Dr. Manisha Juthani, the commissioner of public health, explains the new protocols. At right, Gov. Ned Lamont. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

State officials announced new protocols Thursday aimed at ending the practice of quarantining students who have been exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom, a source of frustration to parents concerned about the loss of school time for their kids and lost time at work for the adults.

The Screen and Stay program, which is effective immediately, would allow students who come in contact with a COVID-19 classmate to be screened for symptoms and remain in class instead of having to stay home, sometimes for up to two weeks. The protocol is voluntary, not mandated for school systems.

Dr. Manisha Juthani, the commissioner of public health, said the state’s high rate of vaccinations and low rate of transmission, plus the recent availability of vaccines for elementary-age children and data indicating that classroom spread is relatively low, justify the change.

“I think this is our first step in this off-ramp in this pandemic,” Juthani said, describing the policy as “a bridge” for the next few months as children ages 5-11 get vaccinated.

Gov. Ned Lamont, Juthani and state and local educators announced the new protocol at Newington High School, the same day that House Republicans were planning to publicly urge the administration to take steps to limit quarantines that appear to be medically unnecessary, given vaccination rates and spread in Connecticut.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said he believed prodding by members of his caucus, particularly Reps. Greg Howard of North Stonington and Christie Carpino of Cromwell, contributed to the new protocols curtailing quarantines.

“Just today, on my way here, I got a text message from a parent whose fourth grader just got quarantined for 10 days for the third time since Aug. 25,” Howard said. “It’s putting a tremendous amount of stress on working families, single parents, etc. I’m glad to see that SDE [State Department of Education] and DPH are finally listening and coming together and doing what’s in the best interest of the kids in this state.”

Carpino said the classroom exposures forcing quarantines rarely cause infection, and she urged Juthani to change the policy in a letter sent on Oct. 19.

“As a snapshot to how destructive this policy is to the educational health of our students, in Cromwell, more than 450 students have been quarantined from the start of school this year,” said Carpino, the mother of two school-age children.

“According to the superintendent, the average loss to each student is five to six days of in-person learning. The COVID-19 positivity rate of these students ranges from a mere 0.55% to 8% per school. As a result, more than 90% of quarantined students who were prohibited from attending school were healthy. Many of these students run the risk of being prohibited from school during subsequent quarantines with no end in sight. The lost in-person learning time is even more pronounced for some of our athletes.”

Max Reiss, the communications director for Lamont, said after the GOP press conference that the administration was well aware of the stresses on parents and children.

“This has been in development for weeks between the state Department of Education and the Department of Public Health. The issue of kids missing days of school is something that we’ve been dealing with since the previous school year,” Reiss said.

Candelora has criticized the extension of the governor’s emergency COVID powers through Feb. 15, but on Thursday he complained that Lamont did not exercise his powers to mandate “Screen and Stay,” rather than leave quarantine policies to local school systems.

“It’s voluntary because we’re trying to strike the balance between the districts knowing what works for them — and what also is the understanding that there are different pockets of the state that are still in different places,” Reiss said, referring to variations in COVID rates.

Juthani said taking the state’s successful vaccination campaign to the younger population is the best way to safely relax the state’s few remaining COVID-19 restrictions. Neither she nor the governor offered what metrics, such as school vaccinations, would end the mask mandate.

“I don’t have a strict number that I can give you to be able to answer that question right now,” she said. “But what I want you to know is that we are all committed to being able to move in this direction. And if anything, I hope that this move gives you some confidence and faith that our goal is to return to normalcy, and we will have to do it one step at a time.”

Data released Thursday show that less than 1% of the 2.4 million fully vaccinated have contracted COVID. Hospitalizations for the disease remain low, at 209. That is about one-tenth of COVID-19 hospitalizations at the peak last year. There were 25 more COVID deaths in the last week, bringing the total to 8,776.

Earlier, the governor stressed in Newington that his administration has worked since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to keep schools open, though many went to remote learning or a hybrid model.

“I think we’ve shown over the last year and a half that working with each and every one of you, we’re able to keep our schools open safely, able to do sports safely, and able to make sure that if there is a little exposure, you’re going to be able to stay in the classroom safely going forward,” Lamont said.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, backed by other Republicans, said the new protocols are good, but late.

The Centers for Disease and Prevention Control has been recommending quarantine for unvaccinated children and adults who have had a close contact with someone infected with COVID. Lamont has mandated the wearing of masks in schools, spacing of desks three feet apart and social distancing, where possible.

“Screen to Stay” is intended to underscore to school superintendents that students who are not yet vaccinated can safely stay in classrooms after a classmate tests positive. As of Thursday, 80% of Connecticut residents between the ages 16-17 and 71% of those between the ages 12-15 have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

Juthani said that families will have to make an assessment with the school and let them know as soon as possible if their child has specific symptoms related to COVID. After that first day, the family will receive reminders to continue to report to the schools on the status of their child’s symptoms.

Massachusetts already was using a similar program, but one requiring testing — not just screening. Howard had urged the administration to adopt a “Test and Stay” model.
Juthani said a testing program would be more expensive and cumbersome to administer. A weekly testing program called Project COVID-19 is available to districts and students, though, and 37 districts are utilizing it.

“It has been a tough 18 months for people to repeatedly have to quarantine, and we want to be cognizant of the idea that aside from COVID, there are a lot of other things that people who are growing up today are having to face,” she said. “There are challenges related to your social health, behavioral health, in so many ways your emotional health. Being around your peers, being with your teachers, being in the classroom is exquisitely important to keep your education on track. So the main idea here is to try to keep as many kids in school as possible.”

Students attending the event in Newington agreed that going back and forth between remote, in-person or hybrid learning last school year was not easy.

One group of Newington High School freshmen explained that since this initiative doesn’t affect them because they’re all vaccinated, they still recognize the importance of having it available since missing in-person learning last year because of remote learning and having to quarantine made school harder and they felt like they were falling behind.

“We’re all freshmen here so this is our first year of high school. But I think we’re really lucky that we’re in school now because it’s so incredibly difficult to stay on task and have the integrity of doing your work and even understanding this stuff,” said 14-year-old Isabella Longo. “Emailing a teacher is not the same as talking to them in person about the work. So I think it’s really good that we can be in school as much as possible.”
 

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.