The state of Connecticut plans to give local school officials the flexibility to decide the mix of in-school learning and online learning and whether any changes should be made if there's an uptick in COVID-19 cases in their particular county, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday.
“It will be guided metrics, the county-based metrics,” the Democrat said during his regular coronavirus update with reporters. "If there’s a spike in infections, there’s a surge in hospitalizations, at that point we’re going to be in a strong position to change course and get people in a different type of educational environment.”
Lamont has avoided instituting rules by regions of Connecticut during the pandemic and initially required all school districts to come up with plans for in-school learning, online learning and a hybrid model. But he said Thursday that many superintendents have been asking for more flexibility.
“So we’re trying to thread that needle by saying, ‘Here are the guidelines on how you can open your schools safely. Show me the metrics that you’re in a good place. This is how you open it for in-person learning, plus a mix of hybrid. And if the metrics go in a different direction, this is when you should be closing your school,” he said.
Lamont said the state's COVID-19 metrics currently indicate Connecticut can safely offer students in-classroom learning and a hybrid mix in-school and online learning. But he said if a district wants to do full distance learning “no matter what the metrics indicate at that point,” the superintendent will have to seek an exception from the state's education commissioner.
As of Thursday, Connecticut has had 49,670 positive cases of COVID-19, an increase of 130 since Wednesday. But Lamont said the state's rate of infection has continued to remain around 1%, which he called “remarkably good news.” To date, 4,431 people have died in the state, an increase of six people since Wednesday. Sixty-six people were hospitalized, an increase of 13 since Wednesday.
New data also shows there were six new positive cases of COVID-19 and four COVID-associated deaths between July 22-28 in nursing homes, where 2,849 people have died in Connecticut during the pandemic.
Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel from the University of Pennsylvania, an oncologist and former White House advisor who had an op-ed published in the New York Times on Wednesday about reopening schools, recommended states allow in-school learning if there's a low transmission rate in a community and a low test positive rate that indicates there's enough testing being done to make sure there aren't a lot of hidden cases.
“How do you get to a lower transmission rate? The exact way Connecticut has done it,” he said. “You closed non-essential businesses. You reopened them outdoors and minimized the indoor time. You physically distanced. You have a universal sweat mask-wearing. We know this works."
While he understood the fears of some parents and teachers, Emanuel said Connecticut is in “a perfect place to open up its schools, given its low transmission rate and low positivity.”
He said there's a chance Connecticut students might have to return to strictly online learning this fall, “especially if people get a little too comfortable" and stop wearing masks, social distancing and aren't careful about socializing indoors.
Meanwhile, about two dozen groups of teachers, parents and advocates held coordinated demonstrations on Thursday, demanding more funding to ensure schools can reopen safely during the continuing pandemic.
The “School Safety First” car caravans were organized by the state's two largest teachers’ unions.
“Nothing is more important that the safety of our students, our teachers, and our school communities,” said Jeff Leake, president of the Connecticut Education Association. He said CEA and the American Federation of Teachers of Connecticut want to "amplify teachers’ voices in calling for resources needed to fully implement protocols that could help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our schools.”
In other coronavirus news in Connecticut:
The Connecticut Department of Correction has begun a second round of COVID-19 testing of prison staff across the state. This time the tests are mandatory, under an agreement reached between the state and union officials.
The mandatory testing began on July 17 at the Cheshire and Garner Correctional Institutions. It has since been conducted at six more facilities. So far, there have been three asymptomatic positive results among 2,538 employees, for a .1% positive rate. To date, DOC said 386 staff members have contracted the virus and 378 have recovered.
A second round of testing began July 23 of the prisoner population. So far, 834 inmates at the Robinson and Osborne Correctional Centers were tested, with 770 testing negative and 64 testing as asymptomatic positive cases, for an 8% positive rate. Those inmates that tested positive are being isolated and monitored to make sure they don't develop any COVID-19 symptoms, DOC said.
The first round of testing of more than 9,500 offenders resulted in 830 asymptomatic positive results, with only two of those inmates later developing symptoms. DOC said both have since recovered. To date, only one inmate out of approximately 9,700 offenders is currently recuperating from symptoms.