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Teachers demand safe reopening of schools

Teachers across the state formed car caravans and rallies Thursday to protest for safer school reopening plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Locally, educators in East Lyme, Norwich, Ledyard and Stonington held their own car rallies, voicing concerns about going back to school in about a month's time.

Organized through local teacher unions through the Connecticut Education Association, the largest such union in the state, and the Connecticut American Federation of Teachers, educators were urged to make their demands heard both in their communities and in the capital before the governor's mansion.

In East Lyme, more than two dozen teachers lined up their cars to drive from East Lyme High School to the Niantic Center School, while in Norwich, another more than two dozen vehicles, some decorated with balloons and signs with messages such as “A corpse Cannot Learn,” and “Teachers, not Lab Rats,” drove from Norwich Free Academy through parts of Norwichtown and downtown.

Participants, who also expressed their concerns to The Day on Thursday, mainly argued the state is not yet ready for full in-person education this fall, especially without a promise of state funding to adequately protect students and staff.

“I think it’s not safe for any of us to come back,” NFA teacher Debra Kendall said. “It’s not safe for the students. One life is too many.”

Scott Mahon, East Lyme teachers' union president and high school teacher, led the East Lyme caravan. “I want to come back fully in person. That’s what everybody really wants. We know that is good for children. But the problem is, it’s a domino effect, if we cannot meet one of the parameters, we can’t come back fully,” he said.

Mahon worries in-person learning could spark a resurgence of the coronavirus. Besides safety concerns for students, he said, “We have teachers who are vulnerable. And many teachers in our district have written to me and called me very concerned.”

Thursday's events came after the CEA published on July 21 a list of demands in a "Safe Learning Plan" and this week posted results from a survey it had conducted this month. Most of the nearly 16,000 teachers surveyed in the state were apprehensive about returning in the fall, with 74% stating they opposed Gov. Ned Lamont's five-day-a-week, in-person opening plan unless the necessary protections are in place.

"The majority of our teachers do believe that in-person learning is feasible," CEA Executive Director Donald Williams Jr. said by phone Wednesday. "But only if the precautions that are recommended by public health experts are followed, otherwise teachers are very concerned that schools could help spread the virus."

In its 15-page "Safe Learning Plan," the CEA specifically calls on the state to, among other things, allow schools to use hybrid in-person and distance learning plans instead of fully in-person classes, guarantee funding for COVID-19-related expenses for districts and "Understand that moving the economy forward is dependent on the safety of schools, not on the mere reopening of schools."

"Reopening schools safely will cost significantly more than in pre-COVID times," NFA union President Allison Kane said in a news release. "Without additional funding, our schools cannot implement the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) safety protocols necessary to ensure safe teaching and learning environments."

The governor and state Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona encouraged districts to strive to return to full in-person learning come fall, arguing COVID-19 transmission rates in the state are low and in-person classes are most conducive for learning. Districts were directed to submit plans to the state on how they would fully reopen, as well as plans for conducting hybrid and distance learning and how they could pivot among the three models if transmission rates increase.

Lamont and Cardona surprised districts Monday by announcing that districts will be allowed to decide for themselves how to return to school this fall, whether in person or through a hybrid learning model.

During his daily news conference Thursday, Lamont said he has met with teachers and heard their message that “you’re going too fast, wait a couple months.” He said he could not promise 100% safety in any situation, but pointed out that nurses are able to safely work in intensive care units with COVID-19 patients with proper protection. He pledged to provide schools with the supplies they need.

“We’re going to have to work together on this,” he said, “and I think we’re going to get it done.”

Lamont also acknowledged Thursday that if the state maintains its very low infection rate, school districts will be expected to return to at least partial in-person learning. Any district that still wishes to continue full remote learning would have to apply to the state Department of Education for a waiver to do so.

When pressed by reporters, Lamont said a district wishing to continue remote learning would have to “make a strong case” to Cardona. The commissioner then would work with the superintendent on a decision.

“That’s a duck,” Lamont admitted, when asked whether the state would order a reluctant district to have in-person classes, adding the state probably could not “force” it.

“I have not done anything by strict edict,” he said. “If a kid has a chance to be in a classroom, I want that kid to be in a classroom.”

Though most of the region's school districts said Tuesday they had not yet made a final decision on how to reopen, Groton Public Schools and NFA said they already were planning to begin the school year with their own hybrid in-person and distance learning models. NFA made its decision at a board meeting Tuesday, while Groton's school board is scheduled to vote on the matter this coming Monday.

Despite the added flexibility, several teachers on Thursday still questioned the true preparedness of their districts and the state to fully return to school, while some said the governor was pushing for a full return without hearing what teachers themselves have to say about it.

Many said they worry about older teachers and their risk of exposure, while others worry about day-to-day issues, such as how students could safely have snack time in the classroom without putting one another at risk for contamination.

East Lyme fifth- and sixth-grade special education teacher Lisa Burns said she was particularly worried about how classrooms will be reconfigured to allow for safe social distancing and wondered how it would be possible to maintain the 6 feet required between students, especially younger ones.

“I would give East Lyme credit in the sense that they did include dozens and dozens of teachers in our reopening planning committees, but there is so much to figure out that getting into the nitty gritty of figuring it out, there hasn’t been enough time for that,” said Kathleen Kuvalanka, an East Lyme social studies teacher.

Joanne Philbrick, mother of NFA teacher Gretchen Philbrick, criticized Lamont for proposing that schools reopen before announcing districts would have leeway in making the decision. “I find it insulting. You can’t even go into City Hall. There’s an armed guard there, but they want schools to go back?”

As a preschool teacher, Amy Lamothe said she anticipates most of her school day would be spent teaching and reminding the students how to remain socially distant and to wear masks.

Glenn and Jessie Frease, both teachers at Veterans’ Memorial School in Norwich, painted “Fund Safe Schools” on their car. Their children, Evan, 8 and Valerie, 6, students at the Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet School in Norwich, joined them on the vehicle parade.

“We just want to be safe,” Jessie Frease said. “This is a district that’s already underfunded.” She said “at the very least” Norwich should use the hybrid return model, with no more than half the student population attending in person per day.

Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said earlier Tuesday that the district hasn't decided how to reopen city schools. With older buildings with some small classrooms, social distancing would be difficult. An early July survey showed about 30% of parents wanted to continue remote learning. But more recently, only 3% to 4% of parents signed up for remote learning.

“Given the size of our classrooms, the class sizes in Norwich, the support staff available if only 3% of students are electing remote learning, I fear we will not be able to fully reopen within the state guidance and without significant additional funding,” Stringfellow said.

East Lyme Superintendent Jeffrey Newton was not immediately available to comment Thursday.

m.biekert@theday.com

c.bessette@theday.com

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