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Schools adjust with COVID-19 cases

As schools in the region adjust to rising numbers COVID-19 cases, at least one student in Norwich continued to attend classes while still contagious and family didn't notify the district of the test results right away.

The child, a student at Huntington Elementary, tested positive on Oct. 28 and attended school on Oct. 29 and 30, Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said in a notice to staff and the community Friday. She said the student was asymptomatic but should have stayed home while awaiting test results. The family received the results Nov. 1 but didn't notify the district until Friday, she said.

"Although there were no close contacts in school, there would no longer be a need to quarantine as 14 days have already passed," Stringfellow wrote.

Stringfellow had hoped to return to four-day in-person learning the week of Nov. 16, with Wednesdays off for building cleaning. In a letter to staff and families Thursday, she announced that schools would remain in hybrid learning through Dec. 4, with most students in school two days a week. She hopes to start four-day in-person learning on Monday, Dec. 7 if conditions allow.

However, preschool, some invited high-needs English language learners and some invited high-needs special education students will be learning in school four days a week, with Wednesday in remote learning for building cleaning.

In New London, the middle school will remain closed to in-person classes next week, carry over from the positive COVID-19 cases reported last week that led to quarantine for a number of students and staff from two classrooms.

And while the instances of transmission of COVID-19 in the schools remains low, the district is already looking ahead and considering further measures that could keep students out of schools following holiday breaks such as Thanksgiving. It’s a consideration that reflects data that shows students will be more exposed to COVID-19 during family and social gatherings.

Rates trending downward

Just a fraction of cases in New London schools to date — five in all — could be traced to in-school transmissions, Ledge Light Health District Director of Health Stephen Mansfield said.

"That's an extremely low number and it should inspire confidence about what we're doing in our schools systems to keep our students and staff safe," he said.

Mansfield appeared at a New London Board of Education meeting Thursday to update members on the situation locally. New London recently had the highest number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the state. That rate has since declined.

Norwich’s COVID-19 numbers also continue to trend downward, with 99 positive cases during the two-week period ending Nov. 7, a positive rate of 18.1 per 100,000 population, and a positive test rate of 3.7% of the 3,454 tests taken during that two-week period. But Norwich remains in a red zone, which begins at 15 cases per 100,000 population, with city offices remaining closed except by appointment and most inspections being conducted virtually or with no contractors or homeowners present.

The governor’s office reported that New London County so far has seen 4,527 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Friday evening, up by 151 from numbers reported Thursday, and 141 probable cases, one lower than the day before. One additional death reported in that 24-hour period brought the county’s total deaths related to the disease to 120.

Three additional patients were being treated for the disease in the county, for a total of 33 related hospitalizations on Friday. Lawrence + Memorial Hospital said it had 19 COVID-19 patients, while Westerly Hospital had six.

This week, Norwich Public Schools reported six positive COVID-19 cases, three staff members and three students, all of whom have opted for the fully remote learning model, school Business Administrator Athena Nagel said. None of the staff members contracted the virus through in-school contacts, she said.

NFA Head of School Brian Kelly said NFA will remain in hybrid learning model at least through next week. NFA has no target date to change from the hybrid model, spokesman Michael O’Farrell said. NFA has had seven students test positive for COVID-19 this week, two of them already had been in fully remote learning and had no contact with students in school, Kelly said. None of the approximately 30 positive cases involving NFA staff or students were traced to in-school transmissions, Kelly said.

New London Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie made the decision to close all schools to in-person classes this week following word late last week that two members of the district’s adult education program and their children had tested positive. There were nine cases in all reported last week.

Making adjustments

Aside from the data and the metrics, Mansfield said “one of the most important things to look at is the schools’ collective ability to give the community reasonable assurances that any exposed individuals are excluded from schools.”

He said New London schools has been honest about when it can or cannot assure safety and has been making the appropriate decisions.

As for future decisions on how the school district proceeds, the Board of Education is expected to be updated by Ritchie before the Thanksgiving break.

Ritchie said in addition to monitoring the predicted shortage of substitute teachers, the district is managing COVID-19 cases not only in the schools but in certain family situations where staff may have to quarantine because of exposure to another family member. Those concerns will be heightened during the Thanksgiving break when families get together, travel or welcome home college students.

“We are surveying staff this week, regarding travel plans, to help capture our adult data to assist with planning ahead,” she said.

Ritchie said Ledge Light has been instrumental in helping to quickly identify and isolate individuals who have tested positive. “In any situation where we do not feel confident that we have knowledge of all close contacts, we will continue to have to close a classroom, a grade level, or a building for a set time period,” she said.

Ritchie said families continue to have a choice on whether to send their children to school for in-person learning or instead opt for full remote learning. More than 1,300 of the 3,277 students in the district already have decided to stay home, a number that has helped reduce class sizes and make social distancing in classrooms easier. There are 31 students listed as “disengaged,” down from more than 200 at the start of the school year.

“A lot of effort goes into every day planning and coverage and support for all,” Ritchie said. “This work is non-stop, day and evening, seven days a week. However, providing excellent educational opportunities, with choice, to our children and families continues to be our goal ... as long as our district’s data, and guidance from health professionals supports that this can be done safely.”

In other area districts:

Ledyard

Following a confirmed positive case, Gallup Hill School has moved to full remote learning through the Thanksgiving weekend.

In an email to parents Thursday evening, Superintendent Jay Hartling said the school is unable to continue the in-person component of hybrid instruction due to the number of staff members in quarantine as a result of the case. In-person learning will resume Monday, Nov. 30.

The move follows a similar announcement involving the high school earlier in the week, which started its own two-week all-remote session Monday, following a positive case confirmed over the weekend. High school students are slated to return to in-person instruction Nov. 23.

East Lyme

The school district has reported two new COVID-19 cases, one each in the high and middle schools.

Because several middle school staff members are quarantining, that building will shift to remote learning until Nov. 30, Superintendent Jeffrey R. Newton said in a notification to staff and community members Friday. Offices will remain open and will be thoroughly cleaned before Monday. The high school will be open Monday for students and staff, he said.

The last day that the high school was attended by the infected individual was Nov. 6, while the infected person at the middle school last attended Thursday, Newton said in the notice. He did not specify whether the individuals were staff members or students but said both were instructed to self-isolate at home. Ledge Light Health District conducted contact tracing, he said.

Groton

The district reported that it learned Friday that a member of the Claude Chester Elementary School community tested positive for COVID-19.

Superintendent Michael Graner said the person has been told to isolate at home. The school district collaborated with Ledge Light Health District and notified “close contacts” within the Claude Chester community.

Groton Middle School had reported two COVID-19 cases this week and shifted to full distance learning on Thursday, Nov. 12. In-person classes will resume on Thursday, Nov. 19.

Day Staff Writers Kimberly Drelich, Amanda Hutchinson, Brian Hallenbeck and Jacinta Meyers contributed to this report.

c.bessette@theday.com

g.smith@theday.com

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