The governor says it’s safe to reopen schools, but will teachers return?
Ever since Gov. Ned Lamont ordered superintendents to open public schools this fall and offer the state’s 530,000 students in-person instruction, teachers and the unions that represent them have responded with a mixture of fear, questions, and costly demands they say are essential to safely return to the classroom.
The pushback from teachers — which continued Tuesday when the state’s largest teachers’ union called on the state to allow districts to delay opening schools for in-person instruction or provide weekly testing for every student, teacher and staff person in Connecticut’s public schools — has been so persistent that some education officials are beginning to question whether a sufficient number of teachers and support staff will return to school buildings next month.
Early signs indicate schools will likely face significant staffing challenges.
National polling shows that 1 in 5 teachers say they are unlikely to go back to the classroom. One of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions found just 76% of their members are willing to go back, and only as long as proper safety precautions are taken. Several districts in Connecticut have already begun surveying their staff and students’ families to see how many plan to return. In Wilton, 35% said they might not return, while 12% of families planned to opt out of in-person instruction. In Fairfield, 40% of staff said they would prefer to work from home, and 18% of the families favored remote learning.
Some of the reluctance is coming from staff who worry they are more vulnerable to catching COVID-19. A survey by the Connecticut Education Association in late May found 43% of teachers are at higher risk because of pre-existing health conditions.
Adding to this murky stew of uncertainty and fear about the disease itself is a brewing standoff between local districts and teachers’ unions, which have the right to negotiate with local districts when working conditions change for teachers.
Lamont, a Democrat who is seen as an ally of the teachers unions, said last week that he will only continue requiring schools to open if the science shows it is safe. His administration plans to make an announcement in early August if districts can waver from providing full-time, in-person instruction, but for now is defending the decision to reopen schools in the fall by pointing to John Hopkins University giving the state’s reopening plan a perfect score for making every effort to protect the safety and health of students, teachers, and staff.
“For the teachers, you’ve got to know I’ve got your back. Everything I’ve done today, we’ve erred on the side of caution,” he said during a daily briefing last week. “I’m gonna do everything I can to give you the confidence you need – when it comes to masks, when it comes to disinfecting, when it comes to social distancing, when it comes to cohorting – to make sure that you know you can get back safely if it’s okay by a doctor for you to get back. … I’m leading with the science.”
For the teachers, you’ve got to know I’ve got your back. ”
The teachers’ unions, however, say the state’s plan is “incomplete at best.” And even if infection and hospitalization rates stay low, as they are now, the unions are making demands that some districts might not be able or willing to grant.
Several districts have received proposed contracts – called a memorandum of agreement (MOA) – outlining what their unions say is needed for in-person teaching to safely resume. The CT Mirror reviewed three proposed MOAs from districts whose teachers’ unions are local chapters of the Connecticut Education Association.
Requested accommodations include:
- Those who must miss work for reasons related to COVID-19, and cannot work remotely, must still receive full pay and cannot be required to use their vacation or other leave time available to them.
- The number of students assigned to a teachers’ classroom shall comply with CDC and state guidelines.
- Staff who work remotely must be provided a computer and a $50 per month allowance to cover their internet connection and electricity costs.
- Teachers must be available to respond to students and parents between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., but will only be required to check their email and Google Classroom daily. They must not be required to use their own phones to talk to students or parents.
- Teachers must not be required in the same workday to be responsible for students who are at school and those learning remotely.
- Teachers will have sole discretion over the method they use to deliver instruction remotely, and will not be required to do live synchronous instruction.
- Personal protective equipment recommended by the CDC – such as face masks or plexiglass – must be provided to teachers by the district. Cleaning supplies must be provided, but cleaning the classroom is not teachers’ responsibility.
Superintendents interviewed by the CT Mirror, who asked not to be identified because their districts are currently in discussion with the unions, say that list would make it nearly impossible to reopen their schools, and that the MOAs make it clear that teachers unions do not want in-person school to resume.
The request made Tuesday by the Connecticut Education Association to test each week the nearly 630,000 adults and children for COVID, for example, would be a Herculean and expensive task. Since the pandemic began, Connecticut has administered a total of 660,857 tests for COVID-19.
But union leaders say teachers need to feel protected.
Jan Hochadel, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said she would like to see a hybrid approach to reopening, where students split learning between school and home.
“I have never been a fan of all the students going back to their seats. I don’t think it’s realistic. I don’t think it’s safe for children, for anybody. It’s concerning us that every other part of society, they’re applauding this slow reopening and taking it in phases, and yet we’re not going to do that with education. It’s really disconcerting for us,” she said. “We want to work together, but we also know that if we have to step away and do what we have to do for the health and safety of our members, we’re ready to do that, too.”
