Education leaders throughout the area are preparing to resume in-person learning for all students this fall. But the new academic year does not mean returning to a full normal in school buildings just yet.
Students, staff members and visitors to area schools will likely be required to continue wearing masks.
COVID-19 vaccination rates, though relatively strong in Connecticut, have slowed and are especially lagging nationwide. A vaccine has yet to be approved for inoculating children younger than 12 years old.
All the while, the more contagious Delta variant of the novel coronavirus has emerged in Connecticut. It has become the virus’s dominant strain in other states. That development is joined by another trend: the number of COVID-19 cases reported in Meriden and in surrounding communities has risen in recent weeks.
State data show the number of reported cases throughout the city alone has nearly doubled during a two-week period from July 11 to July 24. Health officials reported 16 new cases during the first week, followed by 31 new cases in that second week.
As conditions continue to evolve, state and local school and health leaders maintained they are committed to providing 100% in-person learning when September arrives. Officials cited the need to provide students with continuous in-person learning and the ability to interact with their peers and teachers in a safe environment.
State officials’ goals include a full return as well, according to revised state Department of Education recommendations issued on July 25. Other state-issued guidance calls for a limited use of remote learning — when unvaccinated students must be quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19, for example.
Max Reiss, spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont, said in a written statement that state officials are reviewing the latest CDC guidance and will have “additional updates in the coming days.”Full in-person learning — with masks
Those updates would come with a growing number of counties statewide having neared the threshold for universal mask-wearing indoors that had been set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Friday, the state Department of Public Health recommended indoor mask wearing across six counties — including New Haven County — statewide.
Interim state recommendations issued on July 25 call for the return of all in-person learning, which Reiss said, “is a priority for the Lamont administration.”
In Meriden, the district’s current draft reopening plans would require anyone entering a school building to wear a mask. Students’ desks will be spaced three feet apart. Elementary and middle school students will remain cohorted by class. Platt and Maloney high schools will reopen to five days a week of in-person learning, after a full academic year that saw students attending school on rotating in-person and remote schedules.
Masks will be required on school buses. Hand sanitizer stations will continue to be present throughout school buildings. The district will continue to employ extra staff to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces throughout the school day.
The district will require students and staff members experiencing COVID-19 symptoms to provide proof of testing that is negative for COVID-19.
The district’s draft plan states it will be reviewed every six months through Sept. 30, 2023. The next scheduled review date is Dec. 23 of this year.
In Wallingford, the school district’s draft reopening plan spells out similar requirements for face coverings as well as continued distancing and frequent cleaning protocols.
In March 2020, when school buildings across all districts were shut down abruptly in an effort to limit the coronavirus’ spread, educators and students had to quickly adjust to what was then a new remote learning model.
Last fall saw the majority of students and teachers return to classrooms, albeit with COVID-19 safety measures in place, including mask wearing, distancing and frequent cleaning of surfaces enforced.
High school students who attended in-person did so every other day. On their non-in-person days, those students logged into class remotely. Avoiding disruption, maintaining safety
Last Tuesday, national news outlets reported the CDC had issued updated recommendations that would reinstate universal mask wearing in schools for staff, students and visitors, vaccine status notwithstanding.
That same day, Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Educators Association, issued a written statement, in which she described the CDC’s recommendation as “the best precaution we have for our safety — especially for our most vulnerable students — and the most responsible way to ensure students stay in school. The consequences of not wearing masks means a return to a revolving door of hybrid and remote learning, causing more disruptions for our students and their education.”
Lauren Mancini-Averitt, president of the Meriden Federation of Teachers, had similar thoughts.
“We have to take it day-by-day,” Mancini said. “I don’t think we’re totally out of this pandemic. So we kind of have to go with the flow with what’s happening. But we have to keep our students safe, our teachers safe, and do the best we can.”
In Southington, School Superintendent Steve Madancy said the district has most of its reopening strategies in place for the upcoming school year.
“I think the only strategy or two we’re up in the air on is masking and quarantining,” Madancy said, adding teachers in his district prefer a full return to in-person learning. He described masks as “the elephant in the room ... We really have to see what the state and local health officials recommend.”
One of those officials would be Shane Lockwood, director of the Plainville-Southington Regional Health District, which includes the Southington Public Schools. Lockwood described the previous school year as having been “tough.” But school and health officials were able to maintain in-person learning throughout most of the year.
Last fall, there was an exception. Southington High School did close for two weeks because of staffing shortages, when more than 20 teachers were required to self-quarantine because they had been exposed to the coronavirus.
