If you are a parent weighing your options for the Connecticut school re-opening, you would not be alone in being confused by conflicting statements from state and local officials about the safety and requirements for the fall semester.
The Community Gazette has reviewed plans by all seven local communities that we cover, as well as nearby Danbury, and compared them to the state guidelines recently issued as well as reported Covid cases published by the Connecticut Department of Public Health which are the primary factor in the formula for how to re-open schools.
Many localities are not using the state data but instead relying on information, not publicly posted, provided by their local health officials that in many cases contradicts the official published Covid counts.
To understand why this is so confusing, it is important to understand the newly released guidelines by the state Department of Education for each school district to use in deciding one of three specific re-opening options.
Communities with 10 or fewer Covid cases per 100,000 residents are supposed to re-open for in-person classes 5 days per week.
Communities with 10 to 24 Covid cases per 100,000 residents are supposed to use a "hybrid model" that divides the school population into 2 groups. The first group attends classes in-person on Monday and Tuesday. All students distance learn on Wednesday. And the second group attends classes in-person on Thursday and Friday.
Communities with Covid cases of 25 or more per 100,000 residents are supposed to offer distance learning.
But these are guidelines, and local districts have some latitude to make decisions that they feel best reflect the local situation. And while the official state Covid counts, updated daily, are published by the Connecticut Department of Public Health, many local districts are instead relying on information from their local health departments, information that often runs counter to the official published counts and is unavailable to the public.
Local officials do this because local numbers often don't agree with those published by the state. For example, Bethel's First Selectman indicated that the state figures for Bethel were invalid for the past week as they contained counts from earlier in the year. "Those are not likely all from last week. There are serious reporting lags, so many of those cases were from weeks ago, not last week," Mr. Knickerbocker said.
We were able to confirm with officials at the Connecticut Department of Public Health that an adjustment was made to the daily Covid counts earlier in the year, but they claim no adjustments were made in July or August to their published counts.
So why is this so confusing?
Until a few weeks ago, the governor stated that all schools were to re-open for in-person classes in the fall. Then he changed course and issued a policy that the decision on how to reopen was up to the local districts, and the Connecticut Department of Education released guidelines for the districts to follow only a few days ago.
While there is a multi-part formula provided by the state, the primary consideration is supposed to be the number current Covid cases in the community per 100,000 residents calculated on a rolling seven day basis.
"It's like the worst snow day, ever, day after day," explained one local school superintendent. "We are doing the best we can, but we have very little time to make this happen."
Another confusing factor is that the state data would indicate that most local districts should not re-open for in-person classes if using the state data for the individual community. But the state Department of Public Health advises that local districts instead use county-wide data, which may or may not reflect what is going on at the local level. And in Fairfield County, the county rolling seven day average on August 3rd was over 41 cases per 100,000, meaning that all Fairfield County school systems should have changed to plan for only distance learning. Then, 2 days later, the Fairfield County seven day rolling average had dropped to 20 cases per 100,000 residents for the previous seven days (there was an adjustment made in Greenwich) and so all Fairfield County schools should then be on a hybrid model plan.
"It's like the worst snow day, ever, day after day."
– Local Superintendent of Schools on the constantly changing re-opening situation and guidelines
These wild changes, county wide, have driven many local systems to ignore the state data and instead rely on local health department counts and make their decisions for their district accordingly.
The local health departments do not publish data publicly or daily and their anecdotal information is not the official data for the community, so parents do not have access to this information driving the school format changes.
And that is where it becomes very confusing.
Bethel is one good example. On August 2nd, Bethel's official Covid case count for the previous week was 12 cases, which would put Bethel, with just over 19,000 residents at more than 60 cases per 100,000 residents. According to state guidelines, that should trigger a change to all distance learning. But Bethel instead plans on a hybrid model, with alternating groups and some distance learning. Bethel is using data from the local health department that shows 3 to 4 cases for this period instead of the 12 officially reported by the state Department of Public Health.
While no officials we spoke with would go on the record to explain why they were apparently trying so hard to use data more favorable to re-opening either in-person or in a hybrid model instead of starting with distance learning, an August 5th memo from Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Dr. Susie Da Silva to the Ridgefield Board of Education members seems to explain the issue: "(CT. Education Commissioner) Dr. Cardona stated that funding for school districts may be dependent on reopening status: full, hybrid, or full remote models."
Dr. Da Silva also referred to this statement by CT Education Commissioner Dr. Miguel Cardona "Any plan submitted to the Connecticut State Department of Education on July 24, 2020, that does not include a full reopening option as one of the three models, where all public school students have the opportunity to access school in-person five days a week, will not be in compliance with current state law regarding the number of school days, or the expectations of State leadership."
While schools are supposed to select the re-opening model that best reflects local conditions, their plans are not subject to state approval unless they plan to open in distance learning mode. That would require review and approval from the state Department of Education, and would not be in compliance with the expectations of state leadership.