A screenshot of Gov. Ned Lamont during a remote press conference on Jan. 4, 2022

As Connecticut posted another record-breaking COVID infection rate Tuesday and a handful of school districts canceled classes due to staffing issues, state officials said new symptom-focused school quarantine guidelines would help keep students in classrooms. 

During a virtual press conference on school COVID screening guidelines, Gov. Ned Lamont said the state’s daily infection rate had continued to climb and now stood at around 24%. Later in the day, the administration put the number at 23.85%. It was the highest rate since the state began testing in earnest and broke the record set Monday at 21.5%. 

“If I have a message for you it’s: 24% infection rate is lousy and it may get worse before it gets better,” Lamont said, “but we have the tools in place, provided you take advantage of the tools — the masks, the vaccinations, and then the tests — We have the tools to keep you safe and keep going about our lives.”

The governor and members of his administration said one of those tools was new guidelines which generally reduce quarantine requirements for COVID exposures of students and school staff. The update to state policy came this week as several school districts have closed temporarily. 

Hamden High School closed Tuesday due to staffing shortages, according to a Twitter update by the district’s superintendent. On Monday, Ansonia Superintendent Joseph DiBacco announced the town’s schools would be closed all week

“At present, we have 25% of staff out due to COVID and we had several bus drivers out as well which resulted in cancellation of transportation,” DiBacco wrote in a letter to families. “It is a harsh reality and a stark reminder that our community is suffering from another wave of COVID.”

The new state guidelines advise staff and students with even minor COVID symptoms to stay home and test for the virus. Anyone who tests positive should quarantine for at least five days and at least 24 hours after symptoms improve. 

“Quite frankly when you have this amount of prevalence of disease in the community, although there are other viruses circulating right now as well, we know that if something walks like a duck and looks like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani said. “If you have cold symptoms, stay home, that’s really the safest thing, and get tested.” 

The guidelines become a little more complicated when dealing with staff or students who have been exposed to the virus but do not develop symptoms. In that case, the guidelines call for different actions depending on whether the exposed person is fully vaccinated.

Fully-vaccinated people who have been exposed can continue to come to school so long as they do not develop symptoms.Those people should be tested five days after exposure. Unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated students and staff exposed outside the classroom are required to stay home and quarantine for five days, monitor for symptoms and be tested for the virus. 

“With these simple principles of following the guidance of symptoms, we believe we can keep as many kids in school as possible while still maintaining a safe environment for schools to stay open,” Juthani said during the press conference. 

The new guidance comes on the heels of calls by a coalition of educator labor unions, the Board of Education Union Coalition, for more stringent safety guidelines to reflect the growing number of cases in Connecticut. Among the more aggressive screening policies sought by the unions were temperature checks for students and teachers as well as free COVID testing at all schools. 

“We must all return to the successful safety protocols we relied on earlier in the pandemic to reduce community spread,” the unions wrote in a press release. “It is also vital that dedicated staff not lose wages due to work-related quarantines or a return to a virtual environment.”

But as staffing shortages force the closure of schools in some districts and exposed or infected students are forced to quarantine and miss class, parents and administrators worry that impacted students will not be able to keep pace. In his Monday letter, Ansonia’s DiBacco said that the town’s week-long closure would need to be made up at the end of the year, since remote learning was no longer an option.

As of midday Tuesday more than 4,500 people had signed a petition on change.org for Lamont to offer remote learning options to Connecticut students.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker clarified that districts were permitted to offer remote learning, but those days would not count towards the state’s required 180 school days, except under certain circumstances. 

For instance, remote learning days count for students with confirmed COVID cases in quarantine, for some residing with vulnerable family members where there is an approved remote instruction program, Russell-Tucker said. Otherwise, barring some intervention from the legislature, remote days must be made up at the end of the year, she said. 

“Districts can make local decisions as they do on a snow day. However, they then would have to make up that day,” Russell-Tucker said. 

The governor agreed he had no plans to transition back to remote learning platforms. 

“I’m going to do everything I can to keep kids in the classroom safely,” he said. “There’s nothing compares to a great teacher in a classroom.”