YSPH teams with state Department of Education to improve health in Connecticut schools < Yale Institute for Global Health

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An effort to keep students healthy and safe from infections during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a new partnership between the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) and the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE).

State education officials have engaged a team from YSPH to serve as consultants to Connecticut public school systems on policies and practices related to school environmental health and infectious-disease prevention and mitigation.

Sten H. Vermund, MD, PhD, Anna M.A. Lauder Professor of Public Health and former YSPH dean, leads the team. It also includes Dr. Krystal Pollitt, associate professor of epidemiology (environmental health); Dr. Marie Brault, an adjunct YSPH assistant professor (social and behavioral sciences) who is assistant professor of population health at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine; postdoctoral assistant Elizabeth Lin, PhD ’24 and MPH ’20 (both in environmental health sciences), recent graduate Mahima Kaur, MS ’24 (health informatics); and postdoctoral assistant Dan Li, PhD ’24, founder and CEO of Education Without Barriers and a MD/PhD candidate who completed her PhD in Vermund’s lab on the impact of COVID-19 on schoolchildren.

Most often, it is DPH [the state Department of Public Health] with which we work closely, so the CSDE relationship is a novel one.

Sten Vermund, MD, MPH

“Most often, it is DPH [the state Department of Public Health] with which we work closely, so the CSDE relationship is a novel one,” Vermund said. Prior to the new partnership agreement, Vermund was part of a joint DPH-CSDE task force for school health from 2020-2022, as well as a follow up 2022-23 task force related to the reopening of schools post-pandemic.

State education officials announced the YSPH partnership in a memo to all Connecticut school superintendents in May. At the same time, a joint letter was sent by Connecticut Education Commissioner Charlene M. Russell-Tucker and state DPH Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani, MD, MPH, to school superintendents, medical advisors, and school nurses and supervisors alerting them to a concerning rise in measles cases nationally. At the time of the letter, there were 128 reported measles cases in 19 states and New York City. (A June update by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised the total to 151 cases reported by 21 states plus New York City.)

In order to achieve herd immunity during the measles outbreak, the letter read, 95% of the population must be vaccinated or have had the disease. The most recent state figures, from 2022-23, show that while MMM (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccinations increased sharply over the previous year, to 97.3% of all Connecticut students, there are still some schools with a rate under 95% among kindergarteners.

This concerns Vermund. “Measles is so highly contagious that any pocket of unvaccinated children or adults can be considered very high-risk, given the ease of travel in the modern era,” he said. “Community engagement for vaccine advocacy becomes critical to maintain historically high coverage rates.”

When a school and/or district requests a consultation, the YSPH team will divide its work among three teams: overall school safety and mitigation strategies (Vermund, Li, and Kaur); environmental engineering and indoor air quality safety measures (Pollitt and Lin); and stress, wellness, and mental health (Brault, Vermund, and Li).

The process will include a visit by Vermund and one or more team members joining either in person or by Zoom. “Facilities are reviewed thoroughly,” Vermund said. That includes classroom spacing and building ventilation systems. Special-use venues, such as buses and vans, bathrooms, music halls, drama rooms, locker rooms, libraries, and art spaces get specific assignments. Also reviewed are hygiene, face covers, isolation, and quarantine policies, depending upon the disease of concern.

“The key is to mitigate risks while maximizing school performance,” Vermund said.

It is still too early to produce figures for the current partnership, but Vermund’s team had plenty of experience in consultations prior to this program.

During the pandemic, YSPH experts consulted with schools in four states (Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, and California), including a statewide Zoom webinar for school districts in Rhode Island hosted by then-Governor Gina Raimondo, now the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. YSPH scientists also made pro bono on-site visits to at least 18 schools, Vermund said – including public school districts in New Haven, Bridgeport, and New York City; the 90 members of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools, and private schools such as Sacred Heart School in Greenwich and the Chapin School in Manhattan.

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