The state of Connecticut begins the arduous job this week of vaccinating 99,000 teachers and school workers against COVID-19, opening the door for students to return to the classroom — but whether and when they will return remain open questions.
About half of the state’s school districts don’t currently offer full-time, in-person learning, so districts will need to be able to first change their learning models. But they will also have to convince wary parents and students that being in school in person every day is safe — and that students won’t bring COVID-19 home to parents, especially those who work in front-line jobs or have pre-existing conditions.
These two factors — family hesitancy and districts not offering a full return to in-person learning — are currently keeping 95% of students out of school full-time.
“We know that obviously kids do best in school,” said Karlyn Fitzpatrick, a high school social studies teacher in Waterbury. “We want our kids in school, but we’ve always asked for it to be done safely, and we have been waiting for vaccinations to really feel fully secure. And so I think that especially with our encouragement to the kids that we feel safe, and that we are fully ready for them to come back and be in person, I think we’ll get a lot more kids coming in person with their teacher saying to them, ‘I feel safe, you should feel safe. At this point, it’s time to come back.’”
But while educators like Fitzpatrick might feel more secure, others believe a full return might not occur until a greater percentage of the population is vaccinated.
“For communities like mine, if we do not vaccinate essential workers, we can’t send kids back to school,” said Rep. Antonio Filipe, a Democrat from Bridgeport. “Those are their parents. Those are their aunts that live with them, those are their grandparents that live with them, their brothers, their sisters. So until we vaccinate essential workers, we can’t safely send our urban kids back to school, because they won’t have somebody to go back home to, and they’ll just be spreading it among themselves, even though their teachers are already vaccinated.”
“The vaccine only helps the educators. The students are still interacting,” said Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel. “I don’t see parents going through the floodgates to get back in school, because there’s still too many variables. Children-to-children contact, children-to-the-school-bus contact, at-the-bus-stop contact, so there’s still exposures that parents can’t limit.”
Gov. Ned Lamont has faced considerable pushback for defying federal recommendations by prioritizing school staff and older populations but not those with pre-existing conditions or essential workers such as grocery store workers. Those front-line workers are disproportionately Black and Latino, unlike older populations.
Even though many students might not be ready to return, officials with the Lamont administration say getting educators vaccinated is critical to getting more schools to open full-time. They emphasize that school closures have more harshly impacted communities of color.
“A lot of teachers and other professionals in the schools have had to quarantine because of exposures, and that’s forced a lot of shutdowns, temporary shutdowns of schools. If we want to keep schools open and get more schools open fully between now and the end of the year, we can avoid that by getting people vaccinated,” said Josh Geballe, the governor’s chief operating officer. “It’s not just about the employees, but it’s also about the students. There have been tremendous impacts on students. … There’s a real equity component to this as well, because we know a lot of the students who’ve been most impacted by schools that are closed are a lot of students in some of our cities, and so [we are] making extra effort to get the schