Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie.com

Connecticut will loosen mandatory quarantine requirements for unvaccinated students exposed to the COVID-19 virus and give school districts the option of keeping students in classrooms if they do not develop symptoms, Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday. 

The “Screen and Stay” program announced at a morning press conference at Newington High School, represents a departure from Centers for Disease Control guidelines particularly as they apply to unvaccinated students. The CDC still calls for 14 days of quarantine following exposure of an unvaccinated kid or between seven and 10 days of isolation when combined with a negative test result.

State officials said the change would give school districts flexibility — if they want it. 

“Screen and stay in school is one more signal of success in our battle against COVID,” Lamont said. 

Dr. Manisha Juthani, state public health commissioner, said the change in state policy reflects low transmission rates among students and teachers in classrooms as well as the recent extension of vaccine eligibility to virtually all school-aged children and Connecticut’s ongoing requirement that students and teachers wear masks. 

“Balancing health effects overall, knowing that being in school is most important for our kids and paying attention to our social, behavioral and emotional wellness overall, … we are moving forward with this initiative,” Juthani said. 

Maureen Brummett, Newington superintendent of schools, said her counterparts in other states that have adopted similar precautions, including Arizona and North Carolina, have praised the effect on their schools.

“It’s going extremely well,” Brummett said. “They called it a game changer.”

During the press conference, Juthani and Lamont framed the change in policy as the first steps towards easing Connecticut’s COVID precautions. Although they cast the mask requirement as a component necessary to enabling the Screen and Stay policy, an outspoken segment of Connecticut parents have objected to masking. State officials say more precautions may be relaxed in the next few months. 

Juthani said relaxing quarantine policy was Connecticut’s first step on the “offramp” of the pandemic. 

“What I want you to know is that we are all committed to being able to move in this direction and if anything, I hope that this move gives you some confidence and faith that our goal is to return to normalcy and we will have to do it one step at a time,” she said. 

The governor suggested he may sunset the mask requirement before his emergency declarations are scheduled to expire in February. Lamont said he was watching several important “benchmarks” on the horizon including the number of young children who receive a vaccine and the level of COVID-19 spread observed during the coming holiday season.

He suggested he would make a decision in December or January. 

“If we still maintain our low community spread, like Connecticut’s been a leader over the last six months or so, I think we’ll be able to announce some changes,” Lamont said. “We’re not there yet.”

He declined to offer any specific metrics he would use to make his decision. 

Officials cautioned the “Screen and Stay” protocols applied only to school day exposures, where masks were being worn if students were indoors. It could also be extended to unmasked outdoor exposures if the students were supervised by staff. It did not apply to exposures during extracurricular activities like sports or social events. 

Asked why testing was not a required element of the policy’s screening protocols, Juthani said officials had considered it, but found it to be too costly and cumbersome for school districts. She said it would have taken months to put such a policy in place. 

“The amount of time it was going to take to do ‘Test and Stay,’ versus take a low-risk calculation and provide immediate relief while we get the rest of our population vaccinated — and we are number one in the country in terms of vaccinated people out of the number of eligible people… if we can do the same thing for our younger children, we are going to be closer and closer to that offramp from this pandemic,” Juthani said.

During a separate press conference Thursday afternoon at the state Capitol, House Republicans called the change an overdue step that did not go far enough to keep kids in classrooms. 

“Today is an incremental step, I think, in trying to address the issues that we’re seeing in schools and keeping kids in schools,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said. “My takeaway today is the lack of data that [the Education Department] has collected — they don’t really understand the quarantine impacts and quite frankly, if they didn’t receive letters from our caucus, I’m not sure the depth and understanding they would have had of this issue.”

Candelora called on the administration to create a rapid response team to develop a policy on how best to serve students who miss school when they are forced to quarantine due to COVID exposure or infection. 

After arriving back at the Capitol, the governor watched some of the Republicans’ criticisms of his COVID management while leaning on a banister outside his second floor office.