Braving frigid temperatures, Stratford teachers came out in force Monday afternoon to demonstrate against a plan that would have students back in school four days a week for in-person learning, even as COVID cases are on the rise. They were protesting against safety concerns caused by full in-person K-1 learning and a proposal to bring all students back into the classroom.
Holding signs with messages like, “Safe Schools Save Lives” and “Let’s Be Smart: Six Feet Apart,” teachers—many wearing #RedforEd T-shirts, formed a socially distanced line stretching from the train station up both signs of Main Street toward the town hall, where Stratford’s Board of Education would be meeting later that evening.
As teachers waved signs and passing motorists honked and waved in support, CEA Communications was instrumental in securing widespread media coverage for the demonstration. Masked and maintaining social distance, crews from NBC Connecticut, Fox 61, News 12 Connecticut, WTNH Channel 8, and the Connecticut Post came out to interview Stratford Education Association (SEA) President Michael Fiorello, SEA Co-Vice Presidents Robin Julian and Kristen Record, CEA President Jeff Leake, and dozens of other teachers about the risks of a proposed increase in in-person learning.
In a report issued the same day, Safe Schools Now, a coalition of unions that include CEA and AFT CT called for greater state oversight and enforcement of COVID safety rules and reporting in schools.
“The dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases raises safety concerns for students, teachers, and families,” said Leake. “The Centers for Disease Control say schools are not the safest place during the pandemic, and in-person learning is a high-risk activity. The state must take steps now to strengthen safety or else move to all-distance learning in this next wave of the virus.”
While the governor has instituted stricter protocols in the face of rising COVID infection rates, such as allowing only 50% capacity in venues such as restaurants, there are no similar protections for schools.
“Our union follows the town’s COVID metrics closely,” said SEA President Michael Fiorello, an English language arts teacher at Stratford High School, “and we think this is the wrong time to relax our prevention protocols.” Explaining that the district’s present hybrid model allows for appropriate distancing in classrooms and hallways, Fiorello added, “Currently, kindergarten and first-grade students, dual language students, and many special education students are attending school in person four days per week. But Stratford is looking at sending many more students school four days a week, which would do away with social distancing at a time when the district is also denying remote teaching requests by vulnerable teachers. Why are we phasing in more students now—as holidays approach, cold and flu season begins, and the town is designated a red zone by its prevalence of cases per 100,000?”
Stratford was set to have the entire district go to a four-day-a-week model last Monday, November 16, but an SEA letter-writing campaign to the superintendent slowed down the phase-in plan, implementing full in-person learning for kindergarten and first grade only.
The district’s next plan was to fully reopen all elementary classes on the Monday after Thanksgiving. The high school and middle schools would remain closed temporarily because of large numbers of students and staff being quarantined.
“I’m over 60, and I’m terrified,” said Flood Middle School math teacher Mindy Gottlieb—a sentiment echoed by dozens of teachers who attended yesterday’s demonstration.
“SEA is requesting that the district remain in a hybrid model and hold off on any full in-person reopening,” Fiorello explained. “With the trends in state and town pandemic data, the superintendent’s decision to roll back safety precautions in our schools should be immediately reversed. The message we wanted to bring to our Board of Education and community is that safety considerations for all school community members should reflect best practices based on current conditions.”