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Conn. Educators Say COVID-19 Safety Measures, Pandemic Stress Are Top Concerns This Fall

Kate Dias (right), president of the Connecticut Education Association, shares findings from the union's annual back-to-school survey on Fri., Sept. 10, 2021, at Manchester High School.
Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public Radio
Kate Dias (right), president of the Connecticut Education Association, shares findings from the union's annual back-to-school survey on Fri., Sept. 10, 2021, at Manchester High School.

Unionized public school educators reported feeling stressed and concerned about COVID-19 safety measures going into the new school year, according to survey results released Friday.

The back-to-school survey revealed that adequate ventilation and air quality systems in buildings was a top priority among educators this fall, along with quarantine policies, social distancing measures and testing protocols.

“They were excited to be going back, and apprehensive in terms of safety and security,” said Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association. “And said, ‘We’re really, really, really concerned that our buildings are old and not updated in this particular capacity.’”

Nearly 1,000 of the association’s members participated in the survey last month. GBAO Strategies, a third-party research and consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., distributed the survey and collected results.

Dias, a former math teacher and educator of 21 years at Manchester High School, said that while a majority of survey respondents had a strong concern over ventilation systems, “only 27% said that it was being actively addressed.”

Donald Williams, CEA executive director, said the $1.1 billion the state received in COVID-19 federal relief funds was in part meant for fixing infrastructure issues that affected students and staff.

“That’s spot on in terms of upgrading the air quality systems and providing air conditioning where it doesn’t exist to enhance the safety and academic performance of students in our schools, and the health and safety of all the adults who work there,” he said.

Testing protocols and implementation have varied across schools and districts, a problem identified by both education and public health leaders, even as more transmissible strains of the coronavirus continue to spread and a portion of community members remain unvaccinated.

About 89% of survey participants reported that they had been immunized, but they only represent a small snapshot of Connecticut’s education workforce.

Surveyed educators emphasized the importance of regular testing for unvaccinated staff – as is required by Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order mandating COVID-19 vaccination or an opt-out weekly testing option beginning Sept. 27.

Just over half of educators believed that the testing measure will be implemented in their schools, according to the survey.

Elevated levels of stress among educators have been an ongoing concern since early on in the pandemic when schools shut down and teachers transitioned to remote or hybrid learning models.

Dias said it was no surprise last year when teachers averaged an 8.7 on a 10-point scale for measuring stress. What’s disappointing, Dias said, is to see those elevated levels remain high going into this new school year.

“The concern that that brings about is whether or not we can sustain working under that sense of stress for extended periods of time, a whole other year,” she said.

Union leaders said stressors from the pandemic and the “unrealistic demands being put on teachers” could lead more educators to retire or leave the profession earlier than planned, resulting in staffing shortages.

“This is not necessarily a new problem, it’s just being exacerbated by the pandemic,” Dias said. “And what we’re concerned about is if we don’t take action now…we’re really going to be in a dire circumstance.”

Statewide masking mandates for teachers and students, as well as vaccination requirements for staff, will expire Sept. 30 along with the governor’s emergency pandemic powers, unless the Connecticut legislature approves an extension or codifies the policies in law.

The legislature is expected to meet later this month.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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