Delay the start of the school year, Ridgefield and state teachers unions say

Ridgefield High School

Ridgefield High School

Ridgefield High School / Contributed photo

RIDGEFIELD — Connecticut’s biggest teachers union and an affiliated association that represents Ridgefield teachers share the same stance: Public schools should open no earlier than the second week of September.

“Any return to school will likely result in COVID exposure,” said Steve Ruland, president of the Ridgefield Education Association. “Many of our teachers, in addition to students, have high-risk factors themselves and are being sent into an environment which poses potential COVID risks. Our teachers, even those with the highest risk factors, are not being provided with accommodations that would allow teaching from a remote location.”

In a revised Safe Learning Plan released Monday, the Connecticut Education Association listed several coronavirus-related recommendations that school districts should follow for the start of the new year. The first being to delay school openings for “two weeks or until mid-September to improve and expand remote learning.”

“(We are) certainly in agreement with the CEA proposal for a delayed student start to the school year,” Ruland said of the Ridgefield teachers union. “Teachers need as much time as possible to acclimate to a new work environment and time to create an effective learning environment. A delay to the student school start would be of tremendous value to our teachers and ultimately a benefit to our students, as they will return to prepared, confident teachers in safe classrooms.”

Ridgefield schools are slated to open next Aug. 27 for grades K-9 and Aug. 28 for grades 10-12. Some other districts scheduled to start around the same time have pushed back their openings until after Labor Day.

Ridgefield is starting with a hybrid model, which mixes in-person instruction with remote learning and splits students into two groups that attend classes on different days. Slightly more than half of Connecticut’s districts have chosen to open with all students in class five days each week.

In addition to a delayed start, the CEA recommended full remote learning for all districts that have a moderate or high infection rate, or an inability to maintain 6 feet of social distancing or other safety considerations; providing accommodations for at-risk students, teachers and staff; increasing funding to districts for COVID-related expenses; implementing a school-centered contact tracing program; and upgrading school air handling systems to improve air quality.

The CEA said its revised plan is based on new medical reports and studies regarding schoolchildren and the spread of COVID-19.

“The primary consideration to any school reopening plan must be the safety, health, and well being of students, teachers, and their families,” said CEA president Jeff Leake in a statement. “The state must revise school reopening plans to protect our school communities, especially in light of new reports confirming that children can readily transmit COVID-19 and may be drivers of the pandemic.”

Ridgefield union’s concerns

Ruland said the Ridgefield Educational Association has two primary concerns: Overall safety and the ability for teachers to adequately prepare for new instructional models.

“Our current plan calls for the return of 50 percent of students with full staff in each school building every day of the school week. COVID has infiltrated our most secure building environments despite all efforts of prevention,” he said, referring to a visitor to Ridgefield High School testing positive for coronavirus last week. “ ... Fortunately, the building was not occupied by students or large numbers of staff, but this demonstrated that the best laid plans can go awry.”

As of now, Ruland added, teachers will see half of their students in person while others are participating remotely, which can create major challenges.

A Ridgefield High teacher, who requested their name be withheld, agreed with the CEA’s recommendation to delay the start of the school year.

“With schools across the country reopening with some negative effects, I don’t see the rush that Connecticut is in to reopen,” the teacher said. “If the state really feels a need to start, then start virtually and move to in-person. Planning to start in-person and move to hybrid/virtual if outbreaks occur seems backwards.”

With Connecticut currently at low risk for COVID-19, Gov. Ned Lamont and the state’s education department initially favored a reopening plan that has students in class five days a week. But last month, Lamont and the education department said each school district could decide whether to begin with in-class or hybrid models.

Ridgefield subsequently revised its reopening plan, switching from all students in-person five days per week to the mix of in-class and remote learning.

Shortly after the CEA announced its revised Safe Learning Plan on Monday, a spokesperson for Lamont’s office released a statement saying, “Ensuring we do not have a lost year of education, the Lamont administration collaborated with public health and medical experts, educators and local school administration leaders to protect the health and safety of everyone who makes contact with our school system.”

Ruland said Ridgefield teachers understand the risk involved in going back to the classroom.

“We feel a more remote model will significantly reduce risks for teachers as well as students, creating the ability for a more effective and efficient response to any possible COVID exposures,” he said. “The gradual increase of people into the school environment is a safer alternative to half or full attendance to start.”

One teacher who won’t have to worry about coronavirus exposure in school is Ray Bielizna. He retired on July 30 after teaching math for 36 years, including 21 years at Ridgefield High School.

“I do have some COVID-19 concerns, however that was one of many factors in my retirement decision,” said Bielizna, who will continue to coach the Ridgefield High boys golf team. “My mom passed away on April 13 from COVID-19 (and) it threw me for a loop.”