Teachers demand safer, healthier schools
Danbury-area educators wear black to urge ways to prevent COVID-19 spread, allow temporary remote learning
DANBURY — Facing staff absences and rising COVID-19 cases, teachers in the Danbury area joined others across the state on Wednesday to demand safer and healthier schools.
Educators wore black to call for improved mitigation strategies to prevent the spread of COVID and for districts to be given the flexibility to offer temporary remote learning.
“Let’s be honest, wearing black is really not going to change anything,” said Erin Daly, a
third-grade teacher at Pembroke Elementary School and the head of NEA Danbury, the teachers’ union. “It’s really to send a message to our governor and to let the public know these are the things we need to make our schools safe and make the school community safer, and continue to function and keep schools open.”
A coalition unions representing more than 60,000 Connecticut public school employees organized the #Blackout4SafeSchools demonstration. Teachers in school local districts like Newtown and Brookfield participated, while others, such as New Fairfield, did not.
The demonstration came the day after the Connecticut Education Association, the largest union representing teachers in Danbury and across the state, released a survey indicating educators are concerned about school health and safety.
To keep students and staff safe, the Connecticut Education Association has developed a nine-point plan that includes access to COVID testing, requiring N95 masks, prohibiting the combining of classes due to staff shortages and other mitigation measures.
For Danbury, a continued supply of N95 masks and the option to move to remote learning when needed are the most important, Daly said.
The governor has argued inperson learning is better for students academically and socially, declining to budge on state legislation that prevents remote learning days from counting as part of the required 180 school days.
This has been a particular problem for Danbury, where the schools closed two days in a row last week because there weren’t enough staff to keep the buildings open.
“We had so many teachers out sick and so many kids out sick,” said Tom Ross, an English teacher at Danbury High School and vice president of the union.
The teachers don’t want to be on remote learning for an extended period, but they want schools to have the option in cases like last Thursday and Friday, when Danbury was forced to close due to staff shortages.
“When you compare remote learning to no learning, the choice is pretty clear,” Daly said. “Remote learning is better than having a closed school.”
Newtown High School teacher Trent Harrison said remote learning should be used on a limited basis to “calm things down, but it’s not a long-term solution.”
“The children last year tried their best and the faculty tried their best, but it doesn’t replace that in class, hands-on learning,” added Harrison, head of the Newtown teachers’ union. “And unfortunately, there are too many distractions at home.”
New Fairfield Superintendent Pat Cosentino said she wants to keep students in school, but would appreciate if districts were permitted perhaps three remote days for staffing issues or COVID surges.
“I wouldn’t give carte blanche to whenever because I think it’s really important to have kids in school for their social-emotional well being and their academic well being,” she said.
In Brookfield, teachers wore black to show solidarity for their colleagues across the state, Superintendent John Barile said.
New Fairfield teachers didn’t participate. Cosentino said the union president told her they appreciated how administrators have communicated with them.
Daly said she saw “99 percent” of staff members — from teachers, to nurses, to paraprofessionals, to secretaries, to tutors — wearing black.
Daly said administrators have listened to teachers’ concerns and worked collaboratively with them on most issues. Educators with COVID symptoms and exposures received test kits last week, with other kits available in the schools.
While teachers received one N95 mask each, they were promised four more, and it’s unclear who has the additional masks and when they’ll be distributed, Daly said.
Although Newtown teachers have access to test kits and N95 masks, they’re worried about colleagues in the state who may not, Harrison said.
He said he’d like to see weekly COVID testing of students and staff because many teachers are worried they may bring the virus home to their families but not have symptoms. Harrison said he often visits his 81-year-old mom and 84-yearold aunt.
“I have to worry about ‘Did I pick something up and take it to them?’” Harrison said.
Challenges in schools
School closures and delays in Danbury took students out of their routines, so teachers couldn’t “jump right in and start teaching our regular content,” Daly said.
“All teachers had to pause at the beginning of the week just to check in with their kids,” she said.
Both students and staff are struggling due to the disruption and the surge, Ross said.
“We all try to keep plugging away and stay up beat with our kids and keep the expectations high, and at the same time, make sure they’re doing all right emotionally because this is affecting them,” he said.
In New Milford, absences have been felt perhaps most strongly among bus drivers throughout the year. All-Star Transportation is “experiencing staffing shortages and daily call outs,” Superintendent Alisha DiCorpo said in a Wednesday message to families.
This has led to last-minute bus cancellations. On Tuesday, the school district didn’t have time to notify parents that an afternoon bus wouldn’t run, she said.
In Danbury, staff have been pulled into different roles, although absences have declined this week, Daly said. There 296 staff members who were absent Jan. 3, and 322 employees were out Jan. 4, the superintendent has said.
“Pretty much there has been at least one person on every grade level in my building that has had COVID in the past two weeks,” Daly said.
Classroom teachers must “pick up the slack for those who are out sick” by making sure their lesson plans and classrooms are ready for whoever is filling in, she said.
Other employees filling in for classroom teachers cannot complete their regular duties, she said. Nor are they prepared to be classroom teachers.
“You can’t really put out quality instruction when you’re covering a class you’re not supposed to be covering,” Daly said.
Some classes have needed to be combined and meet in the gymnasium or media center, preventing those spaces from being used as intended, she said.
Bethel hasn’t been affected as severely by staff absences as Danbury, but saw a large increase in students and employees test positive for COVID-19 after the holiday break, Superintendent Christine Carver said. Student absences declined this week compared to last week, she said.
Employees have been able to fill in for their absent colleagues, Carver said. She said districts should only be permitted to consider remote learning if they can’t safely staff their building.
But she’d do everything she could to prevent Bethel from getting to that point.
“I would go in and teach,” Carver said. “I told my principals that if they need me because I’m that passionate. We know the effects that remote learning has had on kids, both academically and social emotionally. We can’t go back to that place.”