It’s a sentiment shared by former Waterbury teacher and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th district, who said Tuesday during a press call with the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor that it’s not safe to reopen schools.
“We are not ready to do that at this moment. As of today, there are so many unanswered questions,” she said.
‘That’s just not a reasonable request’
Others believe the teachers’ unions are making some unreasonable demands, such as allowing teachers to decide whether to return based on if they feel comfortable.
Thomas Mooney, an attorney specializing in education at Shipman & Goodwin, whose firm represents two-thirds of the school districts in Connecticut, said some school board members have told him there are teachers who think they get to choose whether they teach remotely or in-person.
“That’s not going to happen. We can’t just consign the fate of children to the individual choices of teachers,” he said. “It’s going to be a matter of what’s safe and what’s healthy, but we have certain overarching legal responsibilities to educate children, and people take employment to do that.”
“We don’t have a duty to let people decide whether they’re going to do their job or not,” he continued. “Sometimes people can’t do their job, and sometimes sick leave is available, sometimes it’s not available, sometimes people just have to decide whether they want to do their job or they want to do something else. The health care heroes faced much worse choices about whether they wanted to do their job or not.”
We can’t just consign the fate of children to the individual choices of teachers. It’s going to be a matter of what’s safe and what’s healthy, but we have certain overarching legal responsibilities to educate children, and people take employment to do that. ”
Teachers in Connecticut do not have the authority to walk off the job and strike; rather, they have access to binding arbitration, where an impartial official will resolve disputes that cannot be worked out in negotiation. When schools shut down abruptly in March as the coronavirus began its rapid spread here, Mooney said, every district was able to successfully negotiate an MOA with their unions without needing binding arbitration.
That might not be true this time around, however.
State Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said districts will try to make accommodations when appropriate, but could not promise everyone who wishes to teach remotely will be granted permission to do so.
“I’ve heard from so many teachers and I want to just acknowledge that I hear you. I’m listening. I understand the challenges that this poses for you,” he said. “For some of you, there’s greater risk than for others. …In some cases, we’re going to be able to provide opportunities for teachers to teach remotely. But we also recognize, like I said on June 25, that that may not be the case, in all cases. We have to think about how we can best accommodate as much as we can, while trying to see how we can bring folks in where they feel confident and safe.”
Allowing teachers to decide whether to return to the classroom would limit how many students would be able to return, which Mooney said would be a huge problem since there is widespread agreement that in-person instruction is more effective, and there are huge obstacles for thousands of children to participate remotely.
A survey of local districts by the State Department of Education found that one-in-25 students didn’t participate at all in remote learning after schools closed in March, and thousands more did so very minimally. That’s 137,000 children – one out of every four students in the state – who lost learning.
Unions have also asked local districts to provide every teacher with a computer and $50 subsidy for the internet and electricity usage, which union leaders say is necessary because teachers need to be able to access their work without having to pay for it out of pocket.
“For some of our younger teachers, you know, they just got out of college. They don’t have the resources,” said Hochadel of AFT. “It has to be equitable. You have to not only provide every student with the opportunity, but you also have to provide every educator.”
Mooney said districts will help provide remote access to those teachers who don’t have the ability, but doing it for everyone is a ridiculous request.
“If a teacher tells us that they don’t have the internet and they need that support: fine. If they tell us they don’t have a computer and they need that support, that’s a legitimate conversation. But we’re in a crisis, and for a teacher who has high-speed internet and a computer to say, ‘You need to pay me for using what I already have, and that doesn’t affect my economic well being whatsoever,’ they’re free to ask. They can also ask for a membership to a health club, but that’s just not a reasonable request.”
Donald Williams Jr., the executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said he doesn’t want to get into specific requests since those will be handled locally
“There are going to be obvious changes in working conditions, so there absolutely needs to be a discussion and a resolution of how those changes would take place,” Williams said. “Anything that impacts someone’s working conditions, in terms of working from home incurring different responsibilities and expenses, is something that needs to be worked out. Anything that involves teaching in the school, in a pandemic situation, the requirement to follow public health and safety guidelines for the benefit of students and the adults is critical.”
What’s needed: flexibility – and money
Requirements for who may teach students – and the education and state certifications they must hold – have not been relaxed by the state to give districts more staffing flexibility. Some education leaders were hoping the state would waive some certification requirements so more people working in the building – such as a paraprofessional or reading specialist – could teach and reduce class sizes.
