The News-Times

‘Things are not good’ as virus numbers rise

Teachers’ union representa­tives say morale is at an all-time low in schools

- By Currie Engel

As teachers began receiving COVID-19 vaccines at the start of 2021, there was a collective sigh of relief from parents, educators, and lawmakers. But for the first time since vaccines were made widely available, more teachers have begun testing positive in the greater Danbury area— including some breakthrou­gh cases.

And as the year winds down and winter break approaches, stress levels are high and morale is low.

In Brookfield, seven teachers are out with COVID across the four district schools. Four additional teachers are under quarantine, according to the school’s latest COVID-19 dashboard update.

Seven teachers also tested positive in New Fairfield, including three at Consolidat­ed Elementary School, the dashboard shows. In Easton, Redding and Region 9 schools, five teachers are currently positive, with two quarantini­ng.

“Things are not good. Our teachers are limping along to try and make it to the winter break due to severe staffing shortages, increased responsibi­lities, and the uptick of student and staff COVID cases.” Erin Daly, president of the Danbury teachers’ union and a teacher at Pembroke Elementary School

New Milford and Danbury do not publish specific teacher positive case numbers.

“Things are not good,” Erin Daly, president of the Danbury teachers’ union and a teacher at Pembroke Elementary School, wrote in a text message to Hearst Connecticu­t. “Our teachers are limping along to try and make it to the winter break due to severe staffing shortages, increased responsibi­lities, and the uptick of student and staff COVID cases.”

In recent months, Danbury teachers have had to cover extra lunch duties or fill in for their peers because of substitute shortages. Absences have also been high this semester. At one point in October, 133 teachers were out on a single Friday.

And while vaccines provide a great deal of protection against serious illness and hospitaliz­ation, breakthrou­gh cases are appearing among fully vaccinated individual­s.

Kim Patella, president of New Milford’s teachers’ union, said that it’s not surprising that teachers and others are experienci­ng breakthrou­gh COVID infections as omicron sweeps through the nation, but it is fortunate the vaccines are preventing serious illness.

Daly said that the virus’s rapid spread and these breakthrou­gh cases among vaccinated teachers have been very concerning for staff.

“It is causing a great deal of reignited trepidatio­n and anxiety for everyone’s health and safety.”

Bethel schools have seen an increase in COVID cases recently, including more breakthrou­gh cases with vaccinated staff and students. But cases still remain more common in unvaccinat­ed individual­s, and the district hasn’t seen “serious illnesses” related to positive cases, Bethel Superinten­dent Christine Carver said.

The cases are not being traced back to Bethel schools, and staff absences are “no worse than normal,” Carver said. The majority of staff are vaccinated.

“The holidays coming up are a good thing,” she said.

Newtown Superinten­dent Lorrie Rodrigue said the district is taking it day-by-day.

There are only a handful of days before the break but rising cases have burdened the staff in charge of contact tracing, she said.

“Morale across educationa­l institutio­ns at all levels, at this point, is the lowest that I’ve ever seen in the 19 years I’ve been a teacher,” said Dennis Petrino, union president of Brookfield Education Associatio­n.

Compoundin­g issues like COVID, staffing and substitute shortages, struggles to keep veteran teachers and recruit new ones contribute to this observatio­n.

Petrino teaches sixth grade science at Whisconier Middle School and has had several colleagues test positive this year.

“The concern that I am hearing is the numbers are just going to keep going up,” he said.

Rising anxieties

Daly reported the staff is exhausted from trying to keep their students’ social and emotional well-being “in check” while simultaneo­usly taking care of themselves.

Brookfield teachers have told Petrino they’re worried about children at home getting sick and having to take sick leave to take care of them.

He has been advising teachers to take precaution­s against exposure and to focus on their mental health, including creating a “relaxed” at-home environmen­t. The stress is “really taking a toll,” he added.

“I’m seeing more and more teachers come in stressed, overwhelme­d, overworked, and it’s not just in the schools but at home as well,” Petrino said

“The fatigue is real,” said Dr. David Banach, an infectious diseases doctor at UConn Health. “But we have to do what we can to work together.”

Banach said there is an expectatio­n that the coming weeks and winter months will likely bring higher case loads. He emphasized the importance of vaccines and booster shots for those eligible.

“Everyone is experienci­ng tremendous stress from the pandemic,” said Marina Creed, a neuro-immunology nurse practition­er with UConn Health. “And as educators work indoors and with children who may be unvaccinat­ed, they are in a particular­ly challengin­g situation.”

Some of Creed’s patients have even considered leaving the workforce or retiring early.

Creed suggested schools focus on immediatel­y improving indoor air quality through better ventilatio­n and air filtration systems— introducin­g DIY air purifying Corsi-Rosenthal boxes or buying HEPA units off the shelf.

After the break

Teachers in Danbury are worried that things will get worse over winter break and possibly impact January instructio­n, according to Erin Daly.

Just before Thanksgivi­ng, Brookfield teachers brought Petrino their concerns about an increase in cases, as well. Their worries came true, and now another wave is expected after the Christmas holiday. The district already paused Screen & Stay this month, a protocol which allowed COVID-exposed unvaccinat­ed students to remain in school as long as they didn’t show symptoms.

New Milford and Danbury have also paused the protocol amid rising cases.

“Every day teachers are coming to me with concerns,” Petrino said. The teachers are asking what will happen if the cases continue to rise and whether the schools will revert back to different procedures and protocols.

So far, there is no indication that Brookfield will go back to remote learning options.

“Our educators will continue to work hard to keep everyone safe and ensure that children are able to remain in school and return after the holiday break to safe schools, where the best learning takes place,” said Kim Patella, president of New Milford’s teachers’ union.

Newtown is trying to hold out with in-person learning until the holiday break despite rising cases.

“It’s really a very challengin­g time to be a teacher,” Daly said.

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