Many New Canaan parents are concerned that some families are undermining efforts to keep the public schools safe by extending their vacations this week instead of learning from home as a post-holiday safeguard against the spread of COVID-19 virus, officials said Thursday.
Theoretically, this week of school was designated for district-wide remote learning to give New Canaan families time, after returning from travel, to get tested and for COVID symptoms to surface, according to Health & Human Services Commissioner Alicia Meyer.
Yet “unfortunately, a lot of people took it as an opportunity to extend their vacations,” Meyer said during the appointed body’s regular meeting.
“At Thanksgiving, New Canaan Public Schools were requiring that kids who travel be tested when they got back to Connecticut, after they travel,” Meyer said during the meeting, held via videoconference. “But now, after Christmas, the requirement is just within the 72 hours of travel, so before they left their destination.”
She continued, “I have been getting a lot of emails from people concerned that kids are still on vacation right now, are going to be tested in Florida or Turks-and-Caicos or wherever they are, another day of vacation, fly home, crowded customs hall, and then roll right back into school, because they were tested before they left the vacation destination.”
“People just are concerned about this,” she added. “I am concerned about it.”
The comments came during an update on COVID-19 and vaccination plans from New Canaan Health Director Jenn Eielson.
Officials are “expecting case numbers to go up” after Christmas and New Year’s, Eielson said.
“It’s not going to be shocking when it does,” she said.
Asked whether new positive cases of COVID-19 already are surfacing in town through the numbers tracked by health officials, Eielson said 20-plus positive tests have been reported even since First Selectman Kevin Moynihan’s town-wide outcall on Tuesday.
The public schools are having teachers, staff and some students tested this week at New Canaan High School, Eielson said, and then more students will be tested Lapham Community Center through Saturday, she said.
“So we hope to have all the results back before Monday, so we know where we’re at,” Eielson said.
Regarding the school district’s timing for COVID-19 testing and the prospect of having students return to in-person learning next week, Eielson said that Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi streamlined the process to sync up with Gov. Ned Lamont’s orders.
“So he [Luizzi] is now just following the governor’s travel advisory,” Eielson said. “So the governor’s travel advisory allows you to test out of travel quarantine 72 hours prior to coming back, or 72 hours after coming back, which I agree, nobody particular likes it, but that’s the governor’s order.”
Meyer asked whether the requirement could revert to what it had been after Thanksgiving.
“That seemed safer for kids returning to school,” Meyer said.
Eielson said she didn’t know and that it’s the superintendent’s decision.
Commissioner Alyssa MacKenzie said she’s receiving many emails from teachers who “are really nervous because they know that students in their classes are still on vacation.”
Dr. Harrison Pierce, the Commission’s chair, said, “It’s not a perfect system, and the changes are subject to interpretation.”
“And even when the CDC changed from their 14 days to 10 and then seven with negative tests, it opens a window, although small, of possible contagion,” Pierce said.
Pierce and Eielson both said they would speak to Luizzi about the district’s plans to return to in-person learning.
Pierce noted that although the plan currently calls for a return to school buildings Monday, that the superintendent “is going to make the call this weekend, depending on the numbers this week and even the testing this week, even tomorrow’s.”
Moynihan said during Tuesday’s outcall that New Canaan had 45 new positive cases in the prior week, including the first COVID-19 death since August, a 79-year-old resident living at home. The uptick in cases is due mainly to holiday gatherings, Moynihan said.
Liz Donovan, a Town Councilman and guest at the meeting, asked how professional, licensed home health aides may find out whether they’re eligible for vaccinations under Connecticut’s current phase. Eielson said licensed home health care providers such as nurses can contact the Health Department to have their information uploaded into the state’s official “Vaccine Administration Management System” or “VAMS.”
Eielson underscored that while the state currently is approving vaccinations for first responders that respond to medical calls—such as New Canaan Police and Emergency Medical Services personnel—Lamont has not yet made decisions on who will be vaccinated in the next phase, such as seniors who do not live in congregate housing.