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West Hartford Public Schools to Remain in Current Mode, No Changes Due to ‘Red Alert’

West Hartford Public Schools Superintendent's Office. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said there are no plans for West Hartford Public Schools to shift to all remote learning at this time.

By Ronni Newton

The Town of West Hartford officially entered the “red alert” zone on Thursday, with a report from the state indicating an average positive case rate over the past two weeks of 15.8 per 100,000 of population, up from a rate of 14.5 the previous week, but Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said Friday afternoon that there are no plans to shift the district’s current status.

“West Hartford Public Schools will remain in session, with secondary students in hybrid, elementary students fully in person, and our remote learners continuing as they are,” Moore said in a letter sent to families Friday afternoon.

West Hartford’s test positivity rate was reported as 2.9% for the 14-day period ending Nov. 7.

While guidance from several months ago would have led to closing schools based on the number of COVID-19 cases in the community, that guidance has changed.

“We’ve said since the beginning we’d follow the science, and as our knowledge grows some of the choices we make have to shift,” Moore said.

While the West Hartford community is in the red zone, the schools use a different scale, and West Hartford is in the orange zone according to that metric.

West Hartford Public Schools COVID dashboard, Nov. 13, 2020

COVID-19 is spreading throughout virtually the entire state, but officials say there is no evidence that schools have been the source of the spread.

The state reported a record high number of cases Friday, with 2,746 positive cases out of 43,078 tests – a positivity rate of 6.37%. Among those whose positive tests were included in the total were 24 individuals from West Hartford.

During Gov. Ned Lamont’s press briefing Thursday, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Connecticut resident, and former head of the Food and Drug Administration, spoke about being in the “eighth inning” of COVID-19.

“I think this is the final stage of this acute epidemic,” Gottlieb said Thursday. As epidemiologists and other experts warned all along, the worst was likely to come in the fall and winter, and while Gottlieb anticipates the next two to three months are going to be tough, he said, “We will get through this and I think that as we enter 2021 we will have a lot broader technology to mitigate this.”

Moore said he was heartened by Gottlieb’s comments. “I know that the time right now is frightening, and challenging, but there is finally some light ahead, with therapeutics, vaccines, and improved treatments.”

Gottlieb and Lamont both reiterated the importance of keeping schools open for in-person learning to the extent possible, and noted the importance of having children in school, particularly elementary school, as long as possible.

“There are certain things that we should do preemptively now to reduce the rate of transmission,” Gottlieb said, but shutting down schools is not among them. Unlike with the flu, where community outbreak often begins in the schools, what has become evident with the coronavirus is that’s not where the outbreaks are starting, he said.

Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona and acting Commissioner of the Department of Public Health Deidre Gifford wrote the following in a joint letter to superintendents this week:

“We also know that in-person learning is benefiting our students’ social, emotional and physical well-being. The CSDE and DPH do not think that arbitrary, date-based closures of school are warranted at this time. We will continue to consult with and work with school districts, local health departments and medical advisors on individual decisions around closures, but are not recommending that districts proactively close for a prolonged period of time in anticipation of changes in disease prevalence. In-person education is too important for our children to disrupt their education further, unless and until local conditions specifically dictate the need to do so.”

Moore reiterated that while there have been cases in West Hartford’s schools, contact tracing has determined those infections are the result of transmission among family members and friend situations as well as youth sports, when masks are not being worn.

“From what I know currently, however, it seems clear that our schools are some of the safest places in our community when it comes to spread. Still, ten weeks into the school year, we have not seen transmission within the schools, nor clusters of cases from school,” Moore said in his letter to families.

As of noon Friday, there were eight active cases in West Hartford Public Schools.

Moore said he takes the pandemic, and the safety of the school community very seriously, but a lot has been learned over the past several months and evidence suggests that it is safer for children to be in school than out in the community. He said that he does not anticipate closing schools and moving to entirely remote status after Thanksgiving – unless there is a statewide mandate to do so.

If some schools do close, it would be due to staffing shortages or a large number of individuals who need to be in quarantine, and thus far that has not happened, Moore said.

“We know that we have a very difficult time ahead of us, but we know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and I hope we can do what we need to do to get there safely,” Moore said.

Moore urged the community, as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, to do their part to not exacerbate the spread.

He urged families to continue to refer to the district’s COVID Dashboard for the latest guidance and reports of positive tests. The dashboard is updated each weekday, usually at noon, and also includes information and guidance on out-of-state travel, quarantining, and testing, Moore said.

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