Most Connecticut students are now back in school, but reopening has not gone smoothly in all districts. Five districts have already been forced to close schools because of COVID-19 cases, and many more have students and staff members who are currently quarantined due to positive tests or potential exposure to the virus.
In Stonington, local president Michael Freeman said that Tuesday, the first day back for students, went as well as could be expected with no major glitches.
Stonington, which is using a hybrid model, is taking a slow approach to reopening with three half days this week. On Wednesday, schools were closed for deep cleaning, as they will be every week.
With only half of his high school students in attendance on any given day, Freeman only has seven or eight students in his classroom at a time.
“I have considerable space between me and the kids for most of my classes, which makes me more comfortable as an older teacher who has health issues,” he says.
“I’ve looked out into the hallway, and it’s not overly crowded,” he says. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I’m a stickler for rules, but not once did I see a kid without a mask. They’ve been very cooperative.”
He adds, “I’ve been really excited to see my students in-person after five and a half months. There have been nice smiles and enthusiasm from the kids, so that bodes well.”
Freeman does say that he and most of the faculty he’s talked to find simultaneously teaching students in-person and online a challenge that will take a while to master. Classes at the high school are 75 minutes long, but students learning from home don’t have to be online for the entire period.
“At a certain point, we can have students work on their own or move them into breakout rooms,” Freeman says. “For the kids’ sake we pushed really hard in our MOU to limit the amount of time they would be sitting and staring at a screen. Four 75-minute periods is a long time.”
Freeman says that, to the best of his knowledge, every teacher who has a health-related issue or a spouse with a health issue is teaching remotely. Approximately 15 of the districts’ 203 teachers are distance teaching.
“In our district we have a good relationship between the administration and the union. It was easy to get them to understand the need for the safety protocols we requested,” he says.
Freeman adds that he is hearing from colleagues in other districts of nightmare situations where superintendents have refused to even sit down and discuss teachers’ concerns.
Stratford is one of those districts where teachers’ concerns are not being addressed.
School opened Wednesday, and that same day the district reported its first case of COVID-19. The infected person reportedly did not contract the virus at school and has not been in school since she began experiencing symptoms, so Stratford schools will remain open.
Teachers worry, however, about their ability to stop the spread of the virus in any future instance due to a lack of adequate disinfecting supplies provided by the district.
“The district promised they would provide us with CDC approved cleaning supplies and PPE,” says Kristen Record, a high school physics teacher and a vice president for the local union. “Students are now back in our classrooms and we have not been provided with the supplies promised to us.”
Teachers were given one canister of 160 alcohol wipes each and, when they asked for more, were told there were no additional canisters in the building.
Alcohol wipes are not on the CDC’s list of approved disinfectants against COVID-19.
“Teachers are concerned that they may be cleaning a space but not disinfecting it, i.e. not removing coronavirus,” Record says.
“We do not have disinfectants in the classroom that follow CDC guidelines,” Record continues. “We do not have access to soap and water in most of our classrooms. A lot of teachers are concerned about the lack of safety and cleaning supplies that have been provided to us.”
Some teachers were provided with commercial face shields while others received handmade face shields stuck together with painter’s tape.
On Wednesday morning when students arrived there were no hand sanitizer stations at the entryways to the buildings, and the hand sanitizer teachers have been provided is in a pump that students must touch to use.
Stratford Education Association leaders say they started bringing concerns to the superintendent about these issues on Wednesday of last week, and on Friday she told them that the district had received 4,000 canisters of Clorox disinfectant wipes, but teachers have yet to see those in any school.
“We have many teachers who have serious health issues and have to be in the classroom unless they’re taking unpaid leave,” says SEA President Michael Fiorello.
“Right now, it’s in everyone’s best interest to follow the highest standards of safety available, and keep our students and colleagues safe,” says Record.
SEA leaders spoke to Channel 8 and the Connecticut Post yesterday about their concerns and will to continue to advocate to ensure safe schools for students and teachers.