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Union Pressures State to do More on School COVID-19 Cases

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"I knew it was a question of when not if.  I would have preferred for it not to happen the first week of school,” said Matthew Geary, superintendent of the Manchester school district.

Three cases of COVID-19 in the Manchester school district closed one building for a day and required 50 students and staff to quarantine for the next two weeks. 

“Keep in mind, kids are socially distanced 6 feet apart, they're masked up, and they have desk shields,” Geary continued. "So, even though there's been a case in the room and we're quarantining the cohort the likelihood that people were actually in close contact in there, it's unlikely. We're quarantining as a precaution."

What's happening in Manchester is not unique.  Nearly two dozen districts have experienced at least one positive case. 

"I would be surprised if there are no cases in some school districts.  I think just thing we're all going to experience it,” said Timothy Connellan, superintendent of the Southington school district, which has had one case so far.

School districts work with their local health department to perform contact tracing and determine whether a cohort or classroom needs to quarantine. In some cases, entire school buildings have temporarily closed.

"There are a number of districts where seemingly similar situations have cropped up but different responses have been out there,” said Jeff Leake, head of the Connecticut Education Association.

The CEA along with the support staff union is calling on the state to implement stricter standards for handling COVID-19 cases.

Connecticut's education commissioner said the protocols are already in place pointing to the guidance given to all districts.  However, the CEA said those leave too much up to the districts' discretion.

"We don't say well here this bar can open but this bar can't,” said Leake. "School systems deserve the same ability to say I know exactly what I'm supposed to do, how I'm supposed to do it and move forward."

“They're wrong when they say there are not standards,” said Connellan.

Connellan said the district followed guidance given to them by both the state Department of Education and the Department of Public Health for their coronavirus case.

“They've continued to emphasize it and reinforce it,” he said of weekly meetings with the Department of Public Health.

The parent of one student at Farmington's West District Elementary told us she changed her mind about sending him to class when she got the notification that there was a positive case of COVID-19 in her child's school.

"We're afraid, yeah.  I think we will change to the online-only,” said Walaa Darakal. "It's dangerous for my son."

Governor Ned Lamont gave schools high marks for the way they've handled the pandemic so far this school year.

"The schools have been very cautious and prudent.  They've closed down classes and they've closed down schools when necessary I think they're erring on the side of caution," he said.

However, Leake put the blame back on Lamont, “who seems to be pressuring these folks to open up with all kids, all five days,” he said.

While the state has passed mandates for businesses that want to reopen, and set protocols for schools as well, the governor said he wants to give districts more local control in how they handle cases of COVID-19.

"People know what I believe but now it's up to each and every school.  I can't mandate that, every school is going to make up their own mind,” said Lamont.

Leake said certain superintendents are not following the state’s guidance, but declined to name which ones.  Instead, he said he would give them time to correct their errors, but warned the union would make the complaints they’ve received from members public if that didn’t happen soon.

East Hartford English Teacher Elizabeth Trojanowski was skeptical about returning to her classroom this fall.  Then, the school temporarily closed for a case of COVID-19 and it gave her a new perspective.

"I love the way my district has handled it, I'm comforted by my district I feel like they've done it the right way.  I wish I could say the same for other districts,” said Trojanowksi.

Trojanowski, who was also leery of the hybrid learning model, said she's had a change of heart.

"There is so much more happening in my classroom I the short amount of time I have with my kids because I have such a small group, I'm able to take them that much further," she explained.

Jason Zandri, who has two children each in the Wallingford and Meriden school districts hoped they could attend school in-person full time but said he settled for the hybrid learning plans the districts offered.  So far, he's been underwhelmed by the results.

“I’m concerned that my kids are missing out on an opportunity to learn," he said.

After Wallingford's Dag Hammarskjold Middle School closed for a case of COVID-19, Zandri said his children's school schedules suddenly changed from long-distance learning in the afternoon to a full day online.

"Childcare, afterschool, all of that gets confused and you’ve got parents scrambling," he said.

Zandri missed the memo and his children missed a morning of school.  He predicted students in both districts will be learning completely online before Halloween.

“It would have been better just to give up on the attempt to bring them in if this is where we’re going to end up," said Zandri.  “This is causing a lot of anxiety for parents, this is causing a lot of anxiety for children."

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