Reopening Connecticut’s Schools (Objectively But With Flexibility): The Latest State Guidance
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To the shock of no one, both the state and federal governments continue to revise their guidance concerning the reopening of the schools.  On the date (July 24, 2020) that public schools were supposed to file their reopening plans with the State Department of Education (“SDE”), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) updated its guidance concerning the reopening of schools.  Of course, soon after these events, Governor Lamont hinted at a press conference on July 27, 2020 at some flexibility concerning the ability of schools to re-open this fall with something other than a full-time, in-person instructional model.

On July 30, 2020, the SDE released its “Interim Guidance for Decision-Making Regarding the Use of In-Person, Hybrid (Blended), or Remote Learning Models in Connecticut Schools during COVID-19.”  This guidance contains the much-promised metrices and tiers from the SDE and the State Department of Public Health (“DPH”) that are supposed to guide decisions by schools as whether to have a full time/in-person learning model, a hybrid model featuring both in-person and remote learning, or a purely remote/distance learning model.  This document also provides further explanation of the flexibility that was promised by Governor Lamont.   

Objective Data: In this guidance, the tiers and metrices are objectively broken down between “low” infection levels in communities (which favor “more” in-person learning), “moderate” levels (which favor moving to a hybrid learning model), and “high” levels (which favor moving to a remote learning model). This guidance is largely based upon the Harvard Global Health Institute’s publication “The Path to Zero and Schools: Achieving Pandemic Resilient Teaching and Learning Spaces” (July 2020), although the SDE has modified it by lumping together the “green” and “yellow” levels in the Harvard guidance into the “low” risk category in the SDE guidance.  The fact that the document is labeled “interim guidance” highlights the fact that these tiers and levels/indicators will be updated by the DPH on a weekly basis, with experts from the SDE, DPH and local health departments reviewing data and recommending changes in these tiers by county each week, although the analysis will include statewide data.   

Flexibility: The guidance does allow schools to consider other factors besides community spread of COVID-19 in assessing whether to go to a hybrid or even full remote model (such as physical spacing issues, HVAC functionality, compliance with self-screening, and cohorting).   The guidance states that the “low” and “moderate” categories indicate conditions in the area are appropriate for schools to provide at least a partial in-school option to students, with district and building-level decisions being made at the local level. Thus, schools may have the discretion to utilize a hybrid model even during times of “low” risk.  However, schools seeking to utilize a full remote learning model during times of either “low” or “moderate” risk would need the approval of the SDE, DPH and the State Board of Education.  Such an approval process has not been spelled out yet.  The guidance wisely concludes that schools “should consider developing a local structure to include the school medical advisor, local health director, and school nurse leader to consult when making decisions”.

So, what now for Connecticut schools?  Now the State has provided both additional flexibility and the DPH metrices that provide at least a modicum of objectivity in judging health conditions, schools should now act based upon on their own timelines in making sure they get things right, and in making the reopening decisions that make the most sense for their communities (and school buildings).  As we have repeatedly noted, any decisions that schools make should be made in consultation with local health officials, along with due consideration of the practicality of a specific reopening model in light of local conditions and facilities.    Events and conditions remain fluid, as does the state and federal guidance, and this all affects a plethora of education and labor/employment issues. Pullman & Comley has policy templates and other useful resources available to assist Connecticut schools in considering and implementing their options and navigating the web of executive orders, laws, regulations, and other state and federal guidance related to COVID-19.  Please contact any of our  School Law attorneys for assistance

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Alerts, commentary, and insights from the attorneys of Pullman & Comley’s School Law practice on federal and Connecticut law as it pertains to educational institutions, whether those institutions be public school districts, private K-12 schools, or post-secondary colleges and universities.

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