they are best equipped to know their own staffing capacities.
McCormack said he hoped that now that vaccination was available for children between the ages of five and 11, more and more students would take advantage of it. Under current state guidance, students who are vaccinated and exposed to a COVID-19 case do not have to quarantine unless they exhibit symptoms.
“Our hope is that as more of those students get vaccinated, fewer will have to participate in screen and stay,” said McCormack.
Freeman also urged parents at a board of education meeting to seriously consider having their children vaccinated.
“The best way to keep our children safe, I believe, is to get them vaccinated. The best way to reduce spread in our schools is to increase the number of students vaccinated. But the bottom line is, the best way to ensure that your child’s instruction isn’t interrupted by a need to quarantine is to have that child vaccinated,” said Freeman.
This story has been edited to include additional comments by O’Donnell.