With many schools throughout the state remaining closed after the holiday break amidst staffing shortages, a lack of COVID tests and masks, and the absence of a statewide safety plan, the Board of Education Union Coalition reconfirmed its message on Monday regarding safe school reopening. Leaders of the 60,000-member group representing public school employees reiterated measures the coalition outlined during the holiday break that need to be in place for schools to remain open safely.
“In this coalition, we’re here to talk about what it’s like to be in the buildings,” said CEA President Kate Dias in a news conference held the day schools were set to reopen. Noting a shortage of necessary supplies and the absence of a coordinated state strategy to keep classrooms safe, Dias and others called for the immediate implementation of stringent new protocols to ensure the health and safety of staff and students amid a statewide surge in COVID infections.
“We are really concerned as we’ve gone back to school today and watched a lack of masking,” Dias explained. “What we’ve seen is a real lack of a plan. I worked in a building today without KN95 or N95 mask availability, and we’re worried about tests not generally being available. Sixty percent of our members report that they don’t have access to N95 or KN95 masks, and more than 70 percent have reported not having access to testing. That wasn’t the agreement. And I think we all can agree that that’s not the workspace we want to be in. It doesn’t feel safe, it doesn’t feel cared for, it doesn’t feel responsible.”
Mary Yordon, president of the Norwalk Federation of Teachers and vice president for preK-12, AFT Connecticut, described the case of a fellow educator who has COVID symptoms but has been unable to schedule a test until the second week of January.
“How is it possible that we cannot get a test for this teacher until January 9? She is not able to report to school as long as she doesn’t feel well, and possibly even when she does feel well.”
Dias added, “We were promised tests. We need them. It’s time to deliver.”
A day after the coalition news conference, Governor Ned Lamont announced that 670,000 rapid COVID tests are being delivered to schools and childcare centers today, with more on the way. But until then districts are on their own to determine how best to keep their school communities safe.
“Being the doers, the people on the ground who get the job done, we’ve created a list of things that would make a difference and keep our schools safe and secure,” Dias said during yesterday’s BOE Coalition news conference.
As part of its nine-point plan, the group is advocating for more aggressive testing protocols and assessment of symptoms to closely monitor students and teachers before they enter schools;
access to COVID-19 vaccination and free testing at all schools, including weekly pool testing; N95 masks and in-home test kits for students and staff, as well as a requirement that N95 masks be worn by all in school buildings, regardless of vaccination status; continued social distancing and improved ventilation; a prohibition on large group gatherings, combined classes, and dual teaching; and a prohibition on requirements that staff use sick time for quarantines.
“Those are the principles we’ve established as a coalition to provide a plan where there was no plan,” said Yordon, who called masks and other supplies and protocols an important part of continuing in-person education.
“We are determined to put forth some practical solutions to provide safety in our workplace so that we can serve the students who need us and to whom we are dedicated and to whom we’ve dedicated our careers,” she said. “In the interest of equity, we need to establish a statewide set of practices so that we don’t have a ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ situation that continues and that snowballs.”
Responding to media inquiries about whether school personnel prefer to go remote, Dias answered, “It’s really important to reinforce our commitment to being in the classroom, where do our best work. But we need to do that safely. So if we can have testing, if we can have mitigation strategies, if we’re really monitoring for symptoms, if we are in fact sending students home who are sick, if we have staffing, please leave us in school. If we can’t function safely, however, we have to look at alternatives. Could remote learning be a potential stopgap while we’re trying to get all of these things into play? Maybe. But it’s not the only way.”
Acknowledging that the omicron variant has not caused widespread significant illness among those who are vaccinated, Dias noted that 60% of elementary school children have not received the vaccine.
“There’s a lot of stress among educators concerning their students. We bear that burden. That’s who educators are. We walk in and ask, ‘Are these children going to be OK?’ Any educator, any person working in a school, does so out of a real commitment to the people we’re there to serve.”
Mask fatigue among students is also a widespread problem, noted CEA Vice President Joslyn DeLancey, an elementary school teacher in Darien who, along with her colleagues, said educators find themselves reminding students to put on or pull up their masks.
“For teachers, who have time to make those personal connections in the classroom, communicating with students is easier,” DeLancey said. “We know our students. But we have a significant number of substitute teachers right now, and some of them don’t have the same connections with students, so it does affect their ability to support them in the same way.”
Aside from health concerns, Dias articulated the coalition’s concerns for students’ social and emotional well-being.
“We don’t have enough social workers on hand to help our children deal with the stressors of the pandemic,” she said. “We need to get creative and flood our schools with people who can help kids navigate this pandemic and the stress and frustration many of them feel.”
Read and watch media coverage of the news conference below:
- Fox 61: School Staff Unions Call for Increased COVID Safety Protocols
- News 12: Education Unions Call on State to Enact COVID Prevention Policies
- News 8: Conn. Educators Demand New Protocols, Safety Standards as Students Return to School Amid COVID Surge
- Hartford Courant: Union Leaders Demand Free Testing, Screening of Students and N95 Masks as Re-Opened Schools Struggle with Rapid Spread of COVID-19
- CT Insider: As They Return to School, More Kids in CT Hospitals with COVID, Officials Say
- CTNewsJunkie: Teachers, Union Say Not Enough Masks or Tests for Schools
- NBC CT: Schools in Conn. Close, Announce Delays Because of Uptick in COVID-19 Cases
- Associated Press: Some Schools Delay Opening After Holiday Amid COVID Surge
- WSHU: Connecticut Loosens School COVID Restrictions as Cases and Hospitalizations Soar
- Journal Inquirer: School Unions Ask for More Stringent Safety Protocols