Educators, parents, and lawmakers taking part in a virtual panel discussion organized by State Senator Tony Hwang agreed that getting students back into school buildings must be a priority—but when it will be safe to resume full in-person learning in schools across the state remains a big question.
“Nothing matches in-person learning, but in many schools that can’t happen safely right now,” said CEA President Jeff Leake. “There are districts in Connecticut that are currently engaged in full, in-person learning, but they tend to be smaller districts with the room to create small classes and ensure social distancing. Sufficient distancing isn’t able to happen in most Connecticut classrooms.”
“Our number one goal is to get all students back in school as fast as possible, and in the interim to get as many kids as possible back in school,” said math teacher and Fairfield Education Association President Bob Smoler.
Smoler said that in his district, which is currently following a hybrid model, approximately 20 percent of teachers have significant medical issues putting them at high risk from COVID-19.
“These are teachers with doctors’ notes. If they get COVID there’s a high likelihood they’re going to end up in the hospital and maybe die,” said Smoler. “Yet if those 20 percent of teachers don’t work in our schools, there’s not enough adults to safely staff the buildings.”
Smoler said that masks and social distancing have been key to keeping these teachers safe and allowing the vast majority of teachers to be in the buildings every day teaching, but that a return to full in-person learning right now would put these high-risk individuals in serious danger.
“We need to make sure we have a safe environment for our educators to enter school buildings and teach students,” Smoler said. “When you talk about bringing all students back in full time, we go down to three feet of social distancing, and the potential for transmission increases exponentially.”
Smoler added that bringing all students back full time would also likely result in more teachers needing to quarantine, making it harder for schools to keep enough staff in the buildings to stay open.
“Our priority should be getting teachers vaccinated,” said Senator Eric Berthel. “I don’t know that I’d want to be a teacher in a classroom myself right now, in front of people who might expose me to a virus we don’t know much about.”
Berthel, a ranking member on the legislature’s Education Committee, said that this legislative session the committee plans to focus on issues related to COVID-19 and will “hit the pause button” on the kind of education policies that have been prioritized in previous years.
Hwang noted CEA’s repeated calls for protocols to ensure safe schools for students and educators. “I wish you weren’t so prescient,” he told Leake. “Many of the concerns you raised over the summer have come to pass.”
All participants agreed that the social and emotional needs of children need to be better addressed both amid the pandemic and once COVID is in the rearview mirror.
Anne Fritz Linval, a parent in Easton, shared that her early elementary aged children are both facing mental health challenges due to the difficulties of remote learning.
“The social emotional toll on children has been horrible,” said Smoler. “Clearly vaccinating teachers is our quickest route to getting schools open as quickly as possible, given that we don’t have enough space to socially distance.”
Hwang thanked attendees for their participation and said his takeaways were that teachers need to be prioritized for vaccinations, the state should have clear metrics for when schools need to go remote, and that students’ social and emotional needs must be prioritized.
Fritz Linval said that she thinks the board of education unions’ requests outlined in the Safe and Successful Schools Now report are reasonable. “I think there should be more testing in schools and that teachers should be at the front of the line for vaccines.”
“We need to be extremely conscious of the social and emotional needs of kids,” said Leake. “We’ve got to make sure that when students resume full in-person learning we are better equipped to respond to the needs of our students.”