Districts must submit their reopening plans to the state by Friday, which means it will soon become more clear what the state can do to help. When schools shut down five months ago, the education commissioner waived teacher evaluation requirements and released districts from having to make teacher tenure decisions.
“There are certain things that the commissioner may be able to do to facilitate these agreements,” said Mooney. “And as we get into it, it may be more evident what he can do.”
Money – lots of it – will also help make the transition easier and safer.
New London – a small district with just 3,400 students – estimates it will cost $2.5 million to purchase face masks, gloves, extra cleaning supplies and pay extra staff to clean and teach students. Additional costs will also be incurred for things like purchasing new furniture to repurpose spaces.
Windham – another small district, with 3,300 students – is expected to spend $3 million to follow the guidelines issued by the state that recommend everyone in the building wear masks and socially distance in classrooms and on the bus. State guidelines also contain cleaning protocols for districts to follow.
It’s concerning us that every other part of society, they’re applauding this slow reopening and taking it in phases, and yet we’re not going to do that with education. It’s really disconcerting for us. ”
The School Administrators Association estimates the cost of covering safety protocols is $1.8 million per district, which is about $25 billion nationwide.
In contrast, the American Federation of Teachers estimates that it will cost $116.5 billion to reopen schools safely and retain staff whose jobs are threatened by the economic downturn.
There seems to be consensus in Congress that additional aid for reopening schools is needed, but not how much. The Democratic-controlled House passed a bill in May that would provide $58 billion in aid for K-12 schools, and the leader of the Republican-led Senate said this week that the next COVID-19 relief package should include $70 billion. However, the leader of the House education committee says if that package doesn’t include aid for state and local governments, too, then the school aid will just replace state and local cuts to education.
Connecticut officials are waiting to see if Congress sends more money to states before committing to any state-based funding.
Congress did already send the state $1.4 billion through the CARES Act. But last week, Gov. Ned Lamont said it isn’t enough since about 10 different parts of the economy each need about one-third of that funding, including public schools.
He said his administration intends to review the reopening plans that districts must submit by Friday and then determine how much funding he can send to help out.
Shortly after the governor made this statement, and pledged to “have teachers’ backs” the CEA released a statement saying the best way he can do that is to ensure state funding will be provided for virus-related expenses.
“Reopening Connecticut schools safely this fall will cost significantly more,” the union wrote. “In order to protect against the pandemic, restore our economy, and address racial disparities in our schools, the state must provide the needed funding for our schools to reopen safely.”
What leverage do teachers’ unions have?
In Florida where infections are surging, teachers’ unions are suing to block the governor’s order requiring schools to open.
While it may be too early for the teachers’ unions here to consider suing since Lamont hasn’t made a final decision about whether schools will open — and since infection rates are still low — it’s clear that Connecticut’s unions are paying close attention to what is happening elsewhere.
Mary Yordon, a vice president of AFT Connecticut who teaches at Ponus Ridge Middle School in Norwalk, said Tuesday that “we are investigating options and still optimistic that a staged reopening will occur.”
“We are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of a full re-opening, when everything else in our communities is experiencing a staged reopening. It does not seem safe to host 1,000 or more people in a high school building at this time,” Yordon added. “This type of crowded environment is not happening anywhere else in Connecticut.”
Yordon said the list of concerns is long.
We can’t tell students, ‘hold on, you’ll get educated next month, we hope – if we get this resolved.”
“There is not funding to support the needs for additional workstations, consumable materials, classrooms and busses. Some students cannot have masks. Others will not wear them appropriately. Some grade levels cannot be organized in cohorts. We do not have sufficient nurses in some districts,” she said.
There also aren’t any COVID-19 safety standards that schools will be required to meet, and enforced if they don’t. In May, the U.S. House passed legislation that would require the federal government to develop enforceable standards that schools and other facilities would have to follow. The state offers guidance for districts to follow, but does not require it or have plans to enforce those standards.
But it’s also true that teachers don’t have much choice about whether to return if they want to get paid.
Mooney, the school board attorney, said 50 days are required for districts to negotiate before seeking an independent arbitrator to decide the issue. Getting a decision from binding arbitration typical takes two months, which would take districts into December before disputes are settled.
“We can’t tell students, ‘hold on, you’ll get educated next month, we hope – if we get this resolved,” said Mooney.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 24, 2020 to remove the name of a teacher who submitted written testimony to the state Board of Education and later expressed concerns about the safety of her family and her job security.