The Norwalk Hour
Schools report staffing shortages
Quarantining teachers forcing districts to go remote
NEW HAVEN — One thought runs through Dana Runkle’s mind at the end of every work day: You never know when you might have to work from home.
Runkle, a teacher at Westbrook Middle School, where students had attended school in person since the beginning of the academic year, said her colleagues are aware that a decision could be made at any point that they won’t return to their buildings.
“It does cause you to have to pivot, because there’s several things: Do you have everything you need? What do you have planned for the next two weeks and can that be
switched online? Did the kids remember to take home everything they needed or do they have items at the school? If they have items, how do we get them to them?” she said. “It’s a lot of pivoting and coordination.”
West Haven, for example, closed its high school and one middle school because of staff shortages with too many teachers in quarantine this month. A Norwalk middle school shut its doors for almost two weeks when too many staff were unable to report to the building because they were in quarantine this month.
In Trumbull, with COVID-19 cases soaring in town and across the state, Superintendent of Schools Martin Semmel notified families that all schools will go remote Monday through at least Thanksgiving.
He said the district has been faced with a staff and substitute shortage due to the number of people who have needed to quarantine and some of the shortages were due to staff members having children in other districts that have closed.
“In addition to that, when you include staff absences due to cold and flu season, the staff situation has become extremely challenging,” according to Semmel.
Semmel pointed to Trumbull being considered a “red alert” town as of Thursday with 29 daily cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period.
Frank Costanzo, Norwalk’s chief of school operations, said every time a school in the district has closed it has been because of staff shortages, and not virus spread in schools.
“At this point in time, we manage classroom coverage as we have pre-pandemic. Coverage can come in the form of substitute teachers or other staff in the building. School administrators and their staffs have been incredibly resilient and resourceful since the reopening,” he said.
Schools in the Valley also closed recently, with district leaders closing schools in Ansonia and Seymour. Ansonia Superintendent of Schools Joseph DiBacco said the decision was made after 12 of 32 middle school teachers were unable to report to the building. He said that other school districts have been closing — in some cases where his staff may have children of their own — and it has increased the need for Ansonia teachers to stay home for child care reasons.
Shelton interim Superintendent of Schools Beth
Smith also said inadequate staffing was the reason that district closed its schools to in-person learning until January.
“Today we had 81 staff members out — 37 of them were not filled by substitutes,” she said Tuesday. “When it gets to the point where you have increasing positive cases that affect your ability to safely keep your schools open and adequately staffed you are forced to change your operations model.”
In Milford, Superintendent of Schools Anna Cutaia moved the district to remote learning until Jan. 8, 2021, noting, “This increase in positive COVID-19 cases has primarily had an impact on our schools in the area of human resources.”
“There has been an increased need for staff members to quarantine or isolate as a public health measure to assure the wellbeing of our school community,” Cutaia said. “This has drastically reduced the number of adults available to instruct our students. We simply are running out of available adults to be in our schools.”
Did hybrid help?
School districts operating under the hybrid model — dividing students who attend school in-person into two cohorts that split their time between in-person and remote learning — say they have been better prepared for temporary shutdowns because students and staff are used to doing some learning online.
“Because of the hybrid model we are working with even when staff are out they are, in many cases, able to work virtually,” said Waterbury Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark. “In person classes are covered by an adult to proctor the room while the certified teacher still leads the instruction with all students (in-person and virtual) virtually.”
Brookfield Superintendent John Barile said staff quarantines are a factor in deciding whether to go to distance learning.
“Without the appropriate number of staff in place, we simply cannot maintain a physically safe environment, nor an effective learning environment,” he said in an email.
Three Middletown schools went fully remote, but staff see the prior implementation of an online instruction component as a bright side.
“I think the fact we have been in hybrid learning since September has enormously helped us,” said Geen Thazhampallath, the district’s chief of talent and performance management. “We've recently had some shifting to remote learning for very specific buildings. That specific rather than blanket approach seems to be working for us right now on a case-by-case basis.”
In Stamford, where the district has operated two parallel academy systems this year with a fully remote academy and a hybrid academy, Superintendent of Schools Tamu Lucero said the district has prepared for shortages.
“If we get to the point where it’s just not safe, we would transition for the day,” she said.
Teachers there work on a rotating schedule. If there were no teachers left in the rotation for in-person classes, she said the district would have the infrastructure in place to operate online.
“The mitigation strategies we have put in place (masks, distancing, cleaning and hygiene, ventilation, cohorting, etc.) are working. We are not seeing sustained person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in schools or outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools, despite increasing levels of COVID-19 in the community,” the guidance said.
A coalition of labor unions representing school employees fired back in a statement to that guidance.
“We made our position clear this past summer, before this unprecedented ‘back to school’ season. Districts statewide should implement hybrid or fully remote learning models unless they can demonstrate consistent adherence to minimum standards for full in-person instruction,” the coalition statement said. “Up to this point, far too many local administrators and health departments in communities across Connecticut have failed to live up to this common-sense requirement.”
Peter Yazbak, a spokesman for the state education department, said the state has eased restrictions on teacher certifications so schools more easily can staff vacant classrooms.
In New Haven, where schools have operated entirely online all year — following an failed attempt to reopen buildings on Nov. 9 when cases of COVID-19 began to increase in the city — Superintendent of Schools Iline Tracey said the district recently trained 70 new substitute teachers who will be able to fill in for teacher vacancies. She said teachers teach remotely “unless they are very sick and are not able to carry out their duties.”
