MERIDEN — The city school district has seen limited COVID-19 spread more than three weeks into an academic year that has also seen the return of full in-person learning.
According to the city Department of Health and Human Services, as of Sept. 23, there were a total of 16 current cases reported among students in the Meriden Public Schools’ estimated population of 8,479 students. There has also been five cases among district staff. Meanwhile, across all Connecticut school districts, the state Department of Public Health reported 728 positive cases among students and 126 among staff.
Locally, the school year began with the city experiencing an overall increase in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious Delta variant. Local health officials reported 346 new cases in August. Officials have so far reported 243 new COVID-19 cases in September.
Both totals are significantly higher than the numbers of cases reported during the same stretch in 2020. Still, at this point, the monthly increase in new cases is significantly less than the number reported during the surge from late 2020 to January 2021.
The Meriden Public Schools’ online COVID-19 dashboard lists confirmed cases among students and staff, as well as the numbers of students and staff who are quarantining because of close contacts to confirmed cases.
As of Sept. 23, at least 111 students across nine city schools had been in quarantine because of exposure. Israel Putnam Elementary School had 52 students quarantining — the most among city schools. Casimir Pulaski Elementary had the second largest number of students in quarantine, with 31. In five schools, where the number of students in quarantine is less than six, the actual number was not disclosed. Only two schools, Putnam and Pulaski had six students with confirmed positive cases.
City Health Director Lea Crown, responding to a reporter’s inquiry on the source of the cases at Putnam, said in an email that officials have not found a potential common source. Most of the cases appear to be related to household or other exposures.
“Not everyone is under isolation or quarantine from school exposure. Many have had household exposures and are therefore in quarantine, meaning they cannot go to school in-person until their quarantine is over,” Crown wrote. “We have also identified social gatherings and out of state travel as potential sources of exposure.”
She added that as soon as one person in a household is diagnosed, local health officials have found “it is not long before others in the home come down with symptoms and subsequently test positive. This is why isolating the ill individual as much as possible in the home is important.
“However, is it very hard to isolate elementary school children from the adult in the home, especially when there may be only one primary caregiver in the home,” Crown wrote.
School Superintendent Mark Benigni explained the school district is continuing to work closely with the health department on the quarantine process. Because elementary school-aged students are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, officials had anticipated the number of cases among that group would be higher than students who are vaccine-eligible.
State health data shows that more than 66% of Meriden residents between the ages of 12 and 17 have received an initial COVID-19 vaccination. About 57% of residents in that age group are fully vaccinated.
Unlike the 2020-2021 school year, the Meriden Public Schools did not offer remote learning as an option for students who are not in quarantine. But it is automatically implemented when a student has to go into quarantine, Benigni explained.
Those students receive remote instruction from their classroom teachers, who are adapting to a new hybrid in-person and remote teaching model, when it is necessary. Benigni said that learning would be synchronous because remote students receive live classroom instruction.
“I think the experience last year put us in a good position to be able to implement this,” Benigni said.
Meriden Public School teachers are scheduled to receive ongoing professional development to facilitate simultaneous learning for both in-person students and their remote peers in quarantine. According to a memorandum of understanding the district and the Meriden Federation of Teachers signed earlier this month, teachers are scheduled to receive 16 hours of training for hybrid instruction.
MFT President Lauren Mancini-Averitt said the training is ongoing. If teachers have classrooms with quarantined students they can also request assistance from the district’s technology department.
Mancini-Averitt said even with the collaborative effort between administrators and district staff, overall the ongoing coronavirus-related mandates have left classroom teachers feeling stressed.
“There are a lot of things that are just not normal for us. We’re classroom teachers and we want to teach our kids through difficult times,” she said.
“Everyone is doing OK,” Mancini-Averitt said. “But it’s a high stress year. Everybody’s worried. And then the mandates that come and the governor’s orders — it’s a lot to take in for everybody.”
In particular, Mancini-Averitt referenced an executive order Gov. Ned Lamont issued requiring weekly COVID-19 tests for all workers in education and child care settings who are not fully vaccinated. That order will become effective Monday.
Mancini-Averitt noted the vast majority of Meriden Public Schools staff are fully vaccinated. Those who are not vaccinated had to get a COVID test prior to the order’s effective date in order to be able to come into work on Monday.