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State program to target COVID-related absenteeism among students

The state is spending $10.7 million in an attempt to reduce COVID-related absenteeism and disengagement among students, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Monday.

The initiative, the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program (LEAP), is funded by the state’s federal COVID-19 recovery funding through the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund. It aims to bring absent or disengaged students back to school for the end of this school year and to encourage enrollment in summer learning programs and camps, among other goals.

According to the governor’s office, the funds will bolster staffing “who will be deployed to homes to directly engage with families and students to provide support.” The initiative is a partnership of six state Regional Education Service Centers and the Connecticut State Department of Education Service Centers.

“Connecticut’s RESCs will coordinate this work with school district officials, local community organizations, and other state service providers, and will be deployed to homes to engage with families and provide support,” a news release from Lamont’s office reads. “Engaging with families through home visits will also enable officials to address other critical needs of students that are identified, such as behavioral and mental health services, housing stability, access to childcare, technology and internet connectivity, transportation, and additional educational support services.” 

During a news conference Monday, Lamont elaborated on the personnel who would be visiting families in-person. He said the state has a contract with a group that’s going to work with other groups that will visit the homes. He said he doesn’t think the workforce will comprise teachers but the effort will be closely coordinated with them.

Norwich and New London are among 15 participating districts in the initiative, which focuses on Connecticut’s cities. 

Norwich Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster has been providing monthly absenteeism reports to the Norwich Board of Education throughout the pandemic for the city’s seven elementary schools and two middle schools. All but one school — Thomas Mahan Elementary School at 4.3% as of March 19 — have chronic absenteeism rates well above 10% of the school population.

Overall, 565 of the school district’s 3,143 students have been chronically absent, 17.98% of the total. Kelly Middle School, the city’s largest school with 666 students, has the highest absentee rate at 27.48% as of March 19.

The state defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10% or more of the total number of days enrolled in the school year, for any reason. Excused, unexcused, out-of-school suspensions, and in-school suspensions that last more than half of a school day are counted, state Department of Education spokesman Peter Yazbak said.

Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said the district is “thrilled” to participate in the new LEAP program to reach students “who are disengaged and chronically absent.”

LEARN, the southeast regional education service center, has informed Norwich officials that the region has $450,000 available for the program, but the specific amount for Norwich and the types of expenditures covered are not yet known, Stringfellow said. 

Stringfellow said she envisions the new state program will allow Norwich to launch planned family outreach positions proposed for the federal COVID-19 response grants earlier than expected, and also to begin a parent academy earlier than expected and perhaps begin some after school tutoring and other support programs.

She said the school district’s approach is three-tiered. First are “whole school supports” with universal efforts to welcome students, make them feel safe and provide enrichment activities to interest all students. Tier 2 and Tier 3 are “very personalized” responses to reach students, including individual plans for students struggling with attendance and identifying funding supports needed to break down barriers.

 “That model will serve as our roadmap for these additional supports,” she said. 

COVID-19 update

Last week, Lamont said issues with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine supply would affect Connecticut’s vaccine supply, especially its mobile vaccination vans. Lamont said Monday that there was a decrease from 288,000 vaccines last week to 180,000 or so this week.

“That shortfall is really all related to Johnson & Johnson, and I’m afraid we don’t have clarity on what we can expect next week,” Lamont said. But  he said vaccine appointments are available, and the best time to try and set up an appointment is in the morning. 

“There are still tens of thousands of appointments opening up every day,” he said. “You could’ve found appointments this morning for later today. Haven’t been able to say that in some months.” 

The governor’s Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe said the state plans to keep the mobile vaccination vans out on the road despite having fewer Johnson & Jonson vaccines.  

Meanwhile, the State Departments of Education and Public Health put out guidance last week for upcoming proms and graduations. Geballe described how such events will run this year.

“It will look different. As the governor indicated, they’ll likely be smaller, much more likely to be outdoors, probably won’t run as long, maybe not as many people jammed into indoor spaces,” he said. “But still, we’re very hopeful and excited that there will be the opportunity for something more traditional in terms of proms and graduations, these really important life milestones for high school students in particular, that we weren’t able to enjoy to anywhere near the same degree last year.” 

Updated COVID-19 statistics

 The latest state COVID-19 vaccination numbers show that 52% of all adults aged 16-plus have received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Of those aged 65-plus, 83% have received their first dose; 71% of people between the ages of 55 and 64 have received their first dose; and 54% of people between the ages of 45 and 54. The percentage of younger people, aged 16-44, who’ve received their first dose has climbed to 30%. Lamont said the state is expecting 12-to-15-year-olds to become eligible for the vaccine “in coming weeks.” 

A total of 2,414,373 doses have been administered, with 977,061 people fully vaccinated and 1,533,933 first doses administered.

Since Friday, 2,985 additional cases of COVID-19 were reported throughout the state, bringing the total to 324,571. More than nearly 99,000 tests have been reported since Friday with a positivity rate of 3.02%.

Hospitalizations decreased during the weekend, with seven fewer people since Friday, bringing the total number of people now hospitalized in the state to 524. There have been 13 more deaths in the three days, bringing the total number of COVID-19 related deaths to 7,957. 

New London County has 14 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The county has 21,222 total cases and 425 deaths. On Monday, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital reported seven hospitalizations while Westerly Hospital reported five.

Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report. 

s.spinella@theday.com

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