Amid rising COVID-19 cases, school officials look to maintain in person learning over employee concerns

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As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb across the city, Meriden education and public health officials say despite the disease’s rapid spread throughout the community, that spread has been limited in schools. Thus, Meriden like other districts remains committed to continuing in person learning despite concerns expressed this week by statewide employee unions.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Wallingford, a vote last week by that town’s Board of Education to fully implement remote learning schedules in its middle and high school buildings while continuing in person learning at the elementary schools drew criticism from leaders of the local teachers’ union who called the move inequitable. 

In Meriden, state data show 10 of the district’s 12 schools have confirmed COVID-19 cases. Most of those schools have fewer than six cases. 

Districtwide, more than 5% of Meriden students are currently quarantined due to potential exposure to the coronavirus.  Four percent of staff members are similarly quarantined. Meanwhile, overall infection rates among both groups remain below 1%. 

Those data points “support in-person learning as an option for families,” Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni said.

He added, “We will continue to work closely with our local health officials to determine the best course of action for our schools. Data continues to show limited transmission in schools.”

Meriden Health Director Lea Crown echoed Benigni’s remarks.

“We are not seeing secondary spread in MPS, therefore a recommendation to switch to all remote learning has not been given by my Department,” Crown wrote in a separate email to the Record-Journal. 

“The schools have been doing a fantastic job with mitigation strategies and communication with our Department,” Crown wrote, explaining that should her department have to recommend full remote learning that would need to be taken up by the Board of Education.

Board of Education President Robert Kosienski Jr. similarly favors sticking with in person learning. 

“As a board, we want to give our students as many opportunities to learn, participate and grow through in person learning and activities. Right now, the numbers dictate that we stay the course with in person learning and the hybrids at the high schools,” Kosienski said.  

Teacher concerns

But the lack of uniformly implemented plans across different districts has many educators concerned. 

Maria Marcarelli, a second grade teacher at Wallingford’s E.C. Stevens School and vice president of the Wallingford Education Association, said the teachers in her district are upset “over the inequity of the Wallingford school board’s decision.

“There’s great concern because teachers are getting sick,” Marcarelli said, noting that the remote learning plan would only be temporary.

“We want to be in school and we want to be with our kids. But at what cost — our health? It’s a pandemic we’re in... It’s not for four months like it was in spring. It would be temporary,” she said. 

Teachers like Marcarelli who live in districts that have implemented full remote learning find themselves struggling to find care for their children, who are at home learning. 

“Do I work? Do I stay with my kids, or do I spend over $300 a week on childcare?” Marcarelli pondered.

While educators wrangle with those questions, Wallingford school officials may shift again on remote learning. Officials had planned to keep the middle and high schools in remote learning until Jan. 19. But, in an email sent to families late Tuesday afternoon, Superintendent Salvatore Menzo noted the district is seeing what he called “a significant reduction” in cases affecting those schools.

“I am hopeful this is the new positive trend,” Menzo wrote. “If this is the trend that we experience upon returning from Thanksgiving break, I would consider bringing back middle school and high school students and staff sooner than January 19.”

In Meriden, many teachers are faced with similar concerns, explained Meriden Federation of Teachers President Lauren Mancini-Averitt. Childcare is also an issue for staff there.

Mancini-Averitt, a teacher at Maloney High School, said she teaches every day delivering a mix of in person and remote instruction. It’s not ideal, but she said she and her colleagues have managed to create a system around those mixed platforms “to make this creative schedule work.” 

Mancini-Averitt explained there is no clear consensus among Meriden teachers on whether to implement full remote or maintain in person and distance schedules. 

“This is definitely an issue that doesn’t unite everybody,” she said. “It’s really hard. It’s a very difficult time.” 

Mancini-Averitt admitted the transition is much easier for high school teachers like herself. For her peers teaching elementary and middle school aged children, teaching is very different. Teachers are used to hands on activities with children in those settings. But distance learning wouldn’t make that possible. And even current classroom settings make hands on, in person instruction more difficult. 

“The rugs went away. They’re in storage. Everyone is sitting in their individual desk. It’s a very different scenario. If you’re a distance teacher, everyone is on screen. We put everybody in a box,” Mancini Averitt said. “This is not normal. You want to do a hands on thing, like a science experiment. You can’t.”

School and health officials share figures daily, and continuously modify plans and strategies, explained Michael Grove, assistant superintendent for the Meriden Public Schools. 

“Based on our latest data our current strategies are allowing us to continue with in person learning,” Grove said.

Collectively, the unions representing school district employees have called for a switch to full remote learning for a period from Nov. 30, to Jan. 18, 2021. 

Local decision

Meanwhile state education officials maintain those decisions should be made locally by district superintendents and municipal health officials. 

“With the health and safety of our school communities always being our top priority, we are reinforcing the importance of in person learning because it is the model that allows us to best meet our children’s educational and nonacademic needs,” Peter Yazbak, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said in an email.

Yazbak said current mitigation strategies appear to “have been incredibly effective since we are not seeing sustained person-to-person transmission or outbreaks in our schools. This is true even as we are seeing increased levels of COVID-19 in the community.

He added, “…we continue to believe that any decision about limiting in person learning should be made by the school superintendent and local health director.”

Donald Williams, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said the unions believe there need to be improved standards and measures. 

“Teachers of course, want to teach students in person, in classrooms. That’s the best way of conducting public education in our state. Most importantly, they want their students and colleagues to be safe,” Williams said. 

If it’s not possible to maintain safety standards amid rising infection rates in communities around schools, then leaders like Williams recommended going remote “to keep everyone safe” and for consistency.

Toggling between in person and remote learning plans is “extremely disruptive for students and staff,” Williams said. 


"We want to be in school and we want to be with our kids. But at what cost — our health? It’s a pandemic we’re in..."

-Teacher Maria Marcarelli

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