States Tells Superintendents Closings Aren't Warranted
Hartford Courant, Friday, November 13, 2020
By Amanda Blanco
As Connecticut school districts continue to close because of COVID-19 cases, the state commissioners of education and public health have told superintendents they do not think “arbitrary, date-based closures of school are warranted at this time.”
“We will continue to consult with and work with school districts, local health departments and medical advisors on individual decisions around closures, but are not recommending that districts proactively close for a prolonged period of time in anticipation of changes in disease prevalence,” said the letter, sent on behalf of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona and acting Department of Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford.
The email to all superintendents comes as one school district, Shelton, decided this week to close and switch to remote learning until January and another, Region 4, will shift to remote until the end of November.
For months, Gov. Ned Lamont and other state officials have repeatedly said they will defer to decisions made by local school administrators and health departments on closing schools. But they continue to express a strong preference for in-person education, when it can be done safely.
Citing social, emotional and physical benefits of in-person learning, the letter sent to superintendents Tuesday evening said that “in-person education is too important for our children to disrupt their education further, unless and until local conditions specifically dictate the need to do so.”
Last week, the state reported 457 new student cases of COVID-19 from Oct. 29 through Nov. 4, up from 291 new cases the previous week. Schools also saw 219 new staff cases during that period, up from 156 the week prior.
Gifford and Cardona said they are closely monitoring the community spread of COVID-19, as well as school-related positive cases. But they said the mitigation strategies put in place in schools are working.
“We are not seeing sustained person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in schools or outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools, despite increasing levels of COVID-19 in the community,” they wrote.
CEA questions back to top
Donald Williams, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union — said he agreed with the department’s stance on making data driven decisions for public health. But he disagreed about not seeing person-to-person transmission in schools, as well as the notion that schools should stay open even as community cases increase.
“We question that strongly,” Williams said. “We need more testing of students in schools and not just those who are exhibiting symptoms. We really need a schedule of random testing to catch asymptomatic students.
“We do know from scientific data that children with COVID are asymptomatic somewhere between 15%-40% of the time. Right now ... only those students who are exhibiting symptoms would be tested.”
Williams said the union also supports proactively closing schools, “when it makes sense, in high infection communities, especially when combined with cases arising in schools.”
“We think that being proactive in shutting down the virus is very important,” he said.
DPH and the education department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Cardona explained Monday during a radio interview on WNPR that based on information gathered from contact tracers, “by and large” exposure to the virus was caused by staff or students attending sporting events or other community gatherings. He said that schools would know if COVID-19 was spreading within classroom settings because multiple members of a cohort would contract the virus.
Overall, he said “we’re not really seeing that.” But he added, “It doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. It doesn’t mean that there haven’t been cases that maybe spread between classmates or adults in the building. But what we’re hearing from the contact tracers is that these cases are happening in the community.”
The letter from Cardona and Gifford comes as Shelton public schools announced plans to shift students to online-only learning until January. Interim Superintendent Beth Smith told families in a letter Tuesday afternoon that “the extremely difficult decision” by school and public health officials is the best and safest course for the district at this point with more than eight new cases among school and staff over the past five days.
“These increasing positive cases have affected our ability to safely keep our schools open and adequately staffed,” she wrote.
Connecticut’s Region 4 district, which includes students in Chester, Deep River and Essex, announced Monday that schools would close until Nov. 30, due to multiple confirmed cases in Middlesex County. Brian J. White, superintendent of schools, said 23 staff members and 123 students from pre-kindergarten through grade 8 have been quarantining because of the infections, and on top of that, school and health officials are investigating new cases
“In addition to concerns about spread within the schools and the need for further contact tracing and quarantine requirements, we are experiencing staff shortages related to these cases that impact our in-person operations,” he said.
In the notice sent to superintendents, the state acknowledged school districts may have to move to a remote model due to the “unique circumstances,” such as staffing issues, and advised district administrators to consult with local health officials “as they consider the appropriate course of action.” The departments also asked superintendents to consult state guidelines about when to shift learning models.