Without State Mandate, CT Schools Face Decisions On Closures As Virus Cases Emerge
Hartford Courant, September 10, 2020
By Amanda Blanco
Without a state mandate on when to shut down schools due to COVID-19, more than a dozen Connecticut districts have already been faced with a thorny decision: Do coronavirus cases automatically warrant closing school doors — and if so, for how long?
Already, districts with infected students have varied in their decision-making. Some have sent students home or canceled classes after their first cases emerged. Others have remained open, merely asking those who’d come in contact with infected students to quarantine.
Though the state has left school closure decisions to individual school districts, Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday that schools shouldn’t have to shut down after only a few cases. Lamont’s spokesperson, Max Reiss, reiterated that perspective Wednesday.
“[Lamont] thinks that a full-on school closure might be a little bit of an extra step that might come at the expense of some kids' educations," Reiss said. “Given the number of precautions that all these schools are taking ... shutting down an entire school might be a little much.”
Reiss said Lamont would not rule out a policy dictating to schools when they should close down or stay open.
Even without a firm mandate, state officials have provided recommendations on how districts should handle cases within their schools. The state Department of Education recently released a working document with the following advice:
If COVID-19 cases are confined to one classroom or are linked to one exposure outside the school setting, close contacts of the infected individual may be excluded from school for two weeks. Any staff or students in the individual’s cohort may also be excluded.
If a school sees two or more cases within 14 days, linked together through a school activity but involving people who are in different classrooms or cohorts, local officials may close the school for 14 days.
“Close contact” is defined as spending at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of a person with a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 during that person’s infectious period or having direct contact with an infected person’s droplets through coughing or sneezing.
Charles Brown, director of the Central Connecticut Health District, said most districts have followed the education department’s guidelines but that individual circumstances and school policies may impact local officials' decision-making.
While health directors have the authority to shut down schools, such decisions are mostly left to school administrators, said Brown, whose district includes Berlin, Newington, Rocky Hill and Wethersfield.
“We provide guidance, we provide recommendations, then they make the ultimate decision,” he said. “Generally, we come to a consensus, and then we move forward.”
case management back to top
Here is how some Connecticut schools have handled coronavirus cases so far:
Naugatuck High School announced Wednesday an early dismissal for all students after a senior who was in the school building Tuesday tested positive for the virus, even though the student was part of an isolated cohort.
Valley Regional High School in Deep River made a similar announcement Monday and cancelled in-person classes for two days after two students tested positive for COVID-19.
Somers canceled classes Wednesday and Thursday at its elementary school after a staff member who works with pre-k students tested positive for the virus.
Other schools, including those in Middletown, Waterbury, Glastonbury, Plainville, Newington, Washington, Cornwall and Coventry, have remained open despite positive cases, although affected members of those school communities were ordered to quarantine for two weeks.
The Monroe school district announced Tuesday that a member of the school community had tested positive for COVID-19, but schools there are expected to remain open.
In Norwalk, an elementary school principal and an entire grade of teachers missed the first day of school due to a mandated quarantine after having come in contact inside the building with a member of the school community who later tested positive for COVID-19.
When an individual in a school setting tests positive for COVID-19, the school nurse typically conducts an interview with the person to identify any close contacts within the school setting, Brown said.
“Anybody who has significant contact with a confirmed case would be identified as someone who needs to quarantine," he said, noting the guidelines apply regardless of whether those involved were wearing masks. "Those who have not been in significant contact, but maybe incidental, would not be required to quarantine.”
Health and safety guidelines related to cohorting and social distancing allows districts to avoid having to quarantine every single person who may have come in contact with the individual who has COVID-19, Brown said.
“If you can’t be assured of who they had contact with, then the only reasonable thing to do is to shut down," Brown added. “You really have to look at the context of each individual case. ... It’s not a cookie-cutter type of approach.”
Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, said Tuesday that Connecticut is not currently tracking the number of students or school staff who test positive for the coronavirus on a statewide basis but may consider doing so.
“It’s all being collected by local health departments and where there are cases or clusters it’s being reported up to the state,” Geballe said, noting that there had been few reports of such cases so far. “We are looking at whether we want to put in place a more formal process around that. So far very little activity at the local level for K-12.” Lamont said cohorting should prevent having to shut down an entire school due to a positive case.
“With the cohorting, you shouldn’t have to shut down a school," he said. “We’re trying to limit it to that class or that group of people.”
A high school like Valley Regional, he said, is a “different situation, because it’s not as easy to cohort, which is why we’re much more likely to have the hybrid situation there, so at least you limit the amount of people who could be exposed.”
In addition to its guidance about COVID-19 cases in school settings, the state has also issued school-closure guidance based on countywide metrics, recommending that districts whose counties have seen fewer than 10 daily cases per 100,000 residents hold in-person classes, while those whose counties have 10-25 daily cases per 100,000 residents use a hybrid model and those whose counties have more than 25 hold classes remotely.
Currently, no Connecticut county is experiencing close to the level of new cases that would trigger a shift to a hybrid model. Hartford County, for example, has seen fewer than four new cases a day per 100,000 residents, while other counties have experienced even fewer.
Critics of the state’s approach, particularly in Connecticut’s larger cities, have questioned why those thresholds apply at a county level and not at a city level. But based on town-by-town numbers released last Thursday, Danbury was the only large town or city in the state whose rate of new cases was high enough to trigger even the hybrid threshold.