Teachers express concerns as school year approaches 

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By Michael Puffer and Andreas Yilma, Staff

Christina Rinaldi, an art teacher at City Hill Middle School in Naugatuck, hands out signs to fellow teachers prior to a teachers parade to demand safety measures for the return to school July 30 at Naugatuck High School. The statewide parades were organized by the Connecticut Education Association teachers union. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Meghan Hatch-Geary, an English teacher at Woodland Regional High School, normally prepares for the start of school by improving lesson plans and buying classroom supplies.

This summer, her preparation included buying more life insurance for her and her husband.

“For that to be on your back-to-school to-do list is certainly anxiety inducing and certainly stressful,” Hatch-Geary said.

Hatch-Geary and teachers statewide are looking toward the start of the school year with unfamiliar anxiety. Cases of COVID-19 have plummeted in Connecticut but the virus is surging in other states. Some teachers fear a full reopening of school buildings would fuel the coronavirus’ resurgence in Connecticut, putting teachers, students and their families at risk.

School buildings were closed in March to help slow the spread. Gov. Ned Lamont has expressed a strong desire to see children back in classrooms for the start of the coming school year, but has said school districts have discretion but will have to get state permission to offer only distance learning.

Naugatuck and Region 16 school officials are preparing to reopen schools under hybrid models that includes in-person instruction and remote learning.

Hatch-Geary, the state’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, said teachers agree in-person instruction is best for students academically, socially and emotionally. They also fear schools don’t have the space or resources to keep the virus at bay.

“I have friends teaching all over the state and everyone seems concerned that a full reopening is not in the best interest of everyone’s health and safety,” Hatch-Geary said. “Asking everyone to come back into school buildings, which are notoriously poorly ventilated and riding buses to full capacity seems an extraordinarily thorny proposition.”

Teachers want a gradual opening, Hatch-Geary said, much like the state’s “phased” reopening approach for business and gatherings.

Most favor a partial reopening, with half the student body coming to school buildings Mondays and Tuesdays, while the rest learn at home online. Wednesdays would be used to sanitize buildings, and the other half of the student body would take in-school instruction Thursdays and Fridays.

This sort of “hybrid” approach would be the safest way to bring students back to school buildings, said Jeff Leake, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. It would allow educators to maintain safer distances between students, Leake said.

“There is not a district in Connecticut where I talk to administrators and teachers who say we can bring everyone back to school and do 6-foot social distance,” Leake said. “It’s scary for people to think we are going to get 20 to 25 up to 30 kids in a classroom and they are not going to be far enough away from each other.”

Leake said too many of the tentative plans drafted by districts “don’t quite get there” when it comes to safety precautions.

Lamont has said the state will provide masks and personal protective equipment for schools. Even so, Leake said schools don’t have enough resources to provide proper protections. He could not provide an estimate of cost.

Leake said the teachers unions aren’t critical of Lamont, and only hope to work with the administration to ensure proper safeguards.

Maureen Greene, a sixth-grade math and science teacher at Hillside Intermediate School in Naugatuck, paints a message on her vehicle before a teachers parade to demand safety measures for the return to school July 30 at Naugatuck High School. The statewide parades were organized by the Connecticut Education Association teachers union. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

The CEA joined with the American Federation of Teachers, the state’s second-largest teachers union, July 30 in 25 teacher caravans that paraded through cities and towns across the state. The intent was to highlight the need to improve precautions in school reopening plans, as well as advocate for adequate funding. Many participants decorated their cars with posters and messages, some targeted at the governor.

Two to three dozen cars of teachers came together for a caravan at Naugatuck High School.

Shannon Shea-Lyons, 49, of Naugatuck, who is a health education teacher at Cross Street and Hillside intermediate schools in the borough, said everyone needs to be safe in returning but doesn’t want students to be in a jail-type of situation where they can’t leave the classroom.

“I do a lot with social and emotional health. I do a lot with the mental part of them going back and that’s why it concerns me so much,” Shea-Lyons said. “I’m scared that they’re going to come back and expect what they had and it’s not even going to be close to what they had.”

Shea-Lyons, who is a mother of a Naugatuck student, said she misses her students. There’s a vast difference between virtual and in-person teaching, but would continue virtual teaching for six more months until teachers know everyone will be safe, she added.

Donna Lyons, 60, of Watertown, an English teacher at Waterbury’s Wallace Middle School, said teachers worry necessary precautions will not be followed. She also feels that most teachers want to begin the year with out-of-school distance learning due to all of the unknowns.

“It’s a very frightening time for most teachers, some of whom feel that they’re going to have to make a choice between their job and their life,” Lyons said.

George Macary, president of the Naugatuck Teacher’s League, agreed online learning is far from ideal, but it’s probably the right way to start the school year.

“Not because I want to do it,” said Macary, who is an applied education teacher at Naugatuck High. “It’s a killer to do that. When you are in a math class you can see what a kid is struggling with by looking at their face. You can’t do that online. It’s not the same.”

Macary, who is on Naugatuck’s back-to-school planning committee, said everyone is making an honest effort to ensure safety. Even so, Macary said, he’s worried about schools getting the funding needed to carry out safety protocols, including erecting barriers and frequent sanitization.

“When we left in March we were told it is unsafe to go back to the buildings,” Macary said. “The parents need to know why it’s safe to go back. The teachers need to know that, too.”

“We want the (state) politicians to just remember that it’s not about Democrats, it’s not about Republicans,” Macary added. “It’s about kids and the safety of everybody that works in those buildings.”