Despite the recent rise in the delta variant of the coronavirus in Connecticut, the plan to bring students back into classrooms full-time in the fall is still in place, administrators across the state said.
Still, school officials will be watching the numbers closely over the next few weeks.
“I think they’re seeing the glass half full right now,” said Fran Rabinowitz, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “We are all very hopeful that we can bring all of the students in safely for the beginning of the school year.”
According to recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 90% of all sequenced coronavirus cases in the U.S. were from the delta variant at the end of July. Last week, the CDC released updated guidance urging teachers, staff and students to continue to wear masks in schools regardless of their vaccination status — a direct response to the rapid spread of the delta variant throughout the country.
Gov. Ned Lamont has not made a decision yet regarding mask requirements but said during a press conference at Haddam-Killingworth High School on Monday that he expects to announce procedures and rules about how to deal with coronavirus before classes begin.
“Schools, we got to make up our mind what the right rules are there. I put it off, in part because we didn’t know anything about delta three weeks ago,” Lamont said Monday, adding that things changed quickly and that they will see what the circumstances are in the coming weeks.
“My No. 1 priority is kids can get back to school safely,” he said.
Although districts have plans in motion heading into the start of the school year, some questions still remain, and superintendents are waiting for guidance from the state that they hope will address them.
“Being able to anticipate what the issues may be and how to best address them — such as, when do you institute remote learning? How do you best do it?” Rabinowitz said, adding that they are thinking about the best way to approach those problems not only for students but staff who have told superintendents that having a hybrid learning model is very difficult.
She also said they are looking at the possibility of doing pop-up COVID testing throughout the school year and discussing how that would be managed and the costs involved.
But Rabinowitz explained that this has not only been a challenge for district officials, teachers and staff but for families as well, since they are “used to having absolutes from schools” about when students should come to school and what the school year will look like from August until June.
“They’re not used to having unanswered questions, and we do have some right now with the mask mandate and with how the year will play out, and it’s no one’s fault, it’s just the nature of this virus,” she said. “We can’t give everyone that assurance right now. We’re going to hope for the best. and we’re going to plan to have everyone back in full, and we’re going to hope that this delta variant recedes and that we have a wonderful school year.”
Lamont’s current executive mandate, which lasts until the end of September, states that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear face masks or face coverings “except for in certain rare settings,” one of which includes schools.
Most superintendents Rabinowitz said she’s talked to hope that there will be a mask mandate this school year. She said they believe that is the strongest COVID mitigation strategy for schools, especially since children younger than 12 still do not have the option to get vaccinated.
Hartford Public Schools, for example, are requiring that all students and staff continue to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. John Fergus, a spokesperson for the district, said they are following the state’s current mandate and that they will reevaluate the situation once the governor’s executive powers expire in September.
“I think the prudent decision right now is to keep masks on for everyone,” he said. “If things went [in a] really positive direction, and they removed that executive order, we can look at the options at that point, but I don’t think we’re there right now.”
Fergus explained that the Hartford district has also been encouraging students and families to get vaccinated and plans to continue hosting vaccine clinics throughout the school year.
As of last week, 70% of all district staff have been fully vaccinated, according to Fergus. He added that of the 1,600 teachers in the district, 80% are fully vaccinated and about 15% have not yet informed the district about their vaccination status.
In terms of students, Fergus said 746 of the students 12 and older have had at least one dose of the vaccine, but most of these numbers came from the clinics the district held at the end of the year, and they expect a lot more families to bring in the documentation at the start of the school year saying their children have been vaccinated.
Hartford is going to continue to work closely with its district health and safety team on COVID precautions and mitigation throughout the school year, but no fully virtual option is available for students heading into the new school year.
Fergus added that every student will still have access to a device they can use at home not only to “supplement the learning for the 21st century” but also in case a classroom or individual student needs to quarantine.
“Say there’s one student that was determined to be within close contact, and they had to quarantine at home. They would be able to continue their studies virtually,” he said, adding that this is not the same as giving students the option to attend school virtually or in-person like they had to offer families throughout last school year due to COVID.
“We’re focused on students returning to school in person.”
Rabinowitz said that while districts are planning for students to come back in person this fall and are not looking at remote learning as a separate model, officials are planning for “medical emergencies if they occur” that could include steps similar to ones Hartford is taking, such as having virtual learning for students who may need to quarantine.
She added that the objective right now is to ensure students have the devices they need and that districts are using a significant portion of the federal relief funds to ensure that they have replacement equipment “because one-time buying is wonderful, but these machines don’t last.”