Thousands of school employees pushed back on reopening plans Thursday as more than two dozen “School Safety First” car caravan rallies were held across Connecticut.
The largest one, representing more than 400 workers in school districts throughout the Greater Hartford region, wound its way to the governor’s residence.
Participants leaned in on their horns, and the state, to do more.
“We’re risking the children, the educators, and our communities,” said Hartford Para-educator Shellye Davis.
The car caravan was led by the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
It’s demanding the state think more about safety, equity, and funding.
“Our teachers are saying we want you to hear us, we want to connect with our students but it has to be safe,” said CEA President Jeff Leake.
While some teachers asked not to be shown on camera saying they were afraid they’d be fired, the messages and posters on their windows suggested a fear of what this fall will look like for them.
“It would kill me if I was the reason a child got COVID. It would kill me, I couldn’t live with it,” said Victoria Ascherman, an elementary music teacher in Hartford. “My concern is that I have to go from classroom to classroom and I’m so afraid of spreading contamination to every child.”
Although the union said it supports sending a majority of students back to the classroom at the beginning of the school year, there’s mixed messaging coming from its members, some of whom say the only way to start the school year safely is through long-distance learning.
“Starting in school is just waiting for someone to get sick and risking someone dying. Distance learning is safe,” said Nora McHugh, who declined to share the district she works for but said she is a high school science teacher in the Greater Hartford area. "The science experiment is our students and our teachers and our staff.”
“I think we have to start off with virtual training first in the first semester and then move back in the classroom as it gets safe,” added Ascherman.
“I think they should go back to the classroom when it’s safe to go back. I think rushing it will just open us up to be a Florida or to be an Arizona, or to God forbid have people dying,” said Davis.
“We believe if we can paint the picture that we’ve done everything we can for safety, then we can convince most if not all of our teachers to say I’m ready to go back to the classroom,” said Leake.
The state called on districts to come up with plans for in-person, hybrid and virtual learning.
“Ultimately, the governor said, ‘okay well now you get to pick,’ and I feel like it’s almost a copout like he doesn’t want to take the heat for it so now he’s pushed it to the local districts,” McHugh said.
“The other 90% of superintendents say give me more flexibility. So, we’re trying to thread that needle by saying here are the guidelines on how you can open your school safely,” said Governor Ned Lamont when asked about the criticism.
Lamont noted that he had met with the union and some of its members right before the rally for a constructive conversation, which Leake confirmed.
Davis said the state hasn’t adequately addressed custodians, cafeteria workers and para-educators like herself.
“We don’t have hand dryers, we don’t have soap, we don’t have a lot of things, and there will be no testing and six feet is if it’s possible,” she said. “We just need our future funded, we needed our elected officials to put dollars behind this for it to be done safely.”
“There is no district that we have talked with right now that says they can do six feet,” Leake pointed out, saying social distancing guidelines are a sticking point.
The union says they plan to continue pressing the state on this.