Union head, teacher express concerns with reopening plan

Ridgefield High School

Ridgefield High School

Contributed photo

A month from now, Ridgefield teachers will return to their classrooms for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic closed schools to in-person learning in mid-March.

But are they comfortable with the state’s plan to reopen schools for all students, five days a week?

“I don’t think any of us are comfortable; there’s a lot of anxiety among teachers,” said one Ridgefield teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “We are worried about contracting the virus and passing it on to spouses and family members. We are worried about the health and safety of the students. Most of us would prefer to open the school year with virtual learning, especially with COVID ramping up around the country.”

The new head of the local teachers union has heard his members’ concerns.

“Our teachers continue to raise questions about our ability to maintain a safe and healthy school environment for all,” said Steve Ruland, who recently took over as president of the National Education Association-Ridgefield affiliate. “The state’s complex, and at times contradictory, recommendations raise questions about the plan’s overall effectiveness in returning students to school while still protecting health and safety. At present, concerns are out-pacing solutions.

“What is most disappointing about the governor’s plan is that it does not address health and safety adequately,” Ruland added. “It does not address the inequities in Connecticut’s schools regarding resources, access to technology, and providing personal protection equipment; and it fails to provide additional funding to ensure that schools can open safely.”

Ridgefield school officials presented their reopening plan at Wednesday night’s virtual Board of Education meeting. The plan, which has three models based on COVID-19 risk levels, had to be sent to the state by Friday (July 24).

Last Monday, the Connecticut Education Association (the state’s largest teachers union) released its own Safe Learning Plan, which is critical of the state’s reopening protocol.

“Any return to the classroom must be done in full compliance with expert health and safety guidelines,” the CEA wrote in its plan. “Connecticut must enhance its plans for remote learning for at-risk students and teachers, which will be necessary for some under any scenario, and may be necessary for all if circumstances warrant.”

The CEA plan cites six specific actions that must be taken before schools can safely reopen. Included in the list are weekly COVID-19 tests for students, teachers and staff, as well as staggered scheduling for in-class learning.

Based on the state’s reopening guidelines, Connecticut students, teachers and staff must wear face masks during the school day. Districts must ensure other safety measures, such as social distancing in classrooms and hallways and on buses.

“I know the reopening committee in Ridgefield has been working hard this summer trying to address every concern, but once school starts there are going to be situations that they haven’t considered,” said the Ridgefield teacher. “What happens if a five-year-old falls in the playground and scrapes a knee? Are we supposed to help the student without getting too close to him or her?”

“NEA-Ridgefield and our members are working with the Ridgefield School District ... we have an open dialog with [Superintendent] Dr. [Susie] Da Silva,” said Ruland. “Additionally, NEA-Ridgefield representatives and members from all levels are participating in the RPS [Ridgefield Public Schools] reopening work.

“However, the governor’s guidelines are alarming in that they seem to prioritize physically returning to school over scientifically recognized health and safety standards,” Ruland added. “For example, the governor’s plan recommends socially distancing of six feet when feasible. Given the reality of our schools, and especially school buses, it may not be possible to maintain this distance.”

Although school districts in Connecticut and throughout the country are worried that some teachers may choose to resign for fear of contracting COVID-19, Ruland said he hasn’t heard about any Ridgefield teachers leaving.

“As of now no teachers have stated that they will not return,” he said. “The conditions, quarantine, and travel restrictions change daily — at times even hourly. This constant change in information will directly influence individual decisions on returning to the work environment.”

“We would absolutely prefer to be in the classroom. That is the best way for students to learn,” said the Ridgefield teacher. “But when there’s a pandemic going on, it’s probably better to teach students in a way that’s safer for them and the teachers. Having everyone back in schools, all at once, doesn’t seem the best option.”