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As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Staff Say Connecticut Schools At Risk

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
A file photo features a sign displayed at a union protest in Hartford aimed at amplifying the voices of educators and support personnel concerned about their safety in the classroom.

Kristen Record, a physics teacher at Bunnell High School in Stratford, says a lot of her students are bailing on school.

“I sometimes will go through an entire day, and I will only see five students in person,” Record said. “All of my other students have chosen to be on distance learning because they think it’s safer for them to be at home.”

Stratford is a red-alert COVID-19 hot spot, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Hamden is too.

“For the second time in a week, our high school had to be closed because we didn’t have enough staff members, and we also had to close our middle school one day because of staffing issues,” said Diane Marinaro, president of the Hamden Education Association. “I see this as a continuing trend -- it’s no one’s fault; it’s just the reality of the situation.”

Although COVID-19 infections are on the rise in Connecticut schools, state officials say it still makes sense to keep them open.

But now, some teachers are speaking out. While some districts have gone fully remote, teachers in other districts wonder how bad it has to get in order for theirs to follow.

Joslyn DeLancey, a fifth-grade teacher at Darien’s Tokeneke Elementary School, said that classes haven’t looked like they normally would in her district since teachers exposed to the virus can’t come in to work.

“You still need teachers to cover those classes, so what’s happening now is they’re combining groups -- keeping them distant, but maybe using the library, for example, and having three different groups of classes in one space,” DeLancey said. “And then, you’ve got teachers Zooming in to talk to students and teach them, but they’re being covered by a teacher or a [paraprofessional] or in some cases, an administrator because we have so many people out.”

As the school year progresses, more educators are catching COVID-19. There were 328 new cases in the last update from the state on Nov. 11, compared with 237 the week before. The student figures are even more remarkable: There were 427 cases in the first six weeks of the academic year, but since then the number has quadrupled. The case rise forced school districts in Ansonia and Shelton to hit pause on in-person learning until January.

In Marinaro’s Hamden district, teachers and students just got a reprieve. The school board voted Saturday night to send students into remote learning until Jan. 19.

There isn’t much concern at the state level about COVID-19 being spread at school.

State education commissioner Miguel Cardona said the cases trace back to events outside the classroom and that to keep kids in school -- where he said they want to be -- state residents have a role to play.

“Part of the reason why we’re asking folks to limit your gatherings is so that we can maintain our schools -- so that we can keep our schools open -- because we know the negative impact it has when we were fully remote for such an extended period of time,” Cardona said.

Gov. Ned Lamont agrees. Still, he knows that the ability to staff schools is a bigger concern for state officials than the infection rate.

“Especially pre-K-5, we’re finding [a] very low infection rate -- much more than the general population -- and if you’re in that classroom with your mask on, it’s probably one of the safer places you could be,” Lamont said.

He says the state is taking a couple of steps to address potential staffing crunches. The first is rolling out rapid test kits, and the second is making so-called “apprentice teachers” from local teacher colleges available to districts to sub for quarantining teachers.

Still, teachers are wary. DeLancey, who is also president of the Darien Education Association, wants to know when there’ll be a greater emphasis on person-to-person spread in school buildings.

“The minute somebody walks into school with COVID, everyone is at risk,” DeLancey said.

DeLancey and the other teachers belong to a union that’s calling out the state for focusing on the community spread outside local schools. And while they all agree that there’s nothing like in-person learning, they also recognize the need for a safer alternative.

Alan Addley, the superintendent of Darien, said the district just moved to a hybrid model for all levels above fifth grade. DeLancey’s school could follow suit, he said, if cases in the town rise above a threshold of 25 per 100,000 people. But if a shortage of available teaching bodies continues, he may not have any other choice but to call for remote learning.

“We’ll go on as far as we can go on until it doesn’t come as such a major disruption,” Addley said.

Record, a 2011 Connecticut teacher of the year, said she’s a big fan of plans. The Stratford educator would like her district to wait until Thanksgiving to move to a remote learning model.

“You’re already set up in a situation where you could have dozens and dozens and dozens of people that need to quarantine the week after Thanksgiving, and so you’re going to force everybody to go remote anyway,” Record said. “I’d rather plan to do something like that -- and then, maybe choose to make a different decision, then all of a sudden have a crisis and have to move in that direction.”

These teachers fear that with Thanksgiving on the horizon -- and what comes with it, like holiday travel and college students re-populating home communities -- schools could be COVID-19 breeding grounds in the weeks that follow.

This post has been updated to reflect a recent development in Hamden transitioning the school district into remote learning from Nov. 23 to Jan. 19.

Frankie Graziano is the host of The Wheelhouse, focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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