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Omicron Roils Politics, Sparks Debate Over Classroom Instruction

One year ago in December, during the height of the second wave of the pandemic, 22 children were hospitalized in the Yale New Haven Health System for COVID-19. A year later, in December 2021, that number more than doubled to 46 children admitted. And this January, the number of hospitalized children will likely increase well beyond those 46. 

In the first five days of the month, 22 children admitted for COVID, including some in the intensive care unit, according to Dr. Tom Murray at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. 

“There has been a huge surge in pediatric hospitalizations and these are mostly kids under 11 who are not vaccinated,” Murray said. “Eighty percent of those admitted are admitted because of COVID and the vast majority of them also have some sort of underlying medical problem.”

This increase  in hospitalizations and cases, particularly among children, has reignited a debate among health officials, educators and political leaders about the need once again to allow  remote learning.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Ned Lamont said that he would stand firm on his decision to maintain in-person learning as the only option for school districts. 

“I’m going to do everything I can do to keep kids in the classroom safely,” Lamont said. “Nothing compares to a great teacher in a great classroom.”

Lamont buttressed his argument with test score data from the 2020-2021 school year that clearly suggest the educational benefits of in-person instruction. 

“In-person learning is where students learn best,” said Charlene Russell-Tucker, the Commissioner of Education. “Schools also offer critical supports, such as mental health counseling, that have grown even more important during the challenges of the pandemic.” 

But even if the goal is to keep children in school, the reality is that the increase in COVID cases and rules for quarantining have forced many students to stay home. From Dec. 30 to Jan. 5, more than 7,600 students were reported as diagnosed with COVID-19, more than double the number reported just before Christmas. More than 2,300 staff members were also diagnosed with COVID this week. 

In addition, significant numbers of students continue to quarantine at home after being exposed to COVID-19. 

Democrats Divide Over Classroom Education 

Massachusetts, like Connecticut, has declined to allow remote learning this year. In Rhode Island, the state’s commissioner of education advised students to bring laptops home over the holiday break in case the schools would have to shift to virtual learning. New York State and New Jersey both have maintained an option for remote learning, although New York City schools are currently required to provide in-person education.

In Connecticut, the requirement for classroom instruction has sparked significant differences between Democratic lawmakers. 

On Tuesday, the state Black and Puerto Rican Caucus released a letter requesting that the state’s Department of Education allow remote learning days at the discretion of a superintendent of schools. 

Asked about the letter, State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said that there were students who benefited and students who suffered from remote learning. Nolan said the point of the letter was to allow local superintendents to decide. 

“We hire our superintendents to be able to make decisions at a moment’s notice,” said Nolan. 

Nolan said the caucus spoke to teachers, parents and students about the idea of remote learning. He said the responses were mixed – some parents wanted students to be in school, while others wanted their children to stay home. He said teachers’ responses were also mixed.  

State Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said that in Waterbury, a bus driver shortage and a high number of individuals who weren’t vaccinated, in combination with the high positivity rates in the state, was creating “a perfect storm.”  

Reyes said that a two or three week pause would allow for widespread testing within the districts. He said he believed that most parents were in agreement that schools should return temporarily to remote learning.

“I have been following various social media threads, and most parents are on the page that this should have already happened,” said Reyes. 

“All of the tools in the toolbox” 

Although every doctor who spoke to CT Examiner expressed significant concern about the rapid spread of the omicron virus, the medical also offered a variety of views on the advisability of continued classroom instruction.

Dr. Jody Terranova, assistant professor of pediatrics for the UConn School of Medicine, said she believed having schools transition to remote learning would help slow the spread of the virus and keep hospitals from overflowing.

“Having schools be virtual for these two weeks after the holidays would have been a good idea,” said Terranova. She added that schools might have also considered temporarily suspending extracurricular activities. 

Dr. John Schreiber, Division Head of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, on the other hand agreed  that with proper precaution in-person learning is still possible.

“I think it’s manageable to not be remote,” Schreiber said. 

Schreiber said the key to safe schools is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated and boosted as well as to wear a N95 or 3-ply surgical mask. 

And some school officials pushed for more flexibility to shift over to remote instruction. 

Dan Sullivan, superintendent of schools in the Putnam School District, said that he believed superintendents should have the ability to call remote learning days if COVID levels increased and also have the ability to make snow days remote learning days. 

“It makes sense to me that we should have all of the tools in the toolbox so to speak,” said Sullivan.

Already, some schools, including Wilcox Tech in Meriden, have gotten around state requirements by holding half days and dismissing students early. Hamden Public Schools also closed three days this week because of staffing shortages. 

Sullivan said that he expected COVID exposures to increase in the next few weeks as students who hadn’t seen one another over the break spend time with one another outside of school without masks.

Schools do a good job of enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols while students are on campus, Sullivan said, but they can’t control what students do outside of school. Some level of community transmission, he said, is inevitable. 

Adjusting to a new variant

In March 2020, when Lamont initially shut down schools – turning as a matter of emergency to remote learning – the goal was to reduce the spread of COVID-19. But nearly two years later, the state’s goals in the face of a significantly more transmissible variant are much less clear. 

Parents say that they are troubled by the seeming discrepancies between the heightened safety measures in some of the schools and the new guidance from the CDC that reduces quarantine lengths.

“This is not about health and safety,” said Ashley Mattioda, parent of an elementary schooler in Madison, at a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, about the use of plexiglass shields in the classrooms. “If it were, the district would not be reducing quarantine times.” 

In a press conference on Monday, Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said that teachers wanted to continue learning in-person, but that they wanted enhanced safety protocols, including testing, having school districts provide masks and continuing with social distancing and minimizing large gatherings.

“We are fully committed to being in the classroom if we can have testing, if we can have mitigation strategies … but if at the end of the day, we can’t function safely, then we have to look at the alternatives,” said Dias. 

But can parents, teachers, doctors and lawmakers agree on what “safe” means?

According to Schreiber, the goal can no longer be zero cases and zero spread. 

“We are not going to stop the spread, we should not be trying to. We have to have common sense,” he said.  The goal, Schreiber said,  should be to reduce the spread sufficiently to prevent hospital systems from being overwhelmed. 

“Pediatric hospitalizations are way up, but so many people are getting it right now so it’s not surprising. It’s a numbers game,” he said. 

More spread means more cases and more severe cases even if the virus is leading to fewer  hospitalizations and deaths as a percentage of cases, Schreiber said. 

But while some parents have expressed hopes that the less virulent variant might mean a relaxation of masking protocols, assuming that everyone will eventually be infected, Schreiber said that would be foolish.

“This is not the time to take off the masks and throw up your hands and say ‘Whatever, everyone is going to get it.’ We don’t want our health system to collapse like that,” he said. “If we say not masks now, the numbers game will win.”

Schreiber did, however, offer some hope for parents tired of masking. 

“In a highly immunized state where omicron burns through, we are likely to reach herd immunity and this virus will then just be endemic,” Schreiber said. “We will move to an influenza-like situation with an annual booster shot.” 

Vaccinated and unvaccinated

According to new guidance released by Connecticut Department of Education, students who experience COVID-19 symptoms must isolate for five days rather than the original ten days – a shortened quarantine that meets new guidelines released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. 

Unvaccinated students in close contact with a COVID-19 positive case must also isolate for five days. 

Terranova said that the new CDC guidance on quarantines was consistent with what they knew about how other viruses spread — generally, she said, people stop being infectious a few days after reaching the peak of their symptoms.

But Terranova said she was “a little nervous” about the idea of allowing vaccinated students exposed to a COVID-19 positive case return to school immediately, particularly for students who had a last vaccine dose nearly six months ago. 

“It would be okay if everyone was wearing a mask all the time. But we know in the schools not everyone is wearing a mask all the time,” said Terranova. 

Terranova said that students who were vaccinated more than six months ago but still hadn’t received a booster shot should be subject to the same rules as unvaccinated students. 

Murray recommended continuing to rely on the PCR test when possible for the most accurate results. He also pointed to the booster shot as the key to preventing more students from contracting and spreading COVID-19. 

“The rates of infection if you’ve been boosted recently are significantly less,” Murray said. 

But the difference between students who were vaccinated several months ago and those who are unvaccinated is much less pronounced, said Murray. 

“Any mild cold symptom should be taken seriously. Vaccinated or not, really it is critically important that those individuals be tested and stay home,” he said.

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