A mild cold should no longer be a reason to keep your child out of school.
So say the State Department of Education’s new guidelines for the 2022-23 school year. After two years of erring on the side of keeping sick children home, the new guidelines emphasize making sure that children spend as much time in their classrooms as possible.
Even if they have a runny nose. Or a cough. Or allergies.
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“We recognize kids need to be in the classroom. And when we go into the winter season, we know that there are lots of other respiratory viruses … many of our children are going to have runny noses, other cold like symptoms through the winter, and then going into the spring,” Commissioner of the State Department of Public Health Manisha Juthani said at a press conference on Tuesday.
Juthani acknowledged that keeping students in school has already been a priority for districts across the state, but now the state has additional resources to offer.
The new strategy, branded “Test-Mask-Go,” is a collaboration among multiple state departments. Essentially, if a child is exhibiting the symptoms of a cold, or allergies — runny nose, cough, sore throat — but is fever-free, he or she can take a COVID-19 self-test, and if the test is negative, can attend school. Children with symptoms who do return to school are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks.
Juthani said that the state will provide schools with self-test kits to give to families. The state has ordered 2.5 million test kits, comprising 5 million individual tests, to distribute to schools, childcare programs and camps.
Children who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to quarantine for five days, regardless of vaccine status, in line with guidelines from the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
The new guidance also recommends that districts consider adding mitigation strategies like distancing and masking if transmission in the community rises above a certain level.
Juthani said the critical metric now is not the number of positive COVID cases, but the number of hospitalizations.
“The thing that is going to really strap our healthcare system is staffing in healthcare and the number of patients that are in our hospitals,” said Juthani.
Currently, New Haven County is the only county in Connecticut in an “orange” zone, meaning that 10 or more people per 100,000 are being admitted to hospitals with new cases, and that at least 10 percent of inpatient hospital beds are taken up by COVID patients, according to the Center for Disease Control. Juthani said that the department is recommending an indoor mask mandate for the county.
Jeffrey Newton, Superintendent of Schools in East Lyme, said that the guidance means his district is “basically carrying on in the same manner in how we ended the last school year.” He said that the guidance is flexible enough to give local districts and health departments the ability to judge what mitigation strategies to put in place at what time.
Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, told CT Examiner that the new guidance “kind of reiterates the status quo.”
But she said the real question mark in this equation was what would happen if a community hit “orange” transmission level, or if there was an outbreak in a particular classroom or school. She said that local communities would have to figure out how to respond.
A law passed in the spring prohibits school districts from using “dual” or “hybrid” instruction as an option. Nothing in the guidelines advises school districts to switch to remote learning even if community spread reaches the “orange,” or highest, level of spread, and there is currently no remote learning option available for students in grades K-8.
The department does have guidelines for remote learning at the high school level. Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said that it is up to individual school districts whether or not they want to implement remote learning at the high school level.
Dias said that teaching remotely was not a successful strategy, and that it would be better to avoid shifting to entirely remote learning even if a sizable number of children in a class were out sick at once. She said that other strategies, like tutoring, working with students one-on-one and reaching out to families were better options for helping kids catch up.
She also pointed out that children testing positive for COVID only had to be quarantined for five days, and that teachers were accustomed to helping students who were out for illnesses like mononucleosis, which can leave a student out of class for a month.
“It’s not something we’re unprepared for,” she said.
Russell-Tucker said that the state Department of Education would work with schools on a case-by-case basis if there was an outbreak of COVID in a particular classroom.
Juthani said that vaccination is another focus of the department, and that the department would be sending vaccine vans to host vaccination clinics at the Alliance districts — the 36 lowest-performing schools in the state, which are often located in communities with high levels of poverty. Juthani told CT Examiner that six in ten children who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine have not yet been vaccinated.
She said the department also recommended that children ages five and older get a booster shot five months after being vaccinated. She said parents should not wait for the new booster shot to become available for children, since it’s unclear when that will occur.