School buses are parked in Hartford on Thursday, June 25. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
School buses are parked in Hartford on Thursday, June 25. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Connecticut’s Department of Education says that state COVID-19 data will guide the decision-making process on how K-12 students should learn this fall, but Thursday’s numbers inched in the wrong direction — the state announced 101 new positive tests, while also reporting an uptick in the total number of hospitalizations by two.

Speaking on a YouTube webinar Thursday, Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said the state is considering three scenarios for the upcoming school year: a full opening, a hybrid of online and in-person participation, and distance learning only.

“We want schools to open, but only as long as public health data continues to support moving in that direction,” Cardona said. “Public health data matters and while Connecticut’s health data is among the best in the country — thanks in part to all of you — a change in the data for Connecticut will mean different things for the re-opening of schools in the fall.”

Gov. Ned Lamont closed in-person instruction in schools on March 16 to keep students and school faculty safe from the spread of COVID-19. Distance learning was the primary delivery of education during that time.

“I think because we were cautious and because we put public health first, we’ve been more successful as we try and slowly get back,” Lamont said Thursday.

Lamont said during the webinar that the consideration of public health would be his “North Star” on whether to send kids back into classrooms. Lamont put emotional health under that public health umbrella and then brought up the “hundreds” of calls from youth in distress into 2-1-1 during the pandemic.

“[With regard to] social and emotional learning, there’s nothing in my mind that replaces the classroom, as long as we can do that safely,” Lamont said.

Distance learning is a key topic in Connecticut’s back-to-school discussion. Lamont looks at distance learning as a way to comfort parents worried about sending their children back amid a pandemic, alluding to a combination of online and in-person participation being available to local parents.

“But, we really want folks to get back into that classroom and we think we can do that safely,” Lamont said.

Logistical issues continue to hamper the distance learning capabilities of students from the state’s neediest districts. Desi Nesmith, one of the state deputy education commissioners, addressed this “digital divide” that he said disproportionately affects students of color.

“Equity needs to be at the front and center as we look to address the digital divide,” Nesmith said during the webinar. “That means we have to prioritize our resources to be deployed first to districts that are in the most need.”

Nesmith said his team is trying to get more laptops for students in these districts, in addition to the 60,000 secured through the now-disbanded Partnership for Connecticut cooperative between state officials and Dalio Philanthropies. He also said he’s trying to get money to resolve student connectivity issues.

Deidre Gifford, the state’s acting Department of Public Health commissioner, weighed in on the move to get back to school.

“All of the work that the governor has been leading and we have been doing to contain the pandemic in Connecticut is really key to the safe school re-opening,” Gifford said. “That includes our gradual re-opening of the economy that’s been slow and measured and careful, our face coverings, which are essential and as you know feature prominently in the school guidance, continued physical distancing, and, for those who are older adults or with underlying chronic conditions, to remain home as much as possible, our rigorous testing and tracing strategies that we’re putting in place, and, of course, continued hand-washing.”

Upon the re-opening, students and faculty will be required to wear masks. If someone doesn’t have a face covering, Gifford said districts must then provide one.

Officials were asked about whether people in Connecticut schools would be subject to temperature checks upon the re-opening of schools. Gifford pivoted back to the state’s mask requirement as the chief way to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. She also said the consensus among those involved in the planning was that the issues with monitoring body temperature – like creating “bottle-necks” at school entrances – outweighed the benefits.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations move slightly upward

Since Monday, when the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 dipped to 69, Connecticut has seen a gradual increase.

“I’d be worried that we see a little tick up in hospitalizations if not for the fact that our admissions are flat, or even on a slight downward trend,” Lamont said. “That means that we don’t have the flare-ups that you see in some of the other states.”

Lamont cited limited capacity in intensive care units in Florida hospitals as that state continues to experience high infection rates. There’ve been 8,948 new cases in Florida since Wednesday.

Still, Connecticut’s positivity rate inched forward. It’s now at 1.2 percent out of all tests conducted.

Gifford spoke about the reliability of the state’s COVID-19 data during Thursday’s coronavirus update. She said this type of data would be harder to interpret if the spread of coronavirus in Connecticut was rising in a manner similar to states experiencing higher infections rates while simultaneously seeing increased testing capacity.

“We’re not in that position in Connecticut,” Gifford said. “We’ve been relatively stable in our testing numbers and in our community spread and positivity rate.”

Lamont said a red flag for him would be if the rate of positive tests rose closer to five percent.

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