Soaring COVID cases factor in rising school absences

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Masuk High School is located at 1014 Monroe Turnpike.

MONROE, CT — A national surge in coronavirus infections is taking a toll on school systems, including Monroe’s. Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza told the Board of Education the district is managing a wave of cases from the highly contagious omicron variant.

“We had 300 students out, not necessarily all with COVID,” Kobza said of Masuk High School at Tuesday night’s school board meeting. “We had a large number of students across the district out. We anticipate that to be the case for the next few weeks.”

Justin Orlando, a board member, asked what percentage of the 300 absent Masuk High School students had tested positive for COVID-19.

Principal Steven Swensen said 34 had positive tests and the rest of the absences consisted of students calling in sick.

Kobza said nearly 27 percent of Masuk’s students were out Tuesday, and absences at the district’s other schools were 15 to 18 percent of enrollment. “A lot of people called in who tested positive over the break,” he said.

Nick Kapoor, a board member, asked if there have been staffing issues from teachers and substitutes being out, adding that the situation in Ansonia is dire.

Kobza said it was a challenge on Tuesday, a day when staff members showed an outpouring of support for the late principal Bruce Lazar’s family by attending funeral services.

“We’re keeping a close eye on staffing,” Kobza said. “We were okay today.”

However, just before going to Tuesday night’s meeting, Kobza said Assistant Superintendent Jack Ceccolini received a phone call from a teacher who tested positive.

“Right now, we’re holding on,” Kobza said.

While adjusting to disruptions from the pandemic, Masuk modified its exam schedule, moving testing to regular days rather than having half-day exam days, according to Swensen.

Bus drivers out

Bus routes have also been impacted by the COVID surge. Kobza recalled how Mike Lawlor, manager of All-Star Transportation, told he and Ceccolini Monday night that everything should be set for Tuesday morning — before six drivers called out overnight.

As a result, two bus drivers did their runs, while splitting a third run for Jockey Hollow Middle School, which ran 20 to 30 minutes late, Kobza said.

“Then we had to delay another bus about an hour, when Mike himself drove a bus, finished one loop and went back out and picked those students up,” Kobza said.

He thanked Ceccolini and Jockey Hollow Principal Michael Crowley for scrambling at 6 a.m. to get communications out to parents about the delays. Using Student Messenger, Kobza said they could target families on those specific bus routes with emails, voice calls and texts.

The superintendent also thanked those families for their patience and All-Star’s staff for ensuring all of the bus runs were completed. Kobza said a number of parents drove their children to school.

Kobza said Lawlor told him there may be a similar problem on Wednesday. The superintendent added he knows of other school districts where the bus situations are more serious.

On Wednesday, Kobza tweeted that Monroe’s schools were “moving to closure” due to ice storms.

Updated guidelines

During the holiday break, Kobza said a flurry of emails from the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Connecticut Department of Education came in with updates on COVID-19 guidelines.

Among the changes, school nurses will now focus on students and staff with active symptoms, rather than investigating the relatively low number of school exposures, he said.

“In short, this is letting nurses work on people who are sick,” Kobza said. “Our mitigation strategies have been working. Infections in school have been low everywhere this has been done.”

Those who test positive can now return on the sixth day of school, so long as they are fever free for 24 hours and their symptoms significantly improved over that time, according to the Connecticut Department of Education.

“Due to the infrequent transmission from person-to-person contact in school, DPH recommended the discontinuation of contact tracing and screen and stay,” Kobza said, adding this was based on CDC guidance.

Another change included clarified language on remote instruction, saying only the State Legislature or the governor has the authority to issue an emergency declaration permitting remote learning for a school or district, according to Kobza.

N-95 masks, test kits

The superintendent extended his thanks to Police Capt. Keith White, who is also the town’s emergency management director, for picking up a shipment of N-95 masks for staff and self test kits for students and staff.

“The tests are primarily reserved for students and staff who are exhibiting symptoms of COVID,” Kobza said.

He said tests can also be given to students in a classroom with a certain number of cases to ensure they are okay.

“My message is the same message that it’s been for a while now,” Kobza said. “We encourage folks to get vaccinated and tested and will continue our mitigation strategies that have been successful so far.”

He said the most important thing is that those who are sick stay home, adding this will take a strong partnership with the district and its families.

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