MADISON — Parents at a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday called for a Question-and-Answer forum to discuss the district’s COVID-19 policies — policies that parents complained were inconsistent across schools and ineffective, but that Board of Education members and school administration said were critical to keep students safely learning in person.
About nine parents brought up concerns at the meeting ranging from differences in policies for vaccinated and unvaccinated students, the use of plexiglass shields, and the need to continue wearing masks.
Several parents also said they were upset about the difference in policies, particularly around masking, between the two elementary schools. Superintendent Craig Cooke said that the schools had different mitigation strategies because the layout of the buildings are different. He also said that the number of cases were different in each building.
Cooke told CT Examiner that Jeffrey Elementary, which had an increase in cases prior to Christmas break, implemented additional precautions, such as eating lunch in the classroom and using desk shields. He said that Ryerson had just adopted desk shields as well.
One parent, Ashley Mattioda, said she believed the plexiglass shields were creating anxiety for students.
“Kids are worried about staying in their little box and bubble in class,” said Mattioda, a parent of a third grader.
“This truly is not about health and safety. If it were, the district would not be reducing quarantine times,” she added.
According to new guidance from the state Department of Education that was released on January 31, students who experience COVID-19 symptoms and unvaccinated students who have close contact with a COVID-19 positive case must isolate for five days rather than the original ten days. The guidance was created to line up with recommendations from the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
Another parent, Mari Guest, said she didn’t believe that vaccinated students should be treated differently than unvaccinated students, given that both groups can get sick with the virus. She also said she was frustrated with the changing policies.
“We’re constantly moving forward, backwards, forward, backwards,” she said. “Nobody knows what they are doing at this point,” she said.
Cooke said that many of the rules, such as the masking and the quarantine guidelines, were measures that were handed down from the state of Connecticut, and out of the district’s hands.
Cooke also said that the measures allowed the district to continue to hold classes, which was the priority.
“I really view the most restrictive piece that we could have is being closed,” said Cooke, who added that several school districts in Connecticut had closed down on Monday because of the high COVID-19 case numbers.
Cooke told CT Examiner that he hoped to be able to remove the desk shields after the long weekend of January 15 through 17.
Parents also expressed frustration with the Board of Education, saying that they were unable to get responses to their questions.
“Why can’t we get together in a big auditorium with plexiglass and hand sanitizer and masks, and ask these questions and get some real dialogue going?” said parent Travis Hamill.
Cooke, however, told CT Examiner that there were currently no plans to hold a public forum given that masking is a state mandate.
Danielle Milano, who has two daughters at Ryerson, said she appreciated that the district had gotten students back to school in person. However, she said she felt one of her daughters in particular was struggling at school.
“My daughters came home. They had the worst day today. They couldn’t play with their friends,” she said.
Not all parents were critical of the district. Matt Gordon, who identified himself as a healthcare worker, thanked the district for continuing to use the health and safety protocols.
“The majority of parents, I believe, in this town, are thankful for what you’re doing,” said Gordon.
Katie Stein, a health care provider at the Connecticut Children’s Hospital and former board member, said that the hospital had reached its highest number of pediatric admissions for COVID since the start of the pandemic.
“Now is not the time to stop prioritizing the health and safety of our students,” said Stein.
Stein said that she understood the frustration with the constantly changing guidance, which she said “incensed” her as a health care worker.
“While I don’t agree with all of it, I happily assume that the lesser of two evils is erring on the side of caution, especially given this unprecedented infection rate,” said Stein.
Board Chair Seth Klaskin said that he believed the board should provide parents with as much information as possible, but that the administration could not go against the governor’s orders or against science.
“I think we do have to take a deep breath and know and trust that we are trying to follow the science,” said Klaskin.
Editor’s note: this story has been updated to include additional comments from Cooke