As Connecticut’s positivity rate for COVID-19 tops 24 percent, Gov. Ned Lamont pledged on Tuesday to do everything possible to keep the state’s children in the classroom.
“I’m going to do everything I can do to keep kids in the classroom safely,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday morning. “Nothing compares to a great teacher in a great classroom.”
Already, Stonington Public Schools have delayed opening after Christmas vacation, Ansonia Public Schools have closed for the full week and many other districts have closed one or two schools to cope with bus driver and teacher shortages stemming from mandatory quarantining after a positive test for COVID-19. Wright Tech, Eli Whitney Tech and Platt Tech have all dismissed students early this week due to staffing shortages. Prior to the holiday break, Wilcox Tech dismissed early on two days for the same reason.
The state’s Department of Education could not provide the exact numbers for driver and staffing shortages, but for schools that have opened, between one-third and one-half of all students are staying home and connecting remotely due to COVID-19 exposures or positive tests, said Lamont.
Under current rules, days that a school district opts to close or transition to remote learning for all students do not count toward the state’s 180-day requirement for the school year. But students who are quarantined for COVID-19, live with a vulnerable family member or have a disability are allowed to count remote learning days toward their 180 day total.
In an effort to help schools contain the spread of COVID-19, Josh Geballe, commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, said the state has distributed more than 1 million at-home tests and 3 million N95 masks this week. The National Guard has also been mobilized to help increase vaccination and testing.
The state’s Department of Public Health has also modified its guidance to school districts regarding contact tracing and quarantining. According to Commissioner Manish Juthani, all students who test positive, and students who are unvaccinated and exposed to COVID-19, are now only required to quarantine for five days. The department is asking parents to monitor their children for symptoms and keep them home if they display any cold-like symptoms.
“If you’re sick, stay home and get tested,” she said.
Getting tested, however, is not that easy.
Across the state, Connecticut residents are waiting for hours to get tested and days to get results back. Juthani said she is encouraging schools and workplaces to accept the rapid test now being distributed by the state as well as PCR tests as proof of positivity or negativity to COVID-19.
“The teams are working to scale up testing and have been for the last several weeks,” Geballe said. “We see the long lines and we hear the frustration. We are very focused on this. Getting the at-home tests will take the pressure off and the holiday season behind us will also take some pressure off.”
For students and staff in school, masks and distancing continue to be the mantra for “staying safe.” Juthani said the state will continue to mandate that all students wear cloth or surgical masks, as N95 masks are not available in child sizes, despite concerns that cloth masks may not be effective against the more contagious omicron variant.
“Some type of mask is what’s important,” Juthani said. “Wearing a mask is what’s going to be most protective, and actually wearing it.”
Juthani said that the reduced quarantine time for all students, the different policies for vaccinated and unvaccinated students and the use of cloth or surgical masks are compromises that recognize the benefits of classroom instruction.
“Although it is true that vaccinated people are able to get infected, we made the decision that the benefits of quarantining did not outweigh a child losing five days of school,” she said.
Charlene Russell-Tucker, the commissioner of the Department of Education, stressed the challenges of building confidence among parents and finding a middle ground between parents who oppose all limits on in-person learning during the pandemic and parents who want the state to implement fully-remote instruction.
“I’m confident that we will get through this together if we all do our part,” she said.