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A look at how Hartford schools are returning to classrooms for second year amid COVID-19 pandemic

District officials discuss tackling concerns, as students head back to school while the pandemic continues around them.

HARTFORD, Conn. — As students in Hartford Public Schools prepare for the first day of school on Monday, August 30, the FOX61 School Squad spoke with Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez and other officials to discuss the return plan.

COVID-19 mitigation strategies will remain in place, including mask wearing for students and staff, but there are four key differences in the back-to-school plan.

  1. Social distancing: "The definition now of the distancing is three-feet whereas last year, it was six feet. Of course, outside if there's ample space, that can be different because they're in the open air," said Dr. Torres-Rodriguez.
  2. Visitors will be allowed in schools: "And by visitors, I mean our parents, our family members and our community partners," said  Dr. Torres-Rodriguez.
  3. Quarantine policy for people exposed to positive COVID-19 cases: "Students and staff that have been vaccinated and are asymptomatic, they're not showing any symptoms, they do not have to quarantine," said Dr. Torres-Rodriguez.
  4. 5-day in-person learning schedule: "There is no remote learning option. Wednesdays will remain as a half-day but nonetheless, Monday through Friday, our students will be expected to be in school every day," said Dr. Torres-Rodriguez.

RELATED: You Ask. We Answer | What to tell your children if they're anxious about going back to school

Hartford students Pre-K through 8th grade will remain in cohorts.

“Cohorting is every single day and they’re in the same group all the time. They’re gonna sit in lunch together, they’re going to have their seating charts in the classroom, and again, that’s because we know the vaccine is not available. It’s not available to our younger students and so that is a mitigation we’re putting into place at the lower grades. A little different at the high school, one because vaccines are available and two, high school students have a variety of courses that they have to access and so it’s harder to keep them cohorted," said Dr. Torres-Rodriguez.

Schools will have the ability to test students for COVID-19.

 “We have already in all of our nursing suites, the ability to test. Students that are symptomatic do get tested in school and we will continue to partner with our local health department to offer what it is that you’re describing. Easy access. Routine access to testing for students, for families and for staff because we still know that there are some gaps in the vaccination rates," said Dr. Torres-Rodriguez.

What will the contact tracing and quarantine policy look like should someone test positive for COVID-19?

“Those processes and protocols will remain the same, so the school level team with our district health and safety team will engage in the contact tracing and it depends really on the vaccination and whether or not someone has symptoms. Like I said before, if a student or staff has been vaccinated and they’re asymptomatic, they will not have to be quarantined," said Dr. Torres-Rodriguez.

RELATED: The Real Story | Back to school

What is the vaccination rate among HPS staff?

“We have about 3,600 staff and 70 percent of our entire staff are vaccinated. When it comes to teachers, 80 percent 81 percent are vaccinated, so as you can see there’s still a gap there. We know that there is about 4.5 percent of our teachers that have confirmed that they are not vaccinated, which means there’s still about 15 percent that we’re not sure of. We’re hoping from today until the 30th that they share their vaccination status with us,"  said Dr. Torres-Rodriguez.

After-school programs will continue this year.

“As a matter of fact we’re expanding after school programs in an effort to have students acclimate and just build relationships with themselves and with the adults in our schools, and so our athletic sports are going to continue, but the mitigations remain. The mitigation strategies will continue everywhere in a school environment," said Dr. Torres-Rodriguez.

What about the Delta variant? How does it spread amongst kids, and are kids more vulnerable?

"In terms of affecting kids more, we don't really know. If you go to some of the states that are under immunized, where there are a lot of children getting sick, the problem is there's so much community spread just the numbers are more kids are getting sick and a very small number of them will end up in the hospital so we don't really know. We do know if we don't control community spread and we don't immunize there are going to be a lot more kids getting sick cause there's so much COVID in the community and Delta is so much more infectious. I'm relatively confident in Connecticut, because families are so well immunized and people are doing what they need to do, I don't think we're going to have the kind of Delta outbreak that you're seeing in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Florida," said Dr. John Schreiber, Chief of Infectious Diseases at Connecticut Children's Hospital.

The school district is using federal relief funding to address any learning loss that may have occurred over the past year-and-a-half and support student needs as they transition back to full in-person learning.

"So I’ll share some examples: reduced class size in some schools and some grades that have a higher level of need. We know we’re expanding our community school model and what that means is we will now go from eight to thirteen schools that have a model in which we have community partners in our schools throughout the day and after school and on weekends, supporting students academically and with their social, emotional and enrichment needs," said Dr. Torres-Rodriguez. 

RELATED: Lamont expects to keep in place mask mandate for schools

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