School employees to wear black in call for better COVID-19 resources
Education unions are staging a “blackout” Wednesday, with member teachers, paraeducators, bus drivers, custodians, nurses and others planning to wear black to work in a call for enhanced COVID-19 safety measures in schools.
One main issue is the shortage of teachers due to a spike in coronavirus cases. Gov. Ned Lamont's office announced Tuesday night that he had issued an executive order allowing for greater flexibility to address the shortage "by relaxing certain statutory limits on the availability of retired teachers."
The state's largest teachers union, the Connecticut Education Association, supported the blackout in a news release.
“Since coming back from the holiday break to the rampant spikes in COVID throughout our schools CEA leaders have been speaking out about your concerns,” the association said. “There has been a failure to distribute the promised N95 masks and home test kits, extensive staff shortages, and the need for flexibility in allowing for short-term remote learning. We have been calling for the implementation of nine new, core principles that will help keep our schools open and safe.”
Among these nine principles are calls for aggressive coronavirus testing for students and teachers, prohibiting the combining of classes due to staff shortages and providing access to COVID vaccination at all schools, among other measures.
The movement for these improvements stems from “double-digit infection rates, rises in pediatric cases, backlogs at testing facilities and shortages of testing kits,” according to the CEA.
CEA President Kate Dias said Tuesday that she anticipates about 70% of members participating in the blackout.
“We want school to open, and in order for us to do that we need those resources we’ve been promised, those masks, those test kits, readily available and on-hand, distributed from the state,” Dias said. “That promise hasn’t been kept across the state. There are places where things have gone exceptionally well ... but that type of success hasn’t been there across the board. That access needs to be universal.”
Beyond drawing attention to that lack of resources, Dias said the blackout “is also designed to celebrate the work that’s being done. We need to support these educators.”
She said the association has been talking about limited access to remote instruction when it’s appropriate.
“We think it’s really misguided to completely shut off access to remote instruction, not that we want to be back,” Dias said. “I want to be super clear about this. No one wants us back out on remote for weeks at a time. There’s no interest in that on any landscape. But what we are thinking is, we spent a lot of time developing skills to allow us to do a day here and a day there of remote instruction. To not have access to that as a resource and a tactic because the state won’t recognize those days to count toward the mandatory 180 is problematic.”
William Priest, president of the Norwich Teachers League, echoed the CEA's concerns. "We've received N95 masks, but we need more masks. That is one of the biggest concerns, that, access to testing, and there are a lot of teachers out right now with symptoms," Priest said. "Governor Lamont's unwillingness to consider having remote learning ... if all the staff members are sick, how do you staff a school?"
Under Lamont's executive order that is meant to address a shortage of teachers, school boards and districts have greater leeway in employing or continuing to employ retired teachers and can exceed the limit of such positions — normally capped at two years under state law.
"This executive order is a critical step to providing much-needed resources to ensure we keep students in the classroom and provide them with an in-person education," Lamont said in a news release. "We are fortunate to have retired teachers available to provide some relief for their colleagues who continue to do great work for school children across our state."
'It's where people are'
Asked whether the location of Wednesday’s blackout — in school — was intentionally provocative, Dias said the venue was more a matter of practicality.
“It’s where people are. It isn’t intended to be an affront as much as it is that’s where we are,” she said. “And that’s where our people live and work and spend their energy, time and attention. It makes sense for us to take a small moment to acknowledge the hard work of our educators, their commitment to our schools, and to acknowledge we can do more to support these school districts.”
Waterford teacher Mike Bono, who is also a Representative Town Meeting member, said Tuesday that teachers “want to see a testing protocol for students and staff similar to what happens at colleges.”
“I really feel for the elementary teachers since the 5-12 age population is slower to be vaccinated than the high school population,” he said. He noted it's also difficult for pre-K and kindergarten teachers, because 3- to 5-year-olds "need such assistance in classrooms, which makes it hard for social distancing."
"But I am very proud of our Waterford Federation of Classroom Teacher members," he added, "they treat every child like they were their own.”
Stonington Education Association President Michael Freeman wrote in an email Tuesday that all SEA members have been asked to wear black Wednesday to show support for CEA initiatives, and he hopes “the vast majority of my members will do so.”
“I think Stonington Public Schools has done what they can with the limited resources that the state has provided. The number of masks/home tests has been limited by the state’s underwhelming performance in these areas. The focus of our frustration is not with the leadership of Stonington Public Schools," he wrote. Members are frustrated with "the leadership or lack thereof" of Gov. Ned Lamont and the state departments of Education and Public Health, who "appear tone-deaf to the needs of individual districts and are politically set on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” he wrote.
Ted Allen, co-president of the Ledyard Education Association, said Tuesday that he and other Ledyard teachers are planning to participate in the blackout. He said the CEA is trying to get the idea across that teachers are struggling and officials at the state Department of Education don't seem to care.
According to Allen, he and other teachers are getting the impression that the state is more concerned with avoiding a shift to virtual learning than about people’s health.
“’We’re going to have COVID, just keep doing what we’re doing,’” Allen said the prevailing attitude from the state is right now. “‘Half your kids are out sick? That’s OK, catch them up when they get here.’ This is what the teachers locally are most talking about, this complete head-in-the-sand approach we seem to be having right now.”