“If we reopen the buildings, and there are too many teachers absent from one building, we probably have to close that particular school if there is a lack of substitutes,” she said. “The same scenario also exists if too many teachers in any particular school received (Americans with Disability Act) accommodations.”
In schools that have operated in person, though, officials are finding it difficult to hold on to substitute teachers.
“It has been tough in the state of Connecticut to get subs for several years, not just in my district but in the districts of all my teacher friends across the state, and there’s lots of reasons for that,” said Runkle, the Westbrook teacher. “You add the pandemic and you have an even smaller pool.”
Without enough teachers to fill classrooms, the district decided to move to a remote learning model, in which students log on to instruction via computer for two weeks — a decision that was extended indefinitely Thursday when public health data showed an uptick in local cases.
Runkle said her building hired two substitute teachers to offer permanent coverage for the year, but it becomes an issue at the school if there are more than two teacher absences in one day.
“It’s been very, very difficult to get any of those outside subs to come in,” she said. “There have been times where teachers cover for other teachers, but we do it because it’s what needs to get done.”
Torrington Superintendent of Schools Susan Lubomski said the district is actively engaged in hiring substitute teachers.
“Districts have had to get subs, because staff members are on quarantine,” Lubomski said. “Another factor is new teachers and paras have secured fulltime jobs, so the sub pool is much smaller.”
Melony Brady-Shanley, superintendent of Winchester Public Schools, said the district is having difficulty finding substitutes for both certified and non-certified staff, including nurses.
“Absence reasons vary from your typical sick day or personal day request to needing coverage due to COVID situations,” BradyShanley said. “We are fortunate that we do have a position in all three schools called a ‘building sub.’ This person is on-call daily to fill staffing needs. We have an active posting on our website for substitutes.”
In Newtown, Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue said, “Right now we’re holding our own.”
“Our biggest concern, aside from the uptick in the community is the concern of staffing…and being able to cover those classes,” Rodrigue said.
In Bethel, the middle school moved from fully in-person to the hybrid model this week after two cases the previous week led to too many staff absences.
Fewer students in the building gives the district more flexibility to use staff in different ways, but it’s still a challenge, Superintendent Christine Carver said
“You still have to cover, don’t get me wrong,” she said.
The state education department is aware of the issue.
“There’s not a lot of candidates for subs right now,” Yazbak said.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, teachers legally are entitled to reasonable accommodations if they need one. For many, that might mean teaching remotely, said Gary Phelan, a Stratford attorney who has represented teachers seeking accommodations.
“There’s not a one-sizefits-all answer to fit every situation, as is true of much of navigating the COVID landscape we’re now in,” he said. “The most common accommodation that is being utilized in industries throughout the country is working remotely. Teaching is one of the types of jobs where, due to technological advances, it generally can be done remotely.”
Phelan said that if school districts aren’t prepared to allow workers with health conditions that make them vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 then they should reasonably expect teachers to file claims under the ADA.
“Teachers are expected to deliver instruction remotely if they are in good health and we have had many instances in which a teacher is quarantined and continues to instruct her students who are attending in-person,” said Norwalk’s Costanzo.
Mary Yordon, president of the Norwalk Federation of Teachers, said the district and state are ignoring flaws in the design of inperson instructional models, as well as their own guidance.
“There are few clear standards for remote or in-person instruction, and none about when a school should close or re-open, or what constitutes safe staffing. The one standard we had was that when infections reach above 25 per 100,000, schools would reduce density. Now we are at 50 here in Norwalk — a red zone — and elementary is full in-person instruction,” she said in a statement.
“We wonder if district and state leaders understand that the system which has been so painstakingly designed and tirelessly implemented has gaps,” Yordon said. “It is not a scientific instrument humming along. It breaks down in small ways that risk our health, and the health of our family members.”
Kristen Malloy-Scanlon, president of the West Haven Federation of Teachers, criticized state and district leaders for putting teachers’ health at risk.
“The failure of many district leaders to prepare — and the uneven responses across Connecticut — exposes the limitations of leaving these decisions entirely to superintendents,” she said.
Although teachers will be able to teach while in quarantine remotely, some Connecticut students say they feel the remote education system needs tweaking.
In New Haven, where school has only operated remotely, Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School senior Siommara Hill said the process is “awkward” and the ordinary connection between student and teacher is missing.
“There’s times, a lot of times, where the teacher will say there’s nothing else for the day and there’s an hour left of class,” she said. “We’re trying to have these units all planned out, but we’re not really achieving anything or retaining anything. It’s just sped up.”
Classmate Krista Miller said it’s difficult to get teachers to slow down during an online lecture. Because of the one-sided nature of the lesson, she said she feels discouraged from asking for help.
“There’s a lot of work. A lot of classwork, and then they assign homework I figure it out all by myself. I stay up late because of it,” she said. Hill said she does not want to blame her teachers for the predicament, but she believes there’s a disconnect between what is a reasonable amount of work for students. By not having a teacher in front of the class in person, she said students are expected to do more reading and preparation.
Carver, superintendent of Bethel schools, said moving between instructional models likely is easier for teachers than for students and families. She said the decision to move to remote learning has the potential could have a negative impact on familial employment.
“The decisions that we make could affect their employment,” she said. “One in three kids in this community lives in poverty, so it’s something that is certainly a decision-making tool. It’s not the primary factor, but it’s a factor.”
As of Thursday, the state’s daily positivity rate for COVID-19 was 4.8 percent, or 32 cases for every 100,000 residents.