The state’s largest teachers union said an in-person return to school should be delayed until the state can guarantee full compliance with federal and state health and safety guidelines, sufficient funding for COVID-19 expenses, weekly testing for all and a plan B for staff and students who feel safer continuing with remote learning.
The 15-page, six-point reopening plan from the union comes days before school districts are to deliver customized reopening plans of their own that answer a state call that all schools reopen fully in the fall.
“Nothing is more important than keeping our students, our educators and our families safe,” said Connecticut Education Association President Jeff Leake. “We owe our students and educators the measures of safety and security they deserve. We must not fail to provide the necessary protections and risk new increases in COVID-19 infection rates, especially in light of new evidence showing that most school children can spread the virus the same as adults.”
In the absence of meeting the six actions, the CEA wants the opening of school in the fall delayed.
Using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data and public health and safety requirements as their guide, the union wants assurances that state-provided personal protective equipment will be worn; classes, hallways and other school spaces will be disinfected; spacing between students will be six feet apart and school buses will not be filled to capacity.
There is also a call for COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing protocols.
Speaking Tuesday in Windsor, Gov. Ned Lamont said any teacher who wants to get tested can go to a federally qualified health center.
“You can get tested. Symptomatic, asymptomatic, no questions asked, no cost,” Lamont said. “We have said to the teachers ‘we’ve got your back.’ When it comes to masks and protections and disinfecting and all the things we need to open that school safely, we’re going to take care of that.”
The state’s 50-page guide released late last month does not require students to be spaced six feet apart, does not dictate bus capacity and does not require COVID-19 testing or even temperature checks.
Instead, the state urges schools to cohort students into groups that will stick together for most of the school day.
It also gives parents the option of keeping their kids home for district-supplied instruction. District plans are due to the state by Friday.
Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona on Tuesday said his department’s priority has and always will be the health and safety of students, educators and staff.
“After reviewing the plan shared with us by CEA, we unequivocally agree that each and every single decision made concerning the start of the 2020-21 school year must happen with that safety at the forefront,” Cardona said.
The state plan, Cardona added, was developed in close consultation with public health experts and educational stakeholders and includes several safeguards the CEA is demanding.
Leake, however, said the state’s plan raises serious questions about maintaining the safety of everyone during a pandemic that is not fully under control.
The state Department of Education on Tuesday also released a statement from the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and state Association of School Based Health Centers highlighting the critical link between in-person learning and children’s well-being and medical care through school-based health centers.
“Returning to school is vitally important for their social and emotional development and well-being, including the promotion of health and wellness activities that support better student outcomes,” Cardona, said.
Don Williams, executive director of the teacher’s union, said schools can’t reopen safely unless all CDC guidelines are followed. And that includes transportation.
“Particularly social distancing,” Williams said. “We don’t see how it will be an effective way to deal with a pandemic if you cohort during the day time and at beginning and end of the day that changes and a different group is together. That undermines safety precautions.”
The result, he said, is that schools can be a conduit to a resurgence of the virus in Connecticut.
Williams did not suggest the union would tell teachers not to return to school. A large number of teachers have expressed concern on their own about returning to school with the pandemic still a threat.
“It is undeniable that reopening Connecticut schools safely will cost significantly more than in pre-COVID times, and we must ensure that the state provides the funding needed in every school district, especially those in our poorest communities," Leake said.
District reopening plans are to include cost estimates, not just for protective supplies but also additional staff if classes need to be separated into smaller groups.
Leake said students living in high-poverty districts, students with special needs and English learners cannot be made to fall further behind because there is not enough funding.