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Governor orders schools to reopen in the fall. Teachers are concerned.

School buses are parked in Hartford on Thursday, June 25. (Yehyun Kim, CTMirror.org)

Connecticut schools will reopen for a five-day school week in the fall – as long as the coronavirus behaves, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday.

“I wanted to make sure we had a class day and a class week that was something that employers can bank upon for their employees, so they knew what the schedule would be,” the Democratic governor said during his daily press briefing.

The reopening plan is contingent on COVID-19 infection rates remaining stable, the governor said.

The safety protocols announced Thursday require students to wear face masks at all times in school and on the bus, the only exceptions being for lunch or if there is a medical reason that prevents wearing one. Faculty will also be required to wear masks at all times except when they are providing instruction from at least a six foot distance. Lunch will be eaten in the classroom or outside — not the cafeteria — but the state issued no guidance Thursday about physical education class and other group activities.

While the state is recommending schools place classroom desks six feet apart, with students facing away from one another, and said students in each class should be shielded as much as possible from interacting with others at school, it is not requiring school districts to reduce class sizes, which would likely result in a need to hire more teachers. It was unclear Thursday whether schools will be able to implement the social distancing protocols without reducing class sizes.

The state also said districts should offer students the opportunity to participate in class remotely if their families do not feel safe sending them to school. And while local districts will not be required to reduce the number of students allowed on each school bus, more comprehensive cleaning protocols will be employed both at schools and on  buses.

Periodic testing of students and staff for the virus is not part of the state’s reopening plan. State officials said they may reduce bus capacity and enforce social distancing if it’s determined there is a moderate spread of the virus.

With this announcement, the governor said his administration now plans to survey districts to see much these safeguards will cost – and determine how much funding the state can provide to cover the additional expense.

“Let’s see what the budgets come back with. You know, we don’t have an infinite amount of money, but we’re there to be supportive and do what we can to help,” he said.

Some teachers are feeling anxious about the plan.

Lisa Cardova, a kindergarten teacher at Glastonbury-East Hartford Elementary Magnet School, is the primary caregiver of her 79-year old mother and is nervous about picking up the virus at school and spreading it.

“I would like her to make it to 80 years old,” she said. “We’re going back so quickly because of the economy, but is it what is safe?”

The administration insists it is safe, pointing to the daily metrics that show the spread of the virus is significantly down, but the plans for school reopening will be adjusted if that starts to change.

“Flexibility will be the only constant,” read a bullet point in the presentation the governor’s education chief shared with reporters Thursday.

But instead of waiting to see if it comes back, Cardova and other teachers would prefer more aggressive safety protocols that include a mandatory reduction of class sizes and regular testing of students.

“I am concerned about the safety protocols,” said Donald Williams Jr., the executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “I have serious doubts. … Certainly the idea of running school buses at capacity and having 25 students or more in a classroom raises significant concerns.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Guidance principles to keep in mind” on school reopening states that normal class sizes present the “highest risk” of spreading the virus while online instruction is the “lowest risk.”

“The more people a student or staff member interacts with, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread,” the federal infection control agency wrote May 19.

Tiffany Moyer Washington, an 8th grade teacher at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy, wonders what’s guiding the state’s call to keep class sizes intact.

“I wonder if that’s an economic decision and not a health a safety decision,” said Moyer Washington, who typically has about 25 students in her classes. “I am just worried we are rushing in this.”

She said her classroom isn’t large enough to space desks six feet apart.

Tiffany Moyer-Washington, left, and her son, Jeremiah, 16, pose for a portrait on Thursday, June 25. “I feel like this is not taking into account health risk factors,” she said after learning the governor’s announcement that schools will reopen a full-time in-person class in the fall. “Connecticut has been doing great. So does that mean ok, we’re clear, let’s go forward?” Moyer-Washington said she’s worried about close interactions between students and sharing learning materials. (Yehyun Kim, CTMirror.org)

“It’s physically impossible,” said Moyer Washington, who cares for her 76-year old mother-in-law. “As a parent, I don’t know how comfortable I feel sending my kid into a school where they are going to be exposed. … And then they come home and expose my mother-in-law.”

Reducing class sizes and the number of students on buses would be a significant added expense for districts.

On May 20, the day the state began reopening businesses, the superintendent of Litchfield Public Schools wrote parents to tell them that implementing six feet of social distancing in schools would be incredibly difficult, and virtually impossible on school buses.

“This increase is not possible based on considerations inclusive of the availability of new equipment, additional drivers, and additional costs,” Chris Leone said of increasing the number of school buses in operation to implement social distancing.

The teacher from Glastonbury said she suspects without any mandate from the state that districts reduce class sizes and the number of students on buses, those districts without the financial resources will not do either, while wealthier districts will.

