Meriden educators, health leaders confront challenges amid COVID surge

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MERIDEN — Tim Sweigard, in his 13th year teaching science at Platt High School, was direct Wednesday morning when describing the latest challenges he and other colleagues face amid the latest COVID-19 surge. 

“The biggest issue is I have more students out right now than I’ve ever had out before,” Sweigard said. “It’s a challenge for us. How do we keep those kids moving forward?”

Local educators and health officials remain committed to keeping schools open for in-person learning amid rapidly surging numbers of COVID-19 cases in the city and throughout the state.

So teachers like Sweigard continue to juggle the challenge of teaching students seated in front of them in their classrooms and those logged in from computers at home. At this point in time, remote learning is only available to students who have tested positive for COVID-19, or who are showing symptoms and are self-isolating. 

“You learn to be incredibly flexible. There’s no way around it,” Sweigard said. 

“So, you’re kind of juggling the kids who are in front of you and the kids who are not in front of you. And some may be out for an extended period of time ... This has forced us to improve our practices really, by utilizing Google Classroom, to make sure assignments are accessible online — just as if they would be if they were here.”

Having students log into a class remotely is not ideal, Sweigard said. “But it’s certainly better than having them completely out.”

Soaring COVID-19 positivity rates outside school

State health officials on Tuesday reported Connecticut’s daily test positivity rate had reached a new high, 23.85%, with the omicron variant spreading throughout communities. The next day’s report, issued on Wednesday, showed a slightly declined positivity rate of 22.6%. 

Unlike the state’s daily reports, individual municipalities’ test positivity rates are reported weekly. Meriden officials have typically updated the city’s weekly reports on Fridays. 

Meriden’s most recent report showed its test positivity rate had reached 16.2%, based on testing that was conducted between Dec. 12 and Dec. 25. The city saw 971 new positive COVID-19 test results during that period. Both the rate and the total number represented the city’s largest reported rate and total since late December-early January a year prior. 

Meanwhile, public health data shows strategies — including COVID-19 vaccinations, universal mask wearing and social distancing — intended to prevent schools from being the source of the coronavirus spread, continue to be effective in limiting it. 

Meriden Public Schools’ latest COVID-19 dashboard, updated on Tuesday, showed at least 106 students across the district were currently in isolation after testing positive for coronavirus. That number, calculated by a Record-Journal reporter, does not include schools whose total reported cases were suppressed because the reported number at each of those schools was fewer than six.

The dashboard showed nine schools reported having staff members isolating because they had tested positive. At the majority of those schools, the number of staff isolating was fewer than six. The highest reported total was at Hanover Elementary School, where seven staff members were reported in quarantine.  

The number of students and staff reported in quarantine because they were close contacts with positive or suspected COVID-19 cases was zero, according to the district dashboard. 

The close contact quarantine numbers are representative of a significant shift in the state’s mitigation strategies that no longer includes contact tracing for students who may have been in close contact with COVID-positive individuals but are not showing symptoms of the disease. As a result, significantly greater numbers of students have returned to class. 

According to the district’s previous Dec. 22 update, 313 students across all schools were in quarantine because they had been identified as close contacts to confirmed cases. At the time, the number of students who were isolating because testing had confirmed they had contracted the virus was 87. 

Michael Grove, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, cited the revised state guidelines in an announcement earlier this week to families on the district’s updated quarantine protocols. Those guidelines, issued by the state Department of Public Health, stated, “Individual-level contact tracing is a tool that becomes less effective when community transmission levels are high. DPH recommends that schools begin to refocus the activities of health staff away from the investigation of relatively low-risk in-school exposures and towards the identification, early isolation, and clinical management of students and staff with active symptoms that could be related to COVID-19.”

In-person learning

During Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, Benigni addressed concerns about whether the rising community spread could trigger a full return to remote learning. 

Benigni, also referenced the latest state guidance in emphasizing that the decision whether to return to full remote learning cannot be made locally. 

“The state Department of Education notes that local health districts do not have the authority to issue such emergency declarations,” Benigni said. “The only way to go to remote learning is if the governor or state legislature mandates remote learning.”

In-person learning is also most effective in ensuring students maintain continuous academic progress. 

Benigni noted preliminary results of statewide student achievement tests administered last spring showed despite the disruptions to in-person learning during the previous two school years, students overall continued to make academic progress. Benigni said the results showed “our students did not lose two years of learning.” 

Those results however did show one gap: students in grades three through six who attended school in-person during the last school year achieved at higher levels than their peers who attended remotely that year. 

In a follow-up phone call with the Record-Journal on Wednesday Benigni said the past 22 months have been challenging. 

“The good news is it wasn’t a lost two years. Learning continued. Our students continued to make progress. It’s a credit to the hard work our students and staff made,” he said. “This wasn’t easy.”

“... With that said, I want folks to know for the grades three to six remote learning population [results] showed they had the greatest challenges,” Benigni continued. 

Constant communication

One parent, Deb Martinez, whose children attend Platt High School, praised her school’s administrators for their constant communication with parents about possible exposures and procedures. 

“The schools definitely are keeping in contact with parents,” Martinez said. 

Platt Principal Dan Corsetti said communication has been key to keeping families and staff apprised of the latest developments, including the latest state and federal public health guidelines and recommendations, as the pandemic evolves. Corsetti described the work as requiring an “all hands on deck, teamwork mentality.”

“Now it’s a little bit more intense,” he said, adding the biggest success at his school and in other buildings “has been communicating with each other.” That communication includes a constant dialogue with district administrators and leaders in other school buildings, like Maloney. 

“It’s making sure that everybody is doing what for the most part works,” Corsetti said, noting what appears to work is a continued combination of strategies: mask wearing, along with social distancing and cohorting to the extent possible.

School district and health officials urged families, if their children are eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines, to make appointments for vaccinations.  

Stephanie Denya, associate director of health for the Meriden Health & Human Services Department, oversees school health services across the district. 

Denya said the nurses and health aides in the city’s school buildings are doing the best they can to monitor the situation, which has become increasingly complicated as at-home rapid tests become more widely available. 

When state officials announced last week widespread distribution of those tests would begin, local health officials made preparations. By Sunday night, online forms for families to fill out and send to their schools were ready to go. The next day, parents started completing those forms and sending them to their schools, Denya said. 

Health leaders like Denya are anticipating the city’s COVID-19 cases to rise. She praised the work of the school-based health care workers she oversees. 

“I’ve been so fortunate to work with so many outstanding individuals. They care about the students. They care about the staff,” Denya said. 

Denya said throughout, families and staff have heeded her staff’s guidance. She acknowledged the situation is frustrating. “But the bottom line is our nurses and health aides are doing everything they can to maintain their safety,” Denya said. 

Officials and families alike described the situation as “fluid.”

“I think we’re dealing with a fluid situation in general in regards to COVID-19,” Benigni, the superintendent, said. “I think it’s tough for families and for the school district to deal with all the changes. But they’re necessary changes as we learn more about the virus. The state is providing guidance on how to best proceed. I appreciate the state providing clear direction around remote learning and the Connecticut Department of Public Health providing clear guidance around quarantine procedures.”


"The biggest issue is I have more students out right now than I’ve ever had out before... How do we keep those kids moving forward?"

-Teacher Tim Sweigard
"I think it’s tough for families and for the school district to deal with all the changes. But they’re necessary changes as we learn more about the virus."

-Mark Benigni

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