Hartford Public Schools will “very likely” decide next week to shift to a hybrid mix of online and in-person learning as a result of a sustained increase in COVID-19 cases, Mayor Luke Bronin said Tuesday, one of several school districts rethinking plans as new coronavirus infections rise statewide.
The first day of hybrid learning in Hartford, where students are currently attending in-person classes five days a week, would be Oct. 19, and a decision will be announced on Oct. 12, Bronin and Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said.
The city’s announcement Tuesday came less than a week after West Hartford schools decided to delay their transition from a hybrid model to full in-person learning due to a spike in local infections. As of Oct. 2, the town was seeing 8.9 new daily cases per 100,000 people, per a seven-day rolling average, up from 3.4 new daily cases a few weeks earlier.
“That’s why I didn’t have a choice really, but to make the decision to remain in hybrid,” West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said.
Hartford’s metrics are even more troubling.
Over the past seven days, the capital city has seen an average of 11.9 new daily cases per 100,000 people, up from eight new daily cases on Sept. 21, according to city health director Liany Arroyo. The share of tests coming back positive has also increased to 2.6%, per a seven-day rolling average, after remaining stable for several months at about 1.9%.
If the trend continues, Bronin said, there is a “strong possibility” that the district will move students in pre-K through ninth grade to hybrid learning, in which the student population is split into groups that attend classes on alternating days. Students in grades 10-12 began the year in hybrid mode and would move to fully remote learning.
“If we see over the next week the continuation of the trend that we saw over the last week, it’s very hard to imagine that we don’t shift to a hybrid model,” Bronin said.
To date, 22 students and 10 staff members in Hartford schools have tested positive for the coronavirus, the superintendent said, and dozens of people who were in close contact with them have been forced to quarantine at home.
Positive cases have also prompted Hartford schools to briefly close three buildings since the year began.
Torres-Rodriguez said there’s been no indication of COVID-19 transmission within Hartford schools, though the contact tracing process is ongoing.
“If the schools are not driving that transmission, that’s an important thing to know, that’s got to factor in to the decision about what we do in schools even if we are seeing other trends in the community,” Bronin said.
Fairfield Public Schools had planned to transition from hybrid learning to full in-person classes beginning this week but reversed course. Superintendent of Schools Mike Cummings said the decision was not due to recent cases in the schools but rather because officials had “looked at the larger picture of conditions across the district as we identified where we are, and what we need to do for a full return to school option.”
And in New London County, where cases have been steadily rising, a health director last week advised school districts in the area to proceed with a hybrid model of online and in-person learning, instead of sending students back to classrooms full time.
State education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said Tuesday there have been about 370 cases of infected students and about 150 cases of infected staff reported to state officials since schools opened in August. The 370 cases include students who are currently learning remotely. He said the infection rate for students, who he said appeared to have contracted COVID-19 off-campus, is less than 1%, which is lower than the statewide infection rate.
Hartford cases rise with more testing
Officials in Hartford noted that the increase in new COVID-19 cases in the city is partially a result of increased testing.
In September, an average of 1,000 Hartford residents were tested for the virus each day, up significantly from less than 400 residents per day in August, according to Bronin. That figure may continue to rise as the city and schools expand mobile testing on school grounds.
School nurses are also offering COVID-19 tests to symptomatic students and staff, and those who may have been exposed to the virus at school.
However, an increase in testing doesn’t account for the higher percentage of tests coming back positive, Bronin noted.
And as with other high-population areas of the state, the city of Hartford has higher rates of the coronavirus than the surrounding county, where there is an average of only 5.7 new daily cases per 100,000 people, and an average positivity rate of 1.5%.
Bronin cited a number of causes for the rise in cases, from the reopening of the economy to “COVID fatigue” and complacency resulting in more social events and family gatherings, which have contributed to several positive cases in Hartford schools.
The health department and schools have also met more resistance to efforts to track the spread of the virus, finding that people are not always forthcoming in their first conversation with a contact tracer.
Arroyo reassured the public Tuesday that contact tracing is non-punitive and confidential; the health department will not penalize anyone for having broken social distancing rules or reveal personal information to others.
“There’s still some hesitancy we’re starting to see, reluctance we’re starting to see in wanting to answer questions about what events you might have been at,” Arroyo said. “That information stays with us. When reaching out to potential contacts, we do not provide names of any individuals that might have exposed them.”
She added that it is safe for undocumented residents to share information with contact tracers.
Courant staff writer Amanda Blanco contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press is included.
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at [email protected]
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