“We cannot guarantee the safety of our students or our teachers when schools reopen next week,” Mike Archambault, East Haven Education Association Vice President told the members of the East Haven Board of Education last night.
Wearing Red for Ed t-shirts, face masks, and observing social distancing, two hundred teachers, parents, and students chanted outside East Haven High School, while Archambault, the only teacher initially allowed into the meeting, presented the board with a petition signed by nearly 900 people objecting to the reopening plan and calling for a hybrid model and a delayed start to the school year. The signers are not confident that all safety protocols and CDC guidelines will be met when schools reopen in-person at full capacity on September 1.
Emilia Caturano, an East Haven High School English teacher and union treasurer is one of the teachers worried that the district plan is not ready or safe.
“We need the benefit and respect of more safety as we move forward. I was not allowed into tonight’s meeting due to space, but if I had gone in, I would have told the board members that they are not giving me the benefit of time to prepare effectively and time for my colleagues to prepare and they are not giving my high-risk colleagues the benefit of safety in a global pandemic.”
Only 25 people, 12 board members and 13 others (only one teacher and one resident), were initially allowed into last night’s meeting in order to observe social distancing protocols and the governor’s reopening rules.
“We’re in an auditorium, which is about a hundred times bigger than a normal classroom, and we are only allowed 25 people to enter per East Shore Health District recommendations. This requirement is in place to keep everybody at the meeting safe. Beginning Tuesday, our schools will reopen with hundreds of students in a building and classes with more than 25 students and staff members in a room. How is that safe?” Archambault asked the board members.
The teachers say East Haven is one of only a small percentage of districts with full in-person reopening plans, the classrooms are not ready, teachers are not fully prepared, the district is not allowing accommodations for high-risk teachers, and anxiety levels are high. A survey found that 75% of teachers are very concerned about return to in-person teaching with classrooms at full capacity.
Teachers with underlying health issues with recommendations from doctors that they should not return to in-person teaching are being denied accommodations to work at home and being told to take an unpaid leave of absence, resign, or retire.
“These teachers could work from home and provide our students that chose remote learning with live, high-quality instruction,” said Archambault.
That includes educators like Gayle Turcio-Carter, who has a number of health issues, recently underwent open-heart surgery, and has notes from three doctors recommending she works off-site.
“There’s no reason I can’t work off-site. I did it when schools closed in March and I can do it again,” she said.
Art teacher Al Camera, who was in the hospital for 12 days, 6 in the ICU after contracting COVID-19, and wasn’t expected to make it, says schools must be safe.
“I don’t want to see anyone go through what I went through,” he said. “We are in a big rush to get back into school, but it has not been put together adequately—we can’t social distance properly and members are in compromised positions and being given unfair options. The hybrid model is the best option for students and teachers.”
Wearing gloves, a face mask, and a face shield, high school English teacher Themi Valsamis said, “It’s not safe to have us all in the building together. We need safety for students and teachers.”
East Haven Academy first grade teacher Stephanie Gingras agreed. The mother of a newborn and a 3-year–old was wearing scrubs and plans to wear them to school.
“I’m terrified of bringing anything home to my children. I plan to take off my scrubs so I don’t infect them,” Gingras.
East Haven Academy music teacher Maria Berte says there will be no singing or dancing with her students when school reopens.
“There is a lot of anxiety and concern about our reopening plan because it’s not fleshed out completely and we are not prepared to go back. I travel from classroom to classroom and the students will only be three feet apart and I can only bring a limited number of items into the classroom,” Berte said.
Outpouring of support
When asked why he attended the meeting, State Representative Joe Zullo said, “Take a look around you, the response and concern has been incredible. My phone has been ringing off the hook with parents and teachers calling and that’s something you don’t ignore.”
Several teachers told Zullo that the district is rushing into reopening and that their schools are not ready.
Fifth grade Momauguin Elementary School teacher Nadine Vaspasiano told Zullo that she doesn’t even have a working sink. Another talked about the lack of cleanliness in the building and bugs in her classroom.
Zullo told the teachers, “There needs to be a more collaborative process and more communication.” He suggested that the teachers come up with an action list of essential things they believe must be done before reopening.
“There has to be some middle ground. Teachers can’t be terrified. Parents can’t be afraid to send their children to school. Kids need to be excited about going to school. Administrators need a plan that can be administered properly,” Zullo said.
Driving the point home
The crowd of teachers burst into applause when district bus drivers wearing their orange safety vests joined their ranks.
“We are here to support our teachers,” said Etta Smith, a school bus driver and SEIU shop steward. “We are calling for the same thing as the teachers—safety!”
Bus driver Janet Porrazzo, agreed. “There are not enough safety precautions in place. Buses are very hot this time of year and it will be very difficult for kids to keep their masks on.”
“We know we can’t fill school buses to capacity with 52 students and adhere to social distancing protocols. East Haven needs to delay the opening of school and come up with better safety precautions to keep everyone safe,” added Smith.
High school social studies teacher Anthony Vaspasiano said he received new desks for his class of 24 to 25 students, but they are only four feet apart, not the required six feet.
“Teachers are terrified about going back to school without safety protocols in place. We have a great town and we hope the board of education listens to us and delays the opening of school and moves to a hybrid model for everyone’s safety,” said Vaspasiano.
“The EHEA looks forward to working together with Superintendent Erica Forti and East Haven Board of Education members to develop plans and accommodations for educators that serve the best interest of the district’s students, teachers, and community, “ Archambault said.
Media coverage of last night’s rally