Connecticut officials say the impact of the pandemic on students and their families could lead to long-term changes in how the school day and school year look in the state.

Gov. Ned Lamont was joined Thursday by federal and state political leaders along with local and state education officials in a roundtable to discuss the future of education and how they plan to use the tens of millions of dollars in federal funds being earmarked to combat pandemic-based learning loss.

They focused on changes that could go beyond this summer or the next school year.

School superintendents said that absenteeism during the pandemic has had numerous causes, including housing problems, language barriers, day care issues and technology gaps. They suggested that some of the federal money from the American Rescue Plan be used to make the school calendar more flexible through tutoring, online learning and off-hours education programs.

“We really have to use this opportunity, which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to really shake up how we think about student learning,” said Matt Geary, Manchester’s school superintendent. “Students don’t only learn from 8:30 to 3:00, Monday to Friday. There’s a lot of other opportunities that potentially create more beneficial situations for students and families.”

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said it's important that officials creating new learning programs make sure they address the social losses students have suffered and put them in situations, especially during the summer, that bring some joy and fun to learning.

Lamont has already announced his intention to use $10.7 million in previous federal funding to set up summer learning programs in conjunction with camps, libraries, aquariums and museums that will be designed to help catch up students who have fallen behind because of chronic absenteeism and other issues related to the absence of full-time in-person learning.

The Learner Engagement and Attendance Program also will send mentors and counselors directly into the homes of struggling students in 15 hard-hit districts to work with their families.

Lamont said those summer programs will not be mandatory.

“We're going to tell these kids who haven't been in school in some cases for seven, eight or nine months, ‘Come to school, you’ve got two months left, you're friends really miss you and by the way we've got this amazing summer learning program available right in your community at no cost to you or your family. Here's another opportunity for you to come back, have some fun, do some learning and be ready for September.'”

But Lamont also said the state needs to reconsider using an agrarian calendar for its school year.

“I think we’ve got to rethink the 12 months,” Lamont said. “I think it could make a big difference and I hope this is a year we can experiment.”

In other coronavirus-related news:

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MOBILE CLINICS

Connecticut now has a second FEMA mobile vaccination clinic. Lamont said Thursday the van that will be dedicated to giving people a second dose after they receive their first dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine from the first FEMA van.

“It's essentially going to shadow the itinerary of the first FEMA mobile unit around the state three or four weeks later to pick up those second dose appointments,” said Josh Geballe, the governor's chief operating officer.

The decision to use the new mobile clinic for second doses comes after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday recommended a “pause” in administering the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which state officials had hoped to use as part of its mobile outreach effort. Besides the FEMA units, there are

“It’s a little more complicated than it was a week ago,” Lamont said. “We’re still getting it done with a special emphasis on equity.”

Geballe said vaccination providers this week were able to quickly switch patients over to the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and reported “very little call-off in terms of those appointments.” He said there was a “small number” of cancellations, especially at some of the smaller pharmacies.

But he said thanks to efforts by the providers and the Connecticut National Guard, which shuttled supply of the two-dose vaccines around the state to help make up for the suspended J&J vaccinations, the administration believes the number of cancelations will ultimately be “pretty minimal.”

The yellow vaccination vans run by the Department of Public Health and Griffin Hospital also plan to return to the same sites to give people their second dose. As of Thursday, 13 of the vans were on the road. The state plans to ramp up to 35 by the end of April.

As of Thursday, more than 1 million people in Connecticut have been fully vaccinated, a figure that includes more than 104,000 who received the J&J vaccine. State officials said a total of 55% of everyone in Connecticut over the age of 16 has received at least one dose so far.

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GROWTH IN VARIANTS

Lamont said Thursday that as many as half of new confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases in Connecticut could stem from a variant. Eight different variants have so far been identified in the state.

The variant first detected in the United Kingdom is still the most prevalent, with 945 cases so far.

“The bad news is, it’s highly infectious. So while we have over half of our population has been vaccinated, it’s still spreading fast in the other half of the population,” Lamont said. “The good news is the vaccines work and it works against this variant.”

As of Thursday, more than 700 total new confirmed and probable cases, including the variants, had been reported since Wednesday. Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 associated deaths increased by six to 7,990.

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This story corrects the name of the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program. An earlier version incorrectly called it the Leadership, Education, and Athletics program.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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