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Article Published November 17, 2020

Guilford Schools Aim to Keep Students In-Person Through Town Rise in Cases, Staffing Struggles

By Jesse Williams/Zip06.com

As other districts around the state and in the area grapple with the increase in virus cases, with many schools and districts returning to fully remote classes, at press time Guilford Public Schools had struck a cautiously optimistic tone about remaining in its current model.

Currently in Guilford, K-8 students attend classes four days a week, while high school and middle school students have in-person classes only two days a week.

As neighboring Madison moves its high school students from hybrid to fully remote learning, Guilford Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Freeman told the Board of Education (BOE) on Nov. 9 that so far, social distance, mask-wearing, and contact-tracing procedures are “working,” while still cautioning that staffing shortages and quarantines might still shutter individual buildings for a day or two at a time.

“We have remained open for this long because of the protocols in place and the cooperation that we received around requests to keep students home when they have symptoms,” Freeman said. “And most importantly, cooperating with the requirement that all students wear masks...those protocols are working.”

Twenty-two students have tested or been presumed positive for the virus since the schools reopened in September, according to district Communications Coordinator Lorri Hahn—and none due to a close contact during school.

The BOE recently approved an official policy around mask-wearing, which BOE Chair Dr. Katie Ballestraci characterized as “nothing new,” but only a codifying of rules already communicated to families.

A possible exposure last week put approximately 90 Guilford students in distance learning for a two-week quarantine period, Freeman told the Courier via email. Not all 90 of these students had quarantine requirements, but because their teachers were forced to stay at home, the entire “team” transitioned temporarily to the distance model, Freeman said.

“We remain in our current model with no changes since [Nov. 9],” Freeman wrote. “We continue to monitor state and local numbers carefully. We also continue to monitor the impact on staffing. At this time we continue to be capable of full staffing, but we are beginning to see impacts.”

Freeman clarified that public health officials are the ones actually making the quarantine recommendations for students, which the district expects they will follow. Since the CDC updated its definition of a “close contact,” which is now defined as 15 minutes of total time spent with an infected person over a 24 hour period, the district has seen more full-class quarantines, according to Freeman, with teachers offering instruction from home as they complete their own quarantine.

At a Nov. 9 report to the BOE, Freeman said the district had not seen a single case of in-school transmission of the virus, which he cited as clear evidence of the district’s success in its reopening. But with a dearth of substitutes and staff members having to quarantine, Freeman would not rule out short-term closures.

Over the last two weeks, Freeman said he planned to have district-wide virtual meetings with every certified and non-certified staff member to listen to concerns and discuss procedures and plans as state-wide cases skyrocket.

“We are struggling with substitute shortages like schools across the state are struggling with substitute shortages,” Freeman said. “We have yet to reach a point of an entire school closure...as a result of those quarantine numbers. But we continue to monitor that closely.”

Freeman thanked the district’s teachers, who, “in almost every case” continued teaching their classes when they were forced to quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus.

“I just want to really appreciate the efforts that are taking place on the part of administration and teachers to try to keep this system open and supporting students in a really flexible and really responsive model,” Freeman said.

In recent days, Connecticut’s largest teacher’s union, the Connecticut Education Association, has lauded districts for “proactively” shutting down in-person learning and questioned whether there might be asymptomatic viral transmission in schools that officials are not catching.

Freeman also thanked parents for their flexibility, for keeping symptomatic students home, as well as for accepting the often-difficult requirements to quarantine students on short notice. The district is planning some parent support opportunities around technology and relationships, according to Freeman.

With a large percentage of new cases across the state traced to small gatherings, Freeman urged the community to continue following health guidelines outside as well as inside school buildings.

“Make sure that you’re following the expectation of these protocols,” he said. “The more we all do that, the longer we will be able to keep schools open for our students, at least in some capacity if not fully open.”