“How is that OK that some districts will be able to space out students and others won’t,” she said.

A survey of 3,000 Connecticut public school teachers taken in late May by the teachers’ union found 43% of teachers are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and almost two-thirds report their schools are not equipped to provide for frequent and sufficient hand washing for students and staff to reduce the spread of the virus.

Asked whether the state has a plan for teachers who do not feel comfortable returning to school, the state’s education commissioner said he hopes districts will work with them.

“Accommodations where possible are going to be made for staff members that identify that that’s an issue. But we also know many you know the safeguards that are going to be put in place are intended to keep everyone safe. I think, you know, we want to build the confidence of what we have,” said Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona. “We want those teachers to be a part of the process, in addition to the other stakeholders, to make sure that … they feel comfortable with it, but ultimately you know we’ve heard from many other teachers who said they want to go back to school and they feel they’re ready to go back.”

8 comments

John ONeill June 28, 2020 at 9:45 am

It sounds like last year’s Norwalk Senior class was ahead of the curve. Their 25% chronic absenteeism rate may be a model the school systems across the state may want to emulate this fall!! I still have a hard time believing 25% of Senior class failed to show up, but still received their diplomas. They must be naturally talented young people.

Norwalk parent June 28, 2020 at 11:23 am

No more paying teachers to sit home and teach. Any teacher who refuses to go back, doesn’t get paid. Simple. Unless they have a medical note from a doctor.
Schools need to be opened, and teachers should report. Period.
Every suburban district around Norwalk has summer schools and summer camps going on. Norwalk needs to do the same.
This should not be a political thing, but it is turning out to be. Our leafy Republican neighbors are all running camps right now. While Duff and Rilling are still fear-mongering with the masks and cancelling everything.
In two or three years we are going to look back at this overreaction to the virus and say “wow, we acted like the end of civilization was coming.”

Barbara Meyer-Mitchell June 28, 2020 at 1:05 pm

I am surprised that testing isn’t part of our strategy. If only we had a federal government that believed in science, then they could use the defense production act to manufacture tests at or close to cost and utilize testing to ensure we can contain the virus. With testing, tracing and PPE, we could reopen with less anxiety for teachers and families. But that is not something the BOE, Commissioner or even our governor could lead – it needs to come from the federal level.

Norwalk Teacher June 28, 2020 at 2:47 pm

In response to the Norwalk Parent comment about paying teachers to sit at home and teach…believe me when I tell you that the majority of teachers spent many hours beyond our typical work week planning engaging lessons that usually included live video lessons. Not to mention the hours spent contacting parents and participating in professional development activities and staff meetings. As a special educator I was asked to complete additional work that sometimes meant I was in front of my computer for 10 plus hours a day Norwalk schools will be having in person summer programs and I will be one of those teachers basically risking my own welfare to teach a small group of special education students. I am looking forward to teaching students in person and am expecting the safety measures promised by the district will be adhered to. Going back to
School in the September is a different story, crowded classrooms, cafeterias and hallways. Of course teachers want to get back into our classrooms but we need to be smart about protecting our health and the health of our students

Al Bore June 28, 2020 at 2:59 pm

I agree they should open the schools full time, the teachers had last year off except for a couple of horn blowing parades. Let’s get back to school so our children’s educations don’t suffer yet another year and we don’t continue to pay our teachers to do little to nothing.

Deborah June 28, 2020 at 4:19 pm

As a parent I don’t feel comfortable sending my child back to school. Coronavirus is killing people. The government, including Trump have called this a war. Are our children now the soldiers to fight this virus?
This honestly makes no sense.
Maybe alternate days they attend or shorten the school week. But honestly have monthhs of distance learning and it going so well for my middle school child why even bother going back into the physical building?

Norwalk parent June 29, 2020 at 9:51 pm

Knowing Norwalk, we will remain closed while our suburban neighbors will be open and continue to thrive both academically and athletically.

John ONeill June 29, 2020 at 11:46 pm

@MsMeyerMitchell – I’m not sure if you have all your facts straight. Let’s take testing. Per our Governor, we were supposed to be up to 100k tests per week now. Based on anecdotal evidence we are testing 40k per week, maybe? It would not shock me if people in certain cities were paid to take the test daily to up the numbers. We should have plenty of capacity to test teachers and students..So we shouldn’t have to blame the feds for not achieving this goal. As far as costs? The logical thing would be to postpone raises for state unions. $353 million should pay for plenty of tests. Considering CT has 20% unemployment, that shouldn’t be too much to ask. I would imagine our well compensated unions would jump at the chance to make education safe in September for our children. After all, don’t unions claim to protect the little guy? It’s a little irritating to hear mistruths and slanted nuance from politicians from both parties. While I appreciate your comments, I wish they were more balanced

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