New guidance issued for managing COVID in schools
Gov. Ned Lamont and other state officials say Connecticut is determined to keep kids in school and to refrain from shifting to remote learning.
During his address in a Tuesday morning news conference, Lamont noted that the state has a positivity rate of almost 24%. That figure represents a surge in coronavirus cases caused by the omicron variant. It's also an increase from last week's numbers, which were in the teens and, at the time, were the highest positivity rates recorded in the state since the pandemic began.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are surging, as well. There were 1,562 people hospitalized with the disease in the state Tuesday, an increase of 110 since Monday, according to numbers Lamont's office released late Tuesday afternoon. New London County had 84 people hospitalized with the disease, up by six from the previous day. Of those hospitalized with the disease in the state, 68% are not fully vaccinated.
Norwich schools had student absences ranging from 14 to 37 in elementary schools Tuesday, 90 at Global Studies Middle School and 129 at Kelly Middle School. On Monday, the school district listed 47 students out with COVID-19 quarantine and 16 staff. Total student absences for all causes on Monday ranged from 25 to 57 students at the elementary schools, with 82 absences at Global Studies Middle School and 128 at Kelly.
"Today, despite the unprecedented spread of the omicron variant that we're experiencing, we're still more committed than ever to keeping our schools open," state Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Josh Geballe said Tuesday. He added that 500,000 at-home test kits were distributed to municipalities this past weekend, and 620,000 tests went to schools and school districts directly on Tuesday.
State Department of Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani said the state is looking for schools to "refocus efforts on infection prevention," rather than contact tracing.
"If you are a fully vaccinated child and you've had an exposure, you continue to monitor for symptoms ... and you continue to come to school, and you remain masked," she said. However, vaccinated individuals who have COVID-19 symptoms should get tested and stay at home until they are fever-free for at least 24 hours and other symptoms have subsided. If they test positive, they must quarantine for five days before returning to school.
Those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, and have had close contact with a person who has tested positive or is suspected of having COVID-19, should quarantine at home for five days after the exposure, then get tested.
The state advises all individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 to wear a mask at all times when in the presence of other people for an additional five days after the quarantine period.
Juthani said the new guidance comprises "overarching simple principles" including: "If you're sick, stay home, get tested; if you have COVID, you must stay there at least five days. If not, you can return sooner once symptoms are resolved." The goal is to "follow the guidance of symptoms" and to "keep as many kids in school as possible."
Lamont echoed Juthani: "If you have a child displaying flu symptoms, stay home. Frankly in this day and age, it probably is COVID."
"There's nothing more important than keeping kids in the classroom," he added. "Learning via Zoom is not nearly what it should be."
While Norwich schools have been open this week, the staff absences prompted administrators to help staff offices and lunchrooms as principals substituted as teachers in various classes, Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said.
Stringfellow said she packed her own briefcase with books and classroom supplies Monday in case she was needed in a classroom. Instead, the Moriarty Environmental Sciences elementary school staff assigned her to the office task of contacting parents on COVID-19 cases and entering data all day. Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster covered lunches and breakfasts at Kelly Middle School on Monday.
Stringfellow said 15 bus drivers called in sick Monday, and the district needed to double up on some bus runs. On Tuesday, only seven bus drivers were absent, “so that was much better,” Stringfellow said. Norwich contracts with First Student for bus transportation.
Lamont said he doesn't foresee repealing the mask mandate in schools while he has his public health emergency executive powers. Those powers will be in place at least until Feb. 15.
State Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said Tuesday that the department has provided guidance to school districts about remote learning and what counts or does not count as a regular school day.
Districts also can make their own decisions on COVID-related school closures. However, "It's not one of the (remote learning) exceptions that count toward the 180 days," she said, so like snow days, "they'd have to make them up at the end of the year."