Learning otherwise continued uninterrupted.
“We’ve been through this before,” Lockwood said, adding the district had established a track record of being able to adjust quickly to changing circumstances.
“We can handle this. We’ll look at the guidance and make changes as necessary,” Lockwood said.
In Cheshire, close to 90% of students had returned to in-person learning by the end of the last school year, said School Superintendent Jeffrey Solan.
Solan, like his peers in other districts, indicated that local officials will follow state directives regarding mask mandates.
As of last week the state had not provided any. Allowing time to readjust
Mask wearing is briefly addressed in the reopening plan that had been prepared by Cheshire’s school reopening committee. But the overall plan doesn’t just seek to provide a safe learning environment.
It lays out another objective: addressing students’ social and emotional needs, especially those of students who had spent significant stretches of time outside of traditional learning environments.
Solan said about 20% of Cheshire students had been away from classrooms for at least a year.
Educators do not want to put families and students into the “difficult positions” of quickly reverting to in-person learning.
“It’s hard to pick right up and come in,” Solan said. So last year’s remote students will have an opportunity to get reacquainted with their schools and with staff during a five day period just before the school year.
Mancini-Averitt, who teaches at Maloney High School in Meriden, described an academic year that was as disjointed for teachers as it was for students.
“I don’t think we got to know our students as well in the high school as we would have, because we were seeing them every other day,” she said.
“When you’re seeing them every day you do get to know them a lot more,” Mancini-Averitt said. She added that she is looking forward to when everyone is able to unmask.
“I’m looking forward to seeing everyone’s entire face eventually. It was a little odd seeing only one-third of our students’ faces,” Mancini-Averitt said.
After nearly a full year of remote learning with her three children the last school year, one parent in Meriden said she is ready for them to return to traditional classrooms.
“I will tell you, my kids will be in school,” said Deb Martinez, who has two students returning to class in September. “Distance learning was a nightmare.”
The struggles during what Martinez described as a “fluid situation” prompted her family to switch their children back to in-person learning before the end of the past school year. That helped close out the year on a positive note.
“It was great,” Martinez said. “The school did a great job.”
This fall, Martinez’s oldest son is starting college. Her younger children will be in high school. The year will start with “many unknowns,” she said. “There are so many variables to it.”
That masks are highly likely is one less variable.
“They know they will probably have to wear masks,” Martinez said. “And they are OK with it.”
Martinez’s children are old enough to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. However, she and her husband are hesitant to do so just yet. The vaccines, she noted, are only authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. The agency has not yet given the vaccines full approval.
Martinez said she is not anti-vaccine. Still, her family has weathered experiences with other vaccines that have caused long-lasting and negative side effects.
“I just wish we had really hardcore facts and some more data,” Martinez said of the COVID-19 vaccines, adding the fact none of them are fully authorized does nothing to instill confidence in them. “That goes to show that you still have doubt.”Pushback against masks
Another Meriden schools parent, Brian Candelora, is steadfastly opposed to continued mask mandates. Candelora is the administrator for a statewide organization called “Unmask Our Kids CT.” The group has what Candelora described as “very active” local affiliates in Wallingford and Southington.
Like Martinez’s family, Candelora’s children were enrolled in distance learning last year. He said that option worked out well for his children, especially his oldest daughter.
“Every single child is different. And we cannot make one blanket rule,” Candelora said. So Unmask Our Kids is calling to make mask wearing and distance learning choices for families.
Reiss, Lamont’s spokesman, said, “The best action all of our students over the age of 12 and educators could do to support a safe return to school is to receive one of the COVID-19 vaccines.” He explained both the state Department of Public Health and Department of Education are coordinating with local districts and health providers to offer school-based vaccine clinics in all districts.
“Connecticut has been a national leader when it comes to testing, mitigation strategies, and vaccine uptake, and we want to continue that progress to the benefit of our entire state,” Reiss said.
For teachers like Mancini-Averitt, it may not be a bad thing to see mask wearing continue a little bit longer.
“It is difficult for some people, children, adults, as well, to be masked that long,” she said, adding there still need to be opportunities for children and adults alike to take breaks from wearing masks.
Mancini-Averitt said she feels with the ongoing updates and changing guidance, the communication between staff, health officials and district administrators “has been very open.”
The fluid situation makes it difficult to obtain definitive answers.
“I’m very appreciative of the communication from the health department, and from central office. But I think people want definitive answers. And the problem is, it’s an ever changing directive. That’s difficult on everyone,” Mancini-Averitt said.