A facemask, pencil and notebook
(CTNewsJunkie File Photo)

State COVID guidance to local school districts released Tuesday prioritizes keeping students in classrooms by encouraging parents to mask children with minor symptoms and send them to school so long as they test negative for COVID-19. 

During a Hartford press conference, Connecticut education and public health officials said that 2.5 million test kits purchased by the state would enable school districts in the coming academic year to implement a new COVID screening policy, which they called “test, mask, and go.”

Dr. Manisha Juthani, commissioner of the Public Health Department, recommended districts adopt policies that allow children with only minor cold-like symptoms to attend school. Children running fevers should stay home, she said.

“Many of our children are going to have runny noses, other cold-like symptoms through the winter and then going into the spring, many kids have allergies,” Juthani said, stressing that children with fevers should stay home. “But if you have mild respiratory symptoms, we are encouraging schools to consider the policy of testing your child, if they’re negative, consider putting a mask on and go to school.”

This year, it will be up to local school administrators to adopt their own strategies to mitigate spread of the virus. During portions of previous school years, Gov. Ned Lamont held emergency executive powers which enabled the state to require certain mitigation policies which often called for students exhibiting COVID-like symptoms to stay home. This year’s guidance emphasizes keeping students in classrooms. 

State Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said the guidance was an evolving collaboration between state and local officials. 

“We’ve learned from everything we know that being in person with our educators, with our school staff and with our peers is the best place for our students to be,” Russell-Tucker said. “We’re thrilled that the guidance today will allow that to happen.”

Kate Dias, a teacher and president of the Connecticut Education Association, said she felt less anxious about returning to the classroom than she had during the last two pandemic-era school years in part due to collaboration between teachers and districts. 

“I kind of look at this school year and think, ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way.’ We are really looking at going back into the classroom with a mindset of flexibility, of understanding,” Dias said. “There’s a lot of conversation going on. If we’ve learned nothing in the last two years, we’ve learned that you will not keep the school doors open without working together.”

State officials released the guidance as Connecticut COVID-19 metrics continue to be elevated as a result of the infectious BA.5 subvariant. As of Tuesday, the state’s positivity rate stood at 11.68% and 339 COVID patients were hospitalized statewide.

Juthani said that metrics like the state’s positivity rate were becoming less helpful than they had been in the past.

“It certainly is a marker for us in terms of the amount of disease we’ve got in the community. It does not capture self test kit results but that’s okay,” Juthani said. 

Late last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control listed New Haven County as a “high” COVID area. The state’s other counties remained in the “medium” or “low” COVID categories. Juthani said the state was advising, but not requiring, additional precautions in the New Haven area.

“Right now we are recommending indoor mask use in New Haven County and we will continue to evaluate this for every county that we look at going forward,” she said.