At a time of fluctuating COVID rates, school staffing shortages, and delays in the state’s promised distribution of masks and tests to schools, CEA leaders visited Bridgeport’s Blackham School with Governor Ned Lamont this morning to talk about the ongoing realities of the pandemic classroom and what needs to happen to ensure schools can remain safely open.
The group visited students and teachers in several areas throughout the preK-8 building, including the library and classrooms for algebra, language arts, special education, and English language learners. [Above, from right, Governor Ned Lamont, CEA President Kate Dias, and Bridgeport Education Association President Ana Batista visit Stephen Taylor’s algebra classroom.]
Emphasizing to the governor and reporters the need for “strong, empowered school systems,” CEA President Kate Dias said, “The best things we can do are to keep staff in schools, keep schools open, and keep our kiddos in classrooms, but we need to do that with a commitment to safety and security. What has been essential to this process is that CEA leadership has been working closely with Commissioner of Education Charlene Russell-Tucker, and she has been excellent, at the governor’s guidance, at being inclusive and thoughtful. When the omicron variant started to push into our lives, we were meeting with her almost weekly, in communication almost on a daily basis, and working with the Department of Health as well to find solutions that could be applied throughout the state. We are strongly following the lead of our public health experts in the field, which is why when we were told about the need to upgrade masks and get COVID tests out, that became a priority.”
Keeping the pressure on
Dias acknowledged that as omicron surged and N95 masks were not available to all school staff in the timeframe promised, “Obviously we took a very critical stance that this did not happen as expeditiously as we were hoping for. The idea has been throughout this pandemic that we all benefit when public health is maintained, when schools are open, and when communication is solid.”
When asked about plans for lifting or extending mask mandates or changing other school protocol, the governor stressed the need to follow the science, track infection rates, and follow health officials’ guidance. He also affirmed that he would consult closely with CEA leadership.
“One of the first people I’ll talk to is Kate. I’ve got to say, What do we do to make sure we keep our schools open so that parents know their kids can be in the classrooms safely? How do we make sure our educators know they can be there safely? The first person I’ll talk to is Kate about that.”
Dias and Bridgeport Education Association President Ana Batista also spoke about the need to not only protect educators but also recruit and retain them, especially in districts such as Bridgeport, where class sizes often swell and teachers’ salaries fall far short of their colleagues’ earnings in neighboring towns.
“Bridgeport, like many communities, is dealing with a staffing shortage, and we know that class sizes of 28 or 29 are difficult to maintain,” said Dias. “It’s difficult for our students to get everything they want and for teachers to be able to do everything they know they can do.”
She added, “We’re grateful that the governor took us up on the offer to come and see what’s going on. It’s a good reminder to look at all the aspects of our classrooms: Do we have enough teachers? Do we have enough resources? Can we inspire these teachers to stay here for their full careers? The superintendent referenced the challenges with staff turnover, and I think now is the time for us as a state to double down on valuing our educators, valuing the important work that goes on in our urban centers to drive success in this state and celebrate all that we have to offer. There’s a real opportunity right now to invest in our schools and elevate our communities through education.”
Keeping COVID out, talent in
“There’s something about the liveliness, the enthusiasm of our learners, and the incredible commitment of our educators that really is invigorating,” said Dias. “It’s a constant reminder of how much it takes to make a school successful, and we’re grateful today to be able to bring attention to the hard work and commitment required to make our schools vibrant learning communities. I’m excited that our teachers showed all the wonderful things that well-staffed classrooms have to offer, but we need to make sure COVID tests and masks get into our schools and that schools are adequately staffed.”
“I do love the fact that all the classrooms are filled with kids, and that the kids feel comfortable coming back,” said the governor. “Kate, as you know—and you and CEA Executive Director Don Williams have been reminding me of this every day—we have got to give people the confidence that they can get back, and that means teachers, and that’s why we prioritized our teachers when it came to vaccinations and why we’ve prioritized getting masks and the rapid tests to schools like Blackham, to make sure we can take care of people.”
He added, “Talking to Bridgeport Superintendent Mike Testani and CEA President Kate Dias, we’ve got to think beyond this emergency and what do we do to continue to attract and recruit and keep the best educators in the world right here at our schools in Bridgeport, and what that means in terms of not just public health and safety but in terms of bonuses and loan forgiveness and mortgage help, and all the different ways we can say we want you here in this community teaching, because it’s the best investment we can make as a society.”