Monday, November 30, 2020

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As Town's COVID Positivity Rate Hits Critical 'Red'; Branford Schools Brace for Possible Building Closings

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At the Nov. 11 Board of Education Communication Committee meeting, Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez (left) discussed potential impacts district-wide and among school buildings in anticipation of the CT Dept. of Health designating the town of Branford at the critical

At the Nov. 11 Board of Education Communication Committee meeting, Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez (left) discussed potential impacts district-wide and among school buildings in anticipation of the CT Dept. of Health designating the town of Branford at the critical "red" COVID-19 postive case level. At right is committee chair Meredith Gaffney. Image Capture from BCTV )

Following several weeks of increased COVID-19 cases reported in the Branford community; as of Nov. 13 the town of Branford has been upped from its"orange" cautionary status of late October-early November to critical "red" status. The status is based on Connecticut Dept. of Public Health (DPH) reporting metrics showing a 16.1 positivity rate among tests made over a 14-day period, adjusted for a population of 100,000. Red status requires the issuing of a public health alert.

Due to the rise in the increasing number of Branford residents who are testing positive for COVID-19, effective Mon. Nov. 16 through Fri. Dec. 4, public access to Town Hall will be limited. In person services will be by appointment only; but all offices will continue to be staffed during normal business hours and many services are available online or by phone (visit www.branford-ct.gov for more information).

At the school district level, Branford schools chief Hamlet Hernandez issued a Nov. 13 notice to parents, guardians and staff regarding the possible changes now confronting Branford Public Schools (BPS) due to the community's critical case rate status.

Currently, Branford's "hybrid" school attendance model has two different cohorts of students (grades 1 – 12) attend school at their buildings two days per week for in-person learning; with remote distance learning three days per week. A small number of students district-wide who require more in-person learning days, as well as all kindergarten students, attend school in their buildings four days per week, with online learning on Wednesdays. As cases increase, the district could be faced with a number of scenarios, from closing school buildings individually on an as-needed basis to closing all buildings and implementing full remote learning for students.

On Nov. 11, in preparation for what he said was likely to become red status for the town, Hernandez told the Board of Education (BOE) Communication Committee that any decisions regarding enacting components of the district's response plan of action will be made with as much notice given to staff and parents as possible, given the circumstances. With Branford entering critical "red" status, Hernandez said individual school building closings may take place in cases when too many staff members are required to quarantine and can't staff the building. He said an increase in staff quarantine numbers will likely be due to staff or a family member being notified, via contact-tracing, of contact with a COVID-positive individual from the greater community during this critical period of high cases; rather than from exposure in the district's schools.

"It's a very real problem," said Hernandez, speaking on Nov. 11 to the BOE committee. "You see it in the news. Up to this point, we have not had to close any of our schools because we don't have sufficient staff. That is a real testament to what staff are doing as far as following the mitigation measures; and some of it is good fortune -- the virus will do what it does. [But] the numbers to date for us in the actual schools, it's not the cases that's impacting us; it's the quarantining that's impacting us...[and] not only originating from cases in our schools."

The state may also play a hand at some point in closing all Connecticut school buildings and requiring fully remote learning due to COVID-19, should conditions worsen and warrant the same type of Executive Order issued by Gov. Lamont in March 2020 shutting down all schools, said Hernandez.

As of Nov. 13, BPS has had a total of 15 COVID-positive individuals identified among school buildings since school started in September. To date, approximately 200 members of the school community have had to undergo quarantine; including members of the high school football team and soccer team and their coaches, who are also teachers. Both teams had to quarantine recently following the identification of COVID-19 positive individuals on opposing teams during season play.

In his notice issued to parents on Nov. 13, Hernandez noted, "At this point, the school district remains in the hybrid model. Should BPS move from the current hybrid model because either the public health conditions worsen or the pandemic's impact on the faculty preclude the District from sustaining proper staff levels to open, you will be provided with as much advance notice as possible.

Because we are entering a period public health officials have warned would be challenging, it is important families have arrangements in place should the District need to go fully remote or close a specific school due to staff shortages.  To the extent possible, families will be provided with advance notice should the decision to move to the full distant learning model. However, when a school experiences a COVID-19 outbreak or does not have sufficient staff to open, our ability to provide advance notice is very limited.  Should this happen, the initial notification will come from the District with detailed communication coming from the principal.

In the coming weeks it will be essential for everyone to continue to wear a mask, observe social distancing, and practice healthy hand hygiene.  By doing our part we contribute to a culture of safety. As part of our campaign to keep our community as healthy as possible, BPS's School-Based Health Clinics in collaboration with East Shore District Health Department are holding a flu vaccine clinic on November 18, 2020.  Please take advantage of this opportunity.

I continue to be in awe of the amazing effort each family is making to stay safe and engaged with the school district.  Together we will get through the unthinkable."


Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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