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Local health district warns school systems COVID-19 cases have increased dramatically

In a letter emailed to elected officials, school superintendents and health district staff Monday morning, the Ledge Light Health District warned that COVID-19 cases have “increased dramatically” across the region in recent weeks and said that continuing hybrid learning, rather than moving to fully reopen, will likely reduce the risk of more cases.

Most schools in the region are currently operating on hybrid learning models, with students attending in-person school two days a week and taking the rest of their classes virtually. Some school districts have been working on plans to fully reopen.

In the letter, Stephen Mansfield, director of health for the Ledge Light Health District, told school districts that continuing hybrid learning would likely reduce transmissions of the virus by limiting the number of potential exposures. But the health district has not made a formal recommendation that schools not fully reopen to in-classroom instruction.

“It really depends on the specific schools, in our jurisdiction there are some school systems that are experiencing quite a few cases and high case rates in their communities,” he said. “We’re working with those towns individually because it really varies, we aren’t making recommendations but rather providing superintendents with all the data about the number of cases.”

Overall, the health district, which oversees  nine shoreline communities from Old Lyme to Stonington, has seen a spike in positive cases.

In just a two-day period from last Friday to Sunday there were 43 new cases of COVID-19 reported. The majority of the new cases in the health district were in New London and Groton.

The entire week before, Sept. 19-25, there were 60 new cases, and between Sept. 12 and 18 there were 26 cases.

Of the 100 most recent cases, 39 were in New London, 35 were in Groton, 12 were in Ledyard, 8 were in Waterford and 6 were in East Lyme. Old Lyme, Lyme and North Stonington have been steadily low in their numbers, Mansfield said.

Since schools reopened in the fall, 10 students — seven who were participating in the hybrid model and three who were doing remote learning — have tested positive for the virus within the Ledge Light Health District, Mansfield said.

Each time a student tests positive, it’s a team effort to respond to the case, said Mansfield.

“Each of these cases requires extensive work on behalf of the schools and the health district,” he said, including contact tracing, school notifications and collaboration with municipal leaders.

Schools pause full reopening plans  

This spike in cases has made some school leaders, even those in towns with the lower case rates, change their plans.

East Lyme public schools Superintendent Jeffrey Newton sent an email to school staff Monday morning, saying he would be recommending that the district hold off on plans to fully reopen kindergarten through 8th grade schools until mid-October. The district had been hoping to reopen early next month.

Last week, Newton reported that a member of the East Lyme High School community had tested positive for COVID-19 but did not reveal whether it was a student or staff member.

In his email Monday, Newton said that after meeting with Mansfield on Friday, he determined it was not safe to move forward with a full reopening.

Newton said Mansfield recommended the school district hold off and that he agreed with that recommendation. Newton said he will recommend to the school board Tuesday that the district wait to fully reopen. 

“I will recommend we hold tight with the current hybrid configuration and reassess at a later date,” Newton said. “Input from our medical professionals is crucial, and we will continue to keep in direct contact with them regarding cases and transmission of COVID.”

In the meantime, Newton said the school district will continue to analyze and adjust its hybrid model, accepting feedback from staff and families about things such as planning and scheduling.

“We are working on some adjustments and modifications to help alleviate some of these bigger concerns,” Newton said in his email.

Mansfield encouraged schools to reach out to the health district for advice and guidance and said they will continue to monitor cases and update the public with virus transmission data.

Citing the Ledge Light guidance, the Ledyard Board of Education voted unanimously Monday evening to continue operating the hybrid model until members reevaluate the plan Oct. 21. 

Monday's vote followed a public comment period and about an hour of discussion, during which members again commended the amount of feedback provided by teachers, parents and other community members. Some parents said their children are struggling with the distance learning portion of the hybrid model.

While Ledyard has not had a positive case in the schools and the town is separate from the others in the health district, Superintendent Jay Hartling said during the meeting that all the communities are interconnected and the town has to be alert to the challenges the other towns are facing.

Groton Superintendent Michael Graner said he had recommended the district start the school year on hybrid learning to build confidence in the district’s ability to operate schools safely The plan is to reassess in mid-October how well the hybrid model is working.

The Board of Education supported his recommendation in mid-August and was slated to discuss Monday evening the criteria that would need to be in place for the school district to potentially reopen schools fully, he said. Some of those factors he identified were a very low positivity rate and more families choosing to leave full distance learning and participate in the hybrid program. But he pointed out that the participation in the hybrid program was trending in the opposite direction, with initially about 15% of Fitch High School students learning fully remotely and now about 23% learning fully remotely.

Graner said that since school began, the district has had positive COVID-19 cases among individuals at Fitch High School, Groton Middle School, and Claude Chester Elementary School, for a total of about a half dozen overall, including a case from the high school and another from the middle school this past weekend.

He said the district is monitoring the uptick in cases. In each situation, the school district has notified the school community, the individual has taken steps to self-isolate and the district contacted Ledge Light Health District to begin contact tracing, he said.

He said if the school district starts to see it is meeting all the criteria set by the board, he would suggest that maybe the district could fully bring students back. While it's ultimately the board's decision, he said such a return would likely be at the kindergarten to grade 5 level, because the middle school and the high school each have more than 1,000 students.

Patrick McCormack, director of the Uncas Health District, which covers 11 towns in northern New London County, said he was aware of the letter from Mansfield and had received some phone calls about it.

McCormack said he was not planning to make a blanket recommendation about what type of learning was best either, because no two districts are the same. School buildings are different, the districts are different sizes, and their COVID-19 cases have been different, he said.

“I’m in communication with superintendents in the district,” McCormack said. “I’m here to provide guidance to them. Generally, all of them share their plans with me. Some districts are considering going full time.”

Over the weekend, cases in Norwich, which is served by Uncas, increased by 40 from 269 to 309, according to the state's tally.

New London schools are currently operating on a hybrid model with no plans to reopen fully in place yet, according to the school’s website and Mayor Michael Passero.

Though the health districts are leaving the decision up to each school district, and Mansfield recognized that some may move forward with reopening, the Ledge Light health director did outline the benefits of hybrid learning in his letter.

He included an example from one district — which he didn’t name — where a school was operating on a hybrid model using student cohorts. When a student tested positive for the virus, the school was able to remain open because only one cohort had been exposed to the infected student, he said.

Mansfield said he has also been in communication with school administrators, discussing options and offering guidance from the health perspective.

He said he cautioned school leaders that, since changing routines for children can be difficult, opting to reopen fully may result in multiple changes for students in the coming months.

“If you fully reopen and if we have a spike in a few weeks, it may mean reverting right back to the old way,” he said, referring to the hybrid model.

“Now that we see our cases increasing nationwide, it may be a good time to take a breath and see what’s happening — is this just a spike and then we’re going to return to normal or is this just the tip of the iceberg?” he said.

t.hartz@theday.com

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette. Amanda Hutchinson and Kimberly Drelich contributed to this report.

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