Teachers’ Unions Press as State Resists Move Away from Classrooms

As teachers’ unions call for public schools across Connecticut to transition to remote learning amid rising cases of COVID-19, state leaders maintain that in-person learning remains the best option for students and that the choice of learning formats is a decision best left to local leaders.

The Board of Education Coalition – a coalition of unions representing teachers and school employees in Connecticut – released a report on Monday calling for remote learning during the holidays unless the state strengthens guidelines for reporting cases of COVID-19 in schools.

In his Monday afternoon briefing, Gov. Ned Lamont said schools have done an “extraordinary job” putting public health and safety first. He said the state has worked to get schools protective equipment, ventilation and disinfectant, and to ensure that any student, teacher or staff member who wanted a test could have one.

“I can’t mandate that, by the way,” Lamont said. “Right now, Miguel (Cardona) is going to all the schools bringing Binax testing. We’re getting 50 to 75,000 tests a week, we can get those to the schools — a lot of them were in the colleges before – and that gives you an immediate, 15 minute response, tells you whether you’re positive or negative.”

Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona said he was thankful that students in Connecticut have the opportunity to participate in classroom learning. Cardona said that while health and safety are the primary factors for local officials deciding whether or not a school should close, he said there is no equal alternative to in-person education.

“What we’re really saying is that schools need to meet these consistent threshold safety standards,” Donald Williams, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, told the Connecticut Examiner. 

The coalition report included 14 steps the group wanted the state to take to ensure schools are safer amid rising COVID-19 cases in Connecticut. 

Many of the steps focus on testing and notifying of positive test results, like having schools make positive cases and the number of people exposed and quarantining public within 24 hours and establishing statewide protocols for reporting positive cases, contact tracing and quarantines, social distancing, COVID testing and availability of protective equipment.

The coalition also called for enhanced cleaning requirements, including having the state Department of Public Health create a cleaning plan for all school districts with a checklist for specific tasks, and to require schools to keep and post cleaning logs like restaurants are required to keep.

“What we’re really saying is that schools need to meet these consistent threshold safety standards,” Donald Williams, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, told the Connecticut Examiner. 

Barring the state making the changes recommended in the report, the coalition called for schools to halt classroom instruction and to adopt remote learning Thanksgiving until Jan. 18. The report also calls for towns in “red zones” for COVID cases – 145 towns as of Nov. 19 – to switch over to remote education, or at least a “hybrid” model.

Williams said that without regular testing of the students “we really don’t know how safe the schools are.” 

Williams said it was concerning that the number of cases among students in all learning models — in-person, hybrid and remote — had increased dramatically this week, according to data provided by the state. 

The state Department of Education released a statement underscoring the governor’s commitment to keeping schools open, including providing funding for PPE, cleaning and disinfecting.

According to the department, policies to contain the spread of the virus in schools — like masks, cleaning, ventilation, cohorting and hygiene — have proved effective given the lack of “sustained person-to-person transmission or outbreaks” in educational settings, even as the virus has spread outside of schools.

Seven districts shutter schools until Jan. 18

The majority of school districts have so far opted to keep some form of in-person learning during the holidays. Only seven school districts – Ansonia, Waterbury, Bridgeport, Shelton, Wallingford, Hamden and Region 14 – have reverted to remote learning from Nov. 30 to Jan. 18. 

Many others, however, are relying on remote learning for at least a week after the Thanksgiving break. 

Michael Graner, superintendent of schools in Groton, said that his district had decided to pause in-class instruction and teach remotely for two weeks after Thanksgiving. 

Even after hiring a few dozen permanent substitute teachers in the fall, Graner said that the district has experienced dangerous staffing shortages. He said that the eight schools in his district have together reported about 20 cases of the virus.

“Every single one of my principals has said they were right on the brink,” said Graner. 

“When I looked at the Thanksgiving holiday,” Graner said, “I thought ‘Holy mackerel!’”

Graner said that almost all of the cases in the Groton district had been traced back to the community, particularly to family gatherings. 

“When I looked at the Thanksgiving holiday,” Graner said, “I thought ‘Holy mackerel!’”

But Graner said the district was reluctant to remain with fully-remote instruction until New Years.

“If they’re in front of us, they do better,” he said.

Joseph DiBacco, the superintendent of Ansonia, saw the situation differently. 

According to DiBacco, one of the district’s schools, Prendergast, has allowed classroom instruction for just four out of the last 35 days.

“How disjointed and fragmented is that?” he said.

“Our job was a glorified contact tracer,” DiBacco said. “This was not teaching and learning-oriented.”  

DiBacco said that the large number of cases in his district, and the relative few contact tracers in the town’s health department, has forced the district to improvise contact tracing — watching film from their video cameras to see which students and teachers were within close contact with one another during the school day. 

“Our job was a glorified contact tracer,” he said. “This was not teaching and learning-oriented.”  

DiBacco said that as one of the most densely populated areas in the state, with more than half the population living in multi-family housing, Ansonia was particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus, and that the majority of his students come from minority households — populations particularly hard hit by the virus.

DiBacco said it would be “unbelievably helpful for everyone” if the state were to mandate remote learning through the holidays.

“I kind of see this as a team effort,” he said. “If we are all really in this together, then let’s do it together.” 

An outbreak heading into a vacation

Heading into the Thanksgiving break, the coalition report follows what has been the largest weekly report of COVID cases among both students and staff in Connecticut public schools.

“In-person, classroom learning is best for our students, but only when safe,” said Jody Barr, executive director of AFSCME Council 4. “The state’s COVID-19 numbers demonstrate it’s not safe. We need strict, statewide protocols, remote learning where that is not possible., and a commitment to keep all school staff on the job.”

Between Nov. 12 to 18, there were 159 reported COVID-19 cases among school staff — nearly double the 91 cases reported the prior week — according to state data

That same week, 471 students tested positive for COVID-19. 

“In-person, classroom learning is best for our students, but only when safe,” said Jody Barr, executive director of AFSCME Council 4. “The state’s COVID-19 numbers demonstrate it’s not safe. We need strict, statewide protocols, remote learning where that is not possible., and a commitment to keep all school staff on the job.”

Every county in Connecticut except Tolland is reporting rates of COVID-19 cases that exceed state guidelines for in-person learning.

“Between infections and quarantines some of our schools are operating with half the normal staffing levels,” CSEA SEIU 2001 Paraprofessional Council President Cynthia Ross-Zweig said in a news release. “We’re all working hard to guarantee the safety and emotional well-being of students but there’s only so much we can do when we are this short-staffed.”

In his news conference, Lamont called for state residents to “Step Up” to volunteer or work in areas where the state needs help with COVID response, including working at testing sites, nursing homes, hospitals, and as substitute teachers in schools.

“If schools have to close, the reason generally isn’t due to a high positivity in the classroom – in fact, the positivity rate tends to be the lowest in the classroom – but it does reflect the fact that sometimes staff have to quarantine,” Lamont said. “You have teachers who are older teachers with a pre-existing condition, and those are places we need to step in.”

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