Lamont committed to leave decision on schools to local districts

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By Paul Hughes, Republican-American

HARTFORD — Gov. Ned Lamont confronted fast-rising COVID-19 rates and a fresh demand Monday to close school buildings to students again from unions representing 60,000 teachers and school workers.

Lamont and Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona remained committed to leaving decisions on instruction and school closures to local school officials to make based on local conditions, including community spread.

“I think our schools have done an extraordinary job of putting public health and safety first,” Lamont said.

Cardona said more than 350,000 of the approximately 527,830 students attending public schools have received instruction in classrooms on a part-time and full-time basis.

There have been approximately 1,150 cases of COVID-19 among students and 500 cases among staff members according to the latest weekly statewide numbers. There were roughly 470 new student cases reported last week and 160 new staff cases.

Lamont and Cardona also continued to express a preference for in-classroom instruction.

“We know there is no replacement for in-person learning,” Cardona said.

REGION 16 SCHOOLS WILL all switch to full remote learning for the weeks after the Thanksgiving and holiday breaks.

All students in the region, which is composed of Beacon Falls and Prospect, will distance learn at home Nov. 30 through Dec. 4 and again Jan. 4 through Jan. 8, the region announced Monday. The additional remote learning weeks are intended to help reduce the potential spread of COVID-19 in schools after holiday gatherings.

“We are hopeful that this decision will help ensure in-person learning remains a viable option and an opportunity we can provide for our students for the remainder of the school year,” Region 16 Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin wrote in a letter to the community.

NAUGATUCK SCHOOL OFFICIALS are moving forward with the district’s present hybrid model but preparing to shift to full remote learning if the need arises.

In a letter issued on Monday, Naugatuck Superintendent of Schools Christopher Montini said the district is impacted most by the number of staff members that have been required to quarantine.

“Schools have been doing an amazing job shifting people around to cover for the short-term vacancies, however, if the trend continues we may not have enough staff to continue in-person learning safely at all schools,” Montini wrote.

If staffing levels get too low for in-person learning, the plan is to shift Naugatuck High School to full distance learning and reallocate 15 staff members from the high school to the lower grades.

The next step would be to make City Hill Middle School full remote and move 10 staff members from the middle to the elementary schools. If the elementary schools can’t be safely staffed then, all schools will shift to remote learning.

If either Naugatuck High or City Hill switch to full remote learning due to staff shortages, students with special needs may attend in-person learning Monday through Thursday, with virtual learning on Friday, the letter states.

Montini said the district may not be able to provide much notice about changes and encouraged families to prepare for a shift to remote learning.

“While our goal is to continue to provide in-person learning, the safety of our students and staff is the priority,” he wrote.

THE BOARD OF EDUCATION UNION COALITION called for a shift to all remote learning after the Thanksgiving break from Nov. 30 through Jan. 18 unless demanded COVID-19 protocols are enacted statewide and schools are fully staffed.

One continuing demand is that school districts, with state assistance, provide regular COVID-19 testing of students and staff to check for both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases.

Lamont ruled out imposing a state testing mandate because he said he continues to contend such a step is unnecessary.

“I believe that people can do it on a voluntary basis. It is much more effective than me mandating you take a test,” Lamont said.

The governor and a top aide who is overseeing testing efforts said union and parental rights present complications to a testing mandate.

“You’ve got collective bargaining agreements for the teachers, and for the students you need parental consent,” said Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer.

The state launched a pilot program in the 4,440-student Middletown school district to test the use of rapid COVID-19 tests for students and staff.

Cardona said 20 other school districts are collaborating with health care providers to establish testing programs, and more school systems are making inquiries.

The Lamont administration is making 75,000 of the BinexNow test developed by Abbott Laboratories available to public schools.

The Board of Education Union Coalition includes the Connecticut Education Association, the AFT Connecticut and four other labor organizations that represent more than 60,000 teachers and other school employees across the state.

The unions are also seeking more detailed and public reporting of COVID-19 spread in schools, changes in responses to coronavirus exposures in school settings, upgrades to HVAC systems, and job protections for all school staff through the end of the school year.

COMMUNITY SPREAD ACCELERATED over the weekend with 5,271 new cases of COVID-19 recorded between Friday and Sunday.

There now have been 106,740 cases reported since early March, including nearly 32,900 new cases since Nov. 1.

There was a net increase of 27 patients hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 over the weekend between new admissions and discharges to 875 statewide.

At this time, Geballe said 74% of the state’s approximately 8,000 hospital beds are occupied.

“That number has been pretty steady for weeks now,” he said.

Geballe said occupancy in intensive care units ticked up to 58% of capacity, and COVID-19 patients represent 30% of the occupied ICU beds.

He also reported that three COVID-19 recovery centers with 250 beds between them have been stood back up to provide post-acute care for patients discharged from hospitals, and also to accept infected patients from nursing homes.

State health officials also reported 43 more coronavirus-linked deaths to bring the death toll to 4,871 since the first fatality was recorded in mid-March.

Lamont highlighted that Connecticut has now performed three million diagnostic tests with the additional 109,045 test results that were received over the week.

“It took us five months to do the first one million tests,” he said.

Geballe estimated almost 250,000 molecular and antigen tests were done in the last week, including record numbers of tests of school-aged children.

The 3,031,062 tests that have been done to date do include multiple tests of the same patient or specimen.

THE NAUGATUCK VALLEY HEALTH DISTRICT reported there were 208 new cases from Friday to Monday in its jurisdiction, which covers Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Derby, Naugatuck, Seymour and Shelton.

There have been 3,122 cases since March in the six towns, according to the health district.

There were 61 new cases in Naugatuck and nine in Beacon Falls since Nov. 19. There have been 787 cases in Naugatuck and 110 in Beacon Falls since March.

The health district reported one COVID-19 associated death — a 65-year-old man from Derby—since Nov. 19, bringing the total coronavirus-associated deaths in the district since March to 255.

There have been 41 coronavirus-associated deaths in Naugatuck and none in Beacon Falls, according to health officials.

AS OF FRIDAY, THE CHESPROCOTT HEALTH DISTRICT reported there have been 1,240 cases within the towns its serves: Cheshire, Prospect and Wolcott.

The health district reported there have been 249 cases in Prospect since March, an increase of 41 cases from the week before.

There have been 35 coronavirus-related deaths in the district, according to officials, but none in Prospect.

THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION reported Monday that a new round of coronavirus testing of more than 8,600 inmates found that just under 1% of them were positive.

Prison officials said 80 inmates tested positive during a third round of mass testing that ran from Oct. 6 to Nov. 13. There currently are 44 prisoners who are positive for the virus, and none of them is showing symptoms.

Lamont reported that he has continued to test negative since his communications director received a positive test result on Nov. 13. The governor continued to quarantine in his Greenwich home on Monday.

Elio Gugliotti contributed to this report.