Universal masking required until Sept. 30 for Fairfield schools

Chris Varcoe, a teacher from Roger Ludlowe Middle School, in Fairfield, receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the Bigelow Center clinic in Fairfield, Conn. March 1, 2021.

Chris Varcoe, a teacher from Roger Ludlowe Middle School, in Fairfield, receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the Bigelow Center clinic in Fairfield, Conn. March 1, 2021.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Officials want all students back in-person full time, however, some see the delta variant posing a challenge to that goal.

“I’m sure that I am not alone in saying that all of us would like to get things back to normal, would like to lose the masks and would like to get back to the way things were, but unfortunately we’re just not there yet,” Sands Cleary, Fairfield’s health director, said at a meeting health and school officials held this week to discuss the impact of the delta variant and what it means for sending students back to school.

Fairfield will have to keep some mitigation strategies in place as school is slated to start Aug. 30.

Universal masking will still be required until Sept. 30 under one of Gov. Ned Lamont's executive orders.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its stance from only requiring unvaccinated people from wearing masks to universal masking in schools due to the impact of the delta variant.

School officials plan to promote vaccination and the need to limit transmission to further prevent the emergence of new variants. Cleary said they want to prevent the formation of new variants, especially ones that are more transmissible, make people more ill or can overcome the vaccine.

Cleary said a higher vaccination rate among students and staff will help keep everyone in-person, as well as provide some protection for those who can’t be vaccinated.

About 64 percent of Fairfield’s total population is vaccinated. This breaks down to 58 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds are vaccinated, 65 percent of 16- to 44-year-olds are vaccinated, 85 percent are vaccinated in ages 45 to 64 and 93 percent are vaccinated in ages 65 and older, Cleary said.

“Right now, delta is the dominant variant in Connecticut,” he said. “According to the CDC, it’s more than twice as transmissible than the original lineage strand. This new strand is causing increases throughout the country, throughout the state and even in Fairfield.”

There are also more hospitalizations for the town and county.

Cleary said its affecting school-age children too. About 22,000 cases of the state’s overall COVID-19 cases are for those 9 and younger and 42,000 cases for ages 10 t0 19 years old.

“We’re working hard to continue to promote vaccinations,” Cleary said. “We have made some good progress, but there’s still more progress to be made especially with some of the younger ages. One out of every three people that someone will meet would be unvaccinated and everybody under 11 would be unvaccinated.”

There are also operational changes for the new school year.

Three-foot distancing will be in place in all grades, the pop-up plexiglass barriers will no longer be used at lunch, cohorting will no longer be necessary during recess and cleaning protocols will remain in place.

“We will continue with contact tracing, we’ll continue with case isolation and quarantine of contacts,” Cleary said. “What has changed is that we will be moving towards the shorter recommendation of a seven-day quarantine with a test on the fifth day and as long as that test is negative, you can return on the eighth day.”

Superintendent Mike Cummings said he was unsure what would drive changes in the guidance or learning module plan, prompting any return to a hybrid or remote system.

“Honestly at this point we don’t know,” Cummings said. “I know that there is a full on commitment from both the federal and state government to keep students in school full-time and that is our intent as well. Again many of the lessons we learned last year that we all experienced and went through showed that was possible when the appropriate mitigation factors are in place.”

Cleary said the overarching goal as they approach the start of school is getting back to as normal as possible.

“All of us have experienced impacts from this pandemic from tragic losses of friends and family members to financial challenges, loss of jobs, changing and challenging school and work conditions, isolation, depression and other impacts have all been experienced by many of us,” he said. “I think everybody acknowledges the educational, social and behavioral impacts resulting from the pandemic and the burden it presents uniquely to students and school staff.”