WALLINGFORD — About a dozen educators and school staff members held signs outside Moran Middle School Wednesday morning as part of a statewide campaign calling for more testing, protective equipment and the potential for remote learning as needed amid the surge in COVID-19 cases.
Several of the employees wore black — the color chosen for the campaign. The signs they held bore a simple message: “KEEP COVID OUT AND STUDENTS IN.”
The small demonstration was part of a larger statewide #Blackout4SafeSchools campaign led by the statewide Board of Education Union Coalition, which has more than 60,000 school district employees across the state. The employees include educators, classroom aides, school maintenance, transportation and other staff.
The campaign came on a day in which state officials reported Connecticut’s COVID-19 test positivity rate was 21.24%. That rate was a few points lower than the nearly 24.55% rate reported on Jan. 7.
In neighboring Meriden, the city’s test positivity rate had reached 27% for the period from Dec. 19 to Jan. 1, according to health officials’ Jan. 7 report. During the two-week period, the city had a reported 1,832 new COVID-19 cases.
Wallingford, meanwhile, saw 1,013 new COVID-19 cases reported during that same two-week span, according to the town’s Jan. 6 update. Solidarity with statewide colleagues
Anne Varrone-Lederle, president of the Wallingford Education Association, led the gathering at Moran Wednesday morning. Varrone-Lederle said the goal was not to disrupt the school day, but to stand in solidarity with colleagues statewide.
“We want to be in school with our students,” Varrone-Lederle said.
She described interactions with the Wallingford Health Department and district officials to address concerns with the pandemic as positive overall. She described Wallingford school buildings as safe.
“We have our masks. We have our tests. We have our PPE [personal protective equipment],” Varrone-Lederle said.
Wallingford School Superintendent Danielle Bellizzi, in an email to the Record-Journal, described a collaborative effort to maintain in-person learning that includes maintaining transparency, sharing updates from the town health departments and continuing to follow state guidelines.
For example, a plan communicated to staff and families is ensuring that the district’s allocation of rapid test kits are distributed based on need — prioritizing those who may be symptomatic or faced with other circumstances.
“Our shared goal is always ensuring that our top priority is the health, safety, and well-being of all students and staff in the Wallingford Public Schools,” Bellizzi wrote.
In response to a question regarding whether parents have raised concerns about maintaining safe in-person learning or have expressed a desire to temporarily revert to remote learning, Bellizzi replied, “In a district as large as ours, there is a myriad of opinions and suggestions.”
“We are always open to hearing from our parents, staff, and community stakeholders,” the superintendent wrote. “We will continue to follow the state guidelines, review all recommendations and suggestions from our parent community and make decisions that are in the best interest of our students and staff.”
In neighboring Cheshire, School Superintendent Jeffrey Solan described a similar distribution plan, explaining officials had received “dramatically” fewer test kits than previously announced. So officials are focused on distributing kits to students who are absent from school with COVID-like symptoms.
While standing outside the Moran building during what was a brisk, cold morning, Varrone-Lederle said, “We are out here supporting all of our colleagues across the state who may not have what they need. Everyone needs to have safe schools.”Tools for success
At Moran, those who participated in the demonstration were joined by Joslyn Delancey, vice president of the Connecticut Education Association, one of Connecticut’s two statewide teachers unions.
“We’re here to make sure that our schools stay open, but with all of the tools that we need to be successful,” Delancey said, explaining those tools include the ability to provide N95 masks and at-home tests.
“We want to celebrate districts like Wallingford who do have a collaborative relationship, who did take the time to listen to what the teachers needed and to provide the supports. We need more districts to follow that direction. We need more districts to be communicative and collaborative,” Delancey continued. “And we need for the state to allow us to have every tool in our tool belt — and that would include options for remote learning.”
A day earlier CEA leaders released results of a statewide Board of Education Coalition poll, which found a significant number of educators and other school staff across the state have concerns about the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, along with staffing shortages and the slow distribution of personal protective equipment and at-home rapid test kits. The statement called for local education leaders to be given the flexibility to move to full remote learning “for short periods of time without requiring it to be made up.”
“More than 5,500 teachers, paraprofessionals, school bus drivers and monitors, custodians, nurses, and support staff in 169 districts across the state reported that schools are not as safe as they should be,” according to CEA.
“It’s been a rough start of the year for our education communities,” CEA President Kate Dias stated. “We thought we were heading back with N95 masks and availability of test kits, but that hasn’t been the case, and as our survey shows, many educators and staff members are still waiting for the supplies today. We need to be doing more, and we need to be doing better.”‘COVID not the great equalizer’
In Meriden, Board of Education President Rob Kosienski Jr. acknowledged the concerns raised by the union coalition. Across city schools, many members of the Meriden Federation of Teachers, the district’s teachers union, also wore black in a show of support for the statewide concerns.
“We certainly respect the statewide unions’ desire to have a safer workplace, more access to equipment, PPE and testing,” Kosienski said. He described the MFT as having been “an incredible partner with the Meriden Board of Education as we have moved forward to put school safety and staff safety as number one priority.”
Kosienski said federal coronavirus relief funds the district has received through the American Rescue Plan Act have gone to “directly helping the classroom and the infrastructure of filters and building safety and so on.”
So far Meriden schools have not experienced staffing shortages so severe as to prompt school closures.
“If a situation came down to a major staff shortage, I’m sure our friends at the MFT would come to the table and talk about it,” Kosienski said.
MFT President Lauren Mancini-Averitt said district leaders have so far met employees’ expectations to provide safe teaching and learning environments. Issues around building ventilation and providing staff with protection have been addressed.
“Any teacher who has asked for a particular type of protective equipment we have gotten it. The district has met that expectation,” Mancini-Averitt said. “We stand in solidarity with our union brothers and sisters. We are in a state where things are not equal from one town to the next.
“It’s not equal by any means, we want to be equitable across districts. COVID is not the great equalizer, it just shows our disparities yet again,” Mancini-Averitt added.Remote learning
Statewide union leaders are calling for greater flexibility when it comes to remote learning.
According to Delancey, staffing shortages have forced other districts to close down schools without the ability to provide remote instruction as a result. She said the disruption of such closures could be alleviated by enabling local districts to implement temporary remote learning measures.
“If they had a remote option they might be able to be creative,” Delancey said. “But they don’t have that option. Right now, it’s either closed or open. And open doesn’t necessarily always mean success — because our schools are understaffed, our kids are absent and it hurts our ability to provide quality instruction.”
That call for a remote option comes as statewide and local education leaders have maintained a commitment to continued in-person learning. Wednesday’s demonstrations came a day after Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order his office stated would “provide school districts with greater flexibility to address the current teacher shortage caused by the recent spike.” It would do so by enabling local districts to re-employ retired educators, by relaxing statutory limits that restricted the availability of those educators to staff classrooms.
Delancey said the executive order provides a “nice option” for districts facing staffing challenges, but that step alone is not enough.
“It is a Band Aid over a very, very large wound,” Delancey said. “... you really want the best and brightest teachers in our classrooms and just putting bodies in there doesn’t give them what we do. Students learn best when they have highly qualified and really skilled educators in the classroom.”