During a webinar today State Department of Education (SDE) officials, joined by Governor Ned Lamont and Acting Department of Public Health (DPH) Commissioner Deidre Gifford, answered questions submitted by educators and parents on a range of topics that included many health and safety concerns.
While today’s webinar was a step toward answering teachers’ and parents’ questions about school reopening, many issues remain.
“The health and safety of our students, educators, and staff and the funding necessary for COVID-related expenses are among the top priorities for CEA and our members,” said CEA President Jeff Leake. “Having the right resources to protect the health of students and educators is critical. We continue to be concerned about transportation issues and meeting the needs of high-risk students and educators, as well as students with special needs. We look forward to continuing to work with the governor and the commissioner on these important issues.”
Funding remains a major concern that has yet to be fully addressed. Though districts have received some additional funds from the federal government the amount that has been provided so far falls far short of what it will take to open schools safely.
SDE Chief Financial Officer Kathy Demsey acknowledged that there is a need for additional resources for schools to reopen safely and said that the department is waiting to see how much funding will be needed by districts to implement their reopening plans.
“We’re not leaving you high and dry,” said Governor Lamont. “You have a partner in the state government and hopefully a partner in the federal government. We’re looking to get your input so hopefully we can open safely.”
Decision to reopen
Lamont said Connecticut is only having this conversation about reopening schools because we have the lowest percentage of positive tests in the country.
Unlike many other sectors that could reopen on a shorter time frame, Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said that the complexity of reopening schools required that a reopening plan be released two months out in order to give districts sufficient time to plan for three different scenarios.
“We need to look at reopening not as a static decision, but a fluid one,” he said. “We have to plan for long term and think that we could be forced to scale back because of health indicators and then move forward again. We want to make sure we’re thinking three to four months ahead while knowing nothing is set in stone.”
DPH Commissioner Gifford said that COVID-19 is spreading in many states across the country right now. “The governor has said, Connecticut is not an island. We have to plan and are planning for a potential resurgence of community spread.”
Quarantining and leave for teachers
A frequent question from educators concerns what will happen if they need to quarantine because of potential exposure—or become infected or have a family member who contracts COVID.
SDE Legal Director Jessa Mirtle addressed the topic saying it’s an important consideration not just for educators but for the entire community, as everyone who is ill or has potentially been exposed to the virus needs to quarantine to prevent spread.
“We need to make sure school policies don’t incentivize coming to school when sick,” Mirtle said.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides that covered employers must provide two weeks of paid sick leave at the employee’s regular rate of pay where the employee is unable to work because that person is quarantined and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. The act also provides two weeks of paid sick leave at two-thirds an employee’s regular rate of pay because of the need to care for an individual subject to quarantine.
Mirtle said that in developing their plans it’s also important for districts to look at FMLA protections and short term disability plans that may be available to employees. She added that districts should consider having educators who need to quarantine but are not experiencing symptoms provide support for students from home.
Cohorting and buses
Parents and educators have concerns that students will mix and spread germs among children not in their classroom cohort while on school buses.
Gifford said there may be a different cohort of children on the bus than the cohort a child is with in the classroom, “but we should strive for consistency on transport so that it is, in essence, another cohort.”
Cardona mentioned that students will likely also be exposed to other children during after-school sports and and that cohorting is not possible at the high school level.
Connecticut’s plan does not offer specific guidance about before- or after-care programs.
SDE officials said they are giving serious thought to how they will handle teacher evaluation for the coming year given the demands schools are facing with reopening. They said they hope to have guidance available for districts in two-three weeks.
Cardona stressed that the “development” part of Connecticut’s System for Educator Evaluation and Development should be the priority this year.
“It would be foolish not to change our plans to think about how we can better support teachers,” he said. “It’s a really important time to think about how we can reimagine teacher evaluation in Connecticut so that in a post-COVID world we can have a better plan long term.”
Mask and mask breaks
Deputy Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said that schools are required to adopt policies mandating the use of masks for staff and students. Schools must be prepared to provide masks to any staff member or student who requires them.
She added that SERC is assisting with bulk ordering masks and other equipment for districts.
Cardona said that the SDE didn’t include specifics about when or how frequently mask breaks should occur because teachers know their own students best. “Who better than classroom teachers and principals to determine when kids need breaks?”
What if someone at school tests positive?
The SDE said that one of the most common questions they’ve received concerns notification policies if a child or staff member tests positive.
The SDE is working with DPH to develop a policy that balances the need to protect individual privacy with family’s need for transparency and the ability to protect their own health.
How to decide when schools should close
“We’ve heard loud and clear from our education partners that there should be clarity and clear information driving decisions,” Cardona said.
He added that decisions need to be made consistently throughout the state, and that decisions about closures will likely rely on regional infection rates if certain parts of Connecticut are experiencing waves of infection.
Cardona said the SDE is working with DPH to get a policy out in the near future.
COVID testing and temperature checks
DPH Commissioner Gifford said that it’s important to educate students and families about symptom awareness.
She said that temperature checks are not included in the SDE guidelines because temperature checks can create bottlenecks at the doors to buildings, which would defeat their purpose. The DPH and SDE decided that the benefits of temperature checks did not outweigh the potential risks of having staff conduct temperature checks.
“What we know about testing,” she continued, “is that it tells us about a moment in time whether you have an infection. You might test negative one day and become symptomatic tomorrow or the day after. We haven’t seen broad recommendations for asymptomatic testing in schools.”
Gifford added that the best strategy for keeping COVID out of schools is to keep the levels of COVID in the community low, and when someone has a known exposure they must get tested and go into quarantine.