Lamont issues warning to schools who switch to remote learning

Gov. Ned Lamont remains firm that he will not bring back a statewide mask mandate despite rising COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. “I don’t think so,” he said during a news conference Monday at Stamford Hospital. “I think the people of Connecticut are overwhelmingly doing the right thing because they’re wearing the masks.” (Paul Hughes/RA)

By Paul Hughes Republican-American

HARTFORD — Gov. Ned Lamont and Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker stood firm Tuesday that schools that switch to remote learning for coronavirus-related reasons will have to make up those days one way or another.

Russell-Tucker said state law requires a 180-day school year, and Lamont has not used his emergency authority to allow the state Board of Education to modify the requirement as he did in the 2020-21 school year.

“Right now, it is not permitted,” she said.

The governor indicated during a virtual news conference with Russell-Tucker and other top administration officials that he has no intention of granting school districts the option of providing remote instruction and hybrid learning again.

“I’m going to do everything I can to keep kids in the classroom safely,” Lamont said. “There’s nothing that compares to a great teacher in a classroom.”

The Lamont administration has told schools that remote learning will only be allowed on a class-by-class basis when there are significant COVID-19 infections. Exceptions are allowed for students in special circumstances, such as a medical condition that makes them or a family member unusually susceptible to the virus.

Since reopening this week, schools across the state have been closing, combining classes, and returning to distance learning in some cases because of shortages of teachers, other school staff and bus drivers due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

There were 734 infections reported among staff members just before the end-of-the-year holiday break and 3,634 infections reported among students. Those are the highest numbers reported since state started tracking reported cases in public and private schools. New weekly case counts are due to be released Thursday.

Russell-Tucker said state education officials are consulting with school superintendents on how school districts can make up remote learning days that cannot be counted toward the state requirement to provide 180 days and 900 hours of instruction. Some school districts plan to cancel professional development days, and others plan to make up these days at the end of the school year, she said.

Gov. Ned Lamont and acting Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker discussed the limitations on remote learning in August. Paul Hughes/Republican-American

“So, they are being really thoughtful and strategic about how to do this,” Russell-Tucker said.

The legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus on Monday requested the Department of Education allow school superintendents to switch to remote learning until the current COVID-19 surge subsides without having to make up those days later. In a letter to Russell-Tucker, caucus leaders wrote that models and experts predict this latest spike to last about two weeks and then plateau.

Sen. Eric C. Berthel, R-Watertown, the ranking Senate Republican on the Education Committee, said he generally prefers to leave decision making to boards of educations and school superintendents, but he has reservations about remote learning based on the state’s experience with it.

“I’m concerned. We looked at some data from the first year of virtual learning and we saw there are concerns with it. We are shortchanging our children,” he said.

Berthel said he believes legislators will at least review the 180-day requirement in the 2022 session and explore how remote learning days might be accommodated.

“The Education Committee is going to have to look and see what is in the best interest of our children, balancing mental health needs, balancing everything that comes along with everything we’ve learned,” he said.

Lamont stated Tuesday that a school mask mandate will remain in place until his current emergency powers expire on Feb. 15. It remains to be seen whether he will seek another extension of the emergency declarations that allow him to set rules and modify or suspend state laws, regulations and requirements.

The governor’s office also reported that on Tuesday the state started to distribute 670,000 COVID-19 rapid self-tests to public and private schools and child care providers. Use of the tests is at the discretion of schools and child care providers.