Governor Lamont entered a room at Manchester High School where dedicated educators from around the state had gathered so that he could hear firsthand their challenges and concerns regarding the state’s reopening plan. A few hours later, during his afternoon briefing, the governor announced additional flexibility for districts to implement hybrid reopening plans.
CEA and AFT Connecticut organized yesterday’s meeting between the governor and teachers and were pleased that the governor heard and acted on teachers’ concerns regarding the need for safety, equity, funding, and flexibility when schools reopen.
“The governor listened to our educators, who voiced their concerns—concerns they have repeatedly expressed—including the need for additional resources and flexibility for districts to ensure safety, because nothing is more important than the safety of our students, our teachers, and their families,” said CEA President Jeff Leake.
“We are providing educational opportunities for our students, but we need our students to be safe,” Danbury teacher and local president Erin Daly told the governor.
Daly said Danbury is last in the state when it comes to per pupil spending, and funding is one of the biggest issues facing the district. “We worry that the lack of funding, overcrowding, and the infrastructure of the school system doesn’t allow for safety. The most reasonable hybrid model that works for us and keeps everyone safe is two days in the classroom and three days of distance learning.”
Bridgeport Education Association President Ana Batista said safety, overcrowding, a lack of staff are also major concerns in her district. “In one school we have 1,200 students, 55 classrooms, and one custodian. How can one person provide the daily disinfecting we need?”
In addition, she said her district has large class sizes and can’t accommodate six-foot social distancing. “That, compounded by the fact that our buildings are old, with poor ventilation—temperatures in some schools reach 108 degrees—causes very unhealthy conditions for students and teachers wearing masks.”
Manchester math teacher and local president Kate Dias agreed and said teachers are anxious about what will happen when someone becomes infected and what that will be like for students and families in the community.
“We want nothing more than to teach our students effectively, to give them the best education possible, but the question becomes, especially for high-risk teachers, is it something I am willing to risk my health or my life for?”
Dias invited the governor into her classroom and explained, “When I walked into my empty room, I caught my breath and imagined how I was going to have 24 high school students in the room.”
The governor said he isn’t doing anything unless the metrics say it can be done safely. He acknowledged that he is “terrified we may have another flare-up” and doesn’t want to lose this opportunity to get kids in the classroom now while the infection rates are low. He said, if rates get high, schools will close and districts will have full distance learning options ready to go.
All the educators stressed the importance of funding to ensure CDC protocols are followed and shared stories of shortfalls in their districts.
“We don’t have nurses, paraprofessionals, or any other extra staff to assist students, or space to spread students out,” said New Haven math teacher and AFT CT PreK-12 Council member Marianne Maloney. “While we have three excellent plans, we would need $13.5 million to make them work.”
Stacy Vocasek, a teacher at the Arts at the Capitol Magnet School and EASTCONN Federation of Teachers executive board member, told the governor that teachers want to go back to school. “We are desperate to go back, but we have to make sure it’s safe. Right now the district can’t buy dry-erase markers for our classrooms. It’s hard to believe they will have the funding needed to keep all of us safe.”
Shepaug Valley School math teacher and NEA Director Tara Flaherty said her district, like many others, is not putting money into purchasing clear plastic shields and clear masks due to the cost.
“How can we teach reading and speech to our students with masks on?” she asked the governor. “We need plastic barriers, custodians, social workers, masks so kids can see our faces, nurses, school counselors, and social workers in all schools because the gap between the haves and have-nots is getting wider, and we need to address that to create more equity. We need to get resources to all schools to make them safe.”
New London teacher and local vice president Elizabeth Sked said clear masks are also needed in her district, which has a large population of English learners. “Without seeing my mouth it is hard for them and it creates another level of inequity.”
“We know that despite our best efforts and what resources we can muster together, it won’t be enough to keep our kids safe. We know it,” stressed Daly.
The governor said money should not be the issue. “We are not shortchanging you on public health and safety. The state will provide funding, and we will be getting funding from the HEROES Act and will devote it to schools.”
Phasing in schools
Cheshire math teacher and local president John Redford shared a recent survey taken in his district that revealed “teachers are devoted to coming back, but they are petrified.” He told the governor, “While you have done an excellent job reopening the state in phases, we need to do the same with schools. We don’t want to be a flash in the pan and have to close again. We want this to work and phasing in schools is our best option.”
Redford, a father of four, said his children are scared. “One doesn’t want to be in a cafeteria setting with all the students, another says she knows that certain classmates won’t keep their masks on.”
He asked the governor to, “Give us the latitude and encouragement to do this slowly.”
Teachers pointed out that schools should be phased in, similar to businesses, restaurants, and other industries.
“I have family members who are not going back into their offices until January, but I am going into a building with potentially 1,600 people in it,” said Dias. “So as a staff member, I don’t think there is enough hand sanitizer in the world to make me feel comfortable.”
Teachers also expressed concern that schools are being reopened because parents need childcare in order to return to work. To that, the governor responded, “It’s not about childcare but hope and caring interactions with students. I know you are doing a lot more than childcare.”
Leake told the governor, “There must be a partnership that includes businesses and community organizations, not just our schools, working together to meet the responsibilities to our children.”
Social emotional needs
In addition to a safe, healthy learning environment, children returning to school will need additional social-emotional support—a fact that CEA Vice President Tom Nicholas emphasized in the teachers’ conversation with the governor.
“Students are facing additional trauma arising from the social justice issues facing our country and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nicholas said. “They will be coming back to school with significant social-emotional needs that could go unmet if our schools don’t have the funding for additional resources and supports.”
Educators urged the governor to provide for those supports and to have faith in them to do what is best for their students.
“Trust us as the experts to build the model that gives kids in-person care and support in a safe way, and trust us that we will do the job we want so badly to do,” said Dias. “My colleagues across the state are a heavily motivated group of people who want the best for kids.”
Rather than opening schools at full capacity, teachers support a hybrid model that includes working with small groups of students.
Leake said, “If we can stop thinking about 20-25 students in a classroom and think about 10-12 students, it gives us the confidence and ability to reopen schools safely.”
“We are telling you to give us small groups and allow us to do what we do best: teach. They feel safer, and we feel safer,” Dias said.
And when it comes to distance learning, teachers are prepared.
“We were thrown into distance learning in March with little or no notice or training,” Suffield math teacher and local president Mark Janick recalled. “Now we know how to do distance learning. We have new techniques and best practices to keep students engaged and are ready to go back into it.”
“I wish I could tell you let’s wait until it’s 100% safe,” the governor said. “I don’t know when it’s going to be safe. I can tell you I am doing everything I can to make it as safe as we humanly can. I can guarantee the masks, pay for extra janitors, do what I can to give you confidence that we are doing everything we can to keep you safe, and that’s on me.”
Later in the afternoon, during his 4 p.m. daily news briefing, the governor announced that while he prefers a full-time return to school, he will not dictate how instruction will be offered when schools reopen. He said he will allow local school systems to decide how to open schools. They can reopen fully, use hybrid models—a mix of distance learning and in-person classes—or full distance learning.