A coalition of unions representing teachers, paraeducators and school staff are demanding a new set of protocols around testing, masking and vaccinations which they say will make it possible for in-person learning to continue safely.
Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said in a press conference on Monday that up to 60 percent of the teachers she represents do not have access to masks, and that 70 percent don’t have access to testing.
“What we’ve seen is a real lack of a plan,” said Dias.
The Board of Education Union Coalition, which represents 60,000 school educators and staff, proposed a list of nine points they would like to see addressed. Among them is a request that all students and staff be required to wear N-95 masks regardless of vaccination status, and that the districts provide students and staff with the masks.
Dias said that she’d seen a lot of students not wearing masks correctly, which she attributed to fatigue. Joslyn DeLancy, vice president of the Connecticut Education Association, said this had also become an issue because of the increased number of substitute teachers in the districts. She said it was easier for a full-time classroom teacher, who has relationships with the students, to get the students to wear their masks correctly than it is for a substitute.
Educators are also asking for increased monitoring and testing. Shellye Davis, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers and vice president for Paraprofessionals and school-related personnel for AFT CT, said that the coalition was advocating for “more aggressive” design, including daily temperature checks at the door, and free COVID-19 testing at the schools.
The coalition also proposed distribution of in-home testing kits to students and school staff. Dias said the coalition would also support testing as a proactive tool to diagnose COVID-19, using techniques like pool testing, which sends combined samples to laboratories.
Dias said that teachers did not want to return to remote learning, and that the coalition’s proposals would make it possible for schools to remain in-person.
“We are fully committed to being in the classroom if we can have testing, if we can have mitigation strategies … but if at the end of the day, we can’t function safely, then we have to look at the alternatives,” she said.
Dual teaching, or having teachers try to simultaneously teach students online and in the classroom, is not one of those alternatives. The coalition has asked that this type of teaching be banned. The coalition also pushed strongly against combining classes to address staffing shortages.
“We can be present to one group of students at a time, and those students, at this time, very much need our full attention,” said Mary Yordon, president of the Norwalk Federation of Teachers.
Last Friday, the state’s Department of Education released new guidance around quarantines based on CDC protocol. The new guidelines will reduce quarantine time after COVID-19 exposure from 10 to five days and does not require people who are exposed to COVID-19 at school to quarantine.
“I do think reduced quarantine time makes sense to me if that’s what the science tells us to do,” said Dias, adding that she supported the potential decrease in unnecessary absences.
Yordon said the reduced need for contact tracing would also take a lot of pressure off the school nurses.
“Many school nurses were working hard in ways that did not have an enormous impact,” she said.
Other requests include making vaccinations available at schools, making sure staff do not have to use up sick time while in quarantine and continuing with social distancing, minimizing large gatherings and improving ventilation.
The week before Christmas, Connecticut schools recorded their highest number of COVID-19 cases this year, with 734 staff cases reported and 3,634 student cases reported.
Dias said the teachers were concerned about passing COVID on to their students. She said that only about 40 percent of elementary students were currently vaccinated. She said she felt that the stakes for not properly wearing masks had gotten higher, and that there was a sense of foreboding within the school buildings.
“There’s this sense of ‘Am I next? What’s going to happen next?’” she said. “The intensity level in these buildings is high. People have families and they don’t want to get COVID.”