Lamont promises to address digital divide in schools
HARTFORD — Gov. Ned Lamont and state education officials say that addressing the problems many poor and urban districts have had in getting students access to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic will be a priority, even as they plan to reopen schools in the fall.
The Department of Education held a webinar Thursday to answer questions about the planned reopening. Those ranged from how to ensure online access for those who choose to stay home to how to make sure children obey the mandate to wear masks if they return to the classroom.
Lamont called the disparity in access to online learning “the separate but equal of our day and age,” a reference to the segregated schools of the past.
Education officials said they are asking districts to prioritize the use of federal pandemic funding to provide laptops and other devices to students who don't have them. They also said they are working with Internet providers to set up Wi-Fi hot spots, provide broadband vouchers and come up with other solutions to give more children access to remote learning.
The state is asking districts to submit reopening plans for the upcoming school year in the next few weeks based on parameters set last month by the Department of Education, so the state can identify how much money needs to be spent and where.
Schools are being asked to plan for scenarios including the full in-person reopening of schools, a combination of in-person and online learning and online learning only, with the understanding the plans could change during the year based on whether cases of COVID-19 continue to decline or the state experiences another wave of the virus.
The reopening plans must include keeping students isolated in small group “cohorts” to minimize the risk of spreading the virus, requiring hand-washing and the use of hand sanitizers; improving the cleaning and disinfecting of all surfaces; and using face coverings that completely cover the nose and mouth for all students and teachers, with some exceptions for health reasons.
Education officials said Thursday that providing masks to those who don't have them will be the responsibility of local schools, but the state is working with districts to get them the needed personal protective equipment. They said schools are also being encouraged to build in “mask breaks” during the school day, but the details will be left up to individual districts.
“We’re going to put our heads together and we’re going to do what’s right," said state Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona. “There are no easy solutions, but we're going to do our very best to do what's best for Connecticut, because our kids deserve it."
In other coronavirus related news:
Hartford Healthcare, one of Connecticut's largest health systems, announced Thursday it has conducted more than 100,000 COVID-19 tests, crediting the testing effort with helping to lower the state's infection rate to below 1%.
As of Thursday, more than 543,000 tests have been conducted by Hartford Healthcare and other entities statewide. There's been an increase of more than 8,000 since Wednesday. There are about 160 testing sites currently throughout Connecticut.
Jeffrey Flaks, president and CEO of Hartford Healthcare, said his system plans to continue offering testing at numerous sites, including through mobile units that have been dispatched to nursing homes, homeless shelters and other kinds of congregate living situations.
“Testing is absolutely vital to containment,” Flaks said during a news conference outside a Hartford nursing home. “We will commit to whatever is necessary to do testing for our community, because it’s what mattered most and what continues to what matters most."
Josh Geballe, Gov. Ned Lamont's chief operating officer, said the state is currently not trying to reach a daily testing goal. Rather, it's focusing on getting people tested who show any symptoms, have come in contact with someone who may have have tested positive, and those who live in congregate settings, such as nursing homes, assisted living facilities and prisons, as well as in dense urban areas. He noted there have been only eight new positive cases since last week in congregate settings.
“We know those are the areas that if we're going to see a resurgence, it's mostly likely going to come from those locations and we need to be testing aggressively there,” he said.
While Connecticut currently has among the lowest infection rates in the nation, roughly 1%, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont stressed it's “no time to take your foot off the accelerator." He said the state plans to continue offering testing opportunities while also monitoring for possible flareups using techniques, including changes in wastewater.
Besides getting tested, Flaks urged residents to continue wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands. Lamont and other officials voiced concern Thursday that some people are not taking those precautions.
“We need to maintain this level of focus at this level of alert,” Flaks said.
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