North Stonington principle Robert Cillino directs buses and parents picking up their children, on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. | Tim Martin,The Westerly Sun

Stonington students did not return to school following holiday break as planned on Monday as a surge of coronavirus cases made instruction and transportation problematic, joining a growing list of Connecticut districts that have kept their doors closed amid the rise in positive tests.

North Stonington schools, meanwhile, avoided the same fate, as staff scrambled to address a driver shortage Sunday to assure students could return with precautions in accordance with the district’s mitigation strategies and latest CDC recommendations, some of which were updated only a week ago.

“We certainly haven’t been without our challenges, and we did have to look at some other strategies for transportation, but we are open and students are learning in-person today as we had hoped we would be able to,” North Stonington Superintendent of Schools Peter Nero said. “Our top priority is safety, but if possible to do so safely then we will continue to be in school every day.”

Stonington's cancellation, one of two Connecticut districts to announce Sunday they would remain closed beyond one extra day, is the direct result of a high infection rate among employees, rendering the district unable to cover classes and provide safe transportation, officials said.

“Amidst the continuing COVID-19 surge, we have been working diligently to ensure a safe return to 'in-person' learning for staff and students on Wednesday," Stonington Superintendent of Schools Van Riley said in an update sent to parents Monday evening. "At this time we continue to have a critical shortage of bus drivers to cover the bus runs. We ask for your cooperation, if feasible, to drop off and pick up your child at school this week."  

Stonington schools said First Student, the company that oversees transportation, will be arranging pick up and drop off hubs in neighborhoods using the available drivers, as the current staffing will not allow for typical bus runs. Updates on bus hub locations and pick up and drop off times will be posted on the district and school websites on Tuesday afternoon, officials said. 

To minimize the impact to instructional time, the district said one of the two days will be treated like a snow day and the second will replace a March 9 staff development day, with students now instead attending class on March 9 for regular instruction.

The district will also release a second communication to parents on Wednesday that aims to address a change in recommended guidelines regarding COVID-19 and student attendance, officials said in the letter.  

"Tomorrow morning the Connecticut Department of Public Health and Connecticut State Department of Education will hold a large-scale meeting about the implementation of the new guidelines and address questions about these continually evolving recommendations in the school setting," the correspondence states. "The district will send an updated protocol with specific guidance on your child returning to school on Wednesday."

The Associated Press reported that Stratford, Westport, Enfield and Region 14, representing Woodbury and Bethlehem, all remained closed on Monday and several others opened on delays following large numbers of positive COVID-19 tests by staff.

In Stonington and North Stonington, the infection rates over the past month have also continued to exceed rates a year ago when vaccinations were just first being introduced to the most vulnerable in each community.

“We continue to see a high number of new COVID cases within our jurisdiction, which is consistent with an increase in COVID cases statewide,” said Stephen Mansfield, director of the Ledge Light Health District. “Unfortunately, we expect this trend to continue as we move through the end of the holiday season.”

A total of 172 cases were identified in Stonington between Dec. 12 and Dec. 25, an average daily case rate of 66.2, according to data from the Ledge Light Health District. There were 59 new cases in North Stonington over the same period as well, an average daily case rate of 81.1.

Complicating matters, schools across the state are unable to make a shift to distance learning without risking losing credit for instruction time, the result of efforts to get children back in class after studies showed significant negative impacts as a result of distance learning models that could not properly assess social or mental health needs.

Remote learning “will only be allowed on a class-by-class basis when there are significant COVID-19 infections,” Gov. Ned Lamont’s staff said, so a move to remote learning is unlikely. Lamont’s office said exceptions are made for students in special circumstances only, such as a condition that makes them or a family member unusually susceptible to the virus.

Nero said Monday that while the district hasn’t been without its battles to mitigate impact, the school community has worked together to assure everyone remains safe and staff have been dedicated to making sure students are still able to receive “as much normal instruction as is possible in today’s world.”

“For us, right now the problem was actually worse last year," Nero said. "We are doing our best and needed to shut down a couple buses and move some routes, but we were able to get the kids back in class and do so while remaining safe.”

Nero credited high vaccination rates among employees and students, as well as strong leadership by staff as the reason why the district was able to avoid delays.

On Sunday, Nero said he worked with Business Manager Deborah Martin, administrators with the M&J Bus Company, which oversees transportation, and other district staff to make sure everything to assure a safe return.

The district was also forced to press pause on a “test to return” pilot program that was set to begin on Monday — the program aimed to allow students without symptoms who have had close contact to remain in class by submitting to rapid testing — and is instead implementing protocols in accordance with the changes in guidelines.

Test kit distribution

A limited number of free testing kits were made available to members of the community this week, part of an ongoing effort by the Lamont administration to provide all Connecticut residents with N95 masks and rapid tests. 

Lamont, speaking in Stamford on Monday morning, said the state is sending 500,000 rapid tests to Connecticut schools over the next few days to make sure that staff and students are safe, the Associated Press reported. UConn and other schools, including Connecticut College, have also told students they will be required to have booster shots once they are eligible for them.

Kits were distributed at four locations in Stonington on Monday and were scheduled to be distributed again on Tuesday at the Stonington Borough, Mystic and Old Mystic fire departments.

Supplies are limited and will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Once supplies are gone, there will be no additional testing kits available, Chesebrough warned. Tests are limited to residents only, with no more than two kits containing two tests each for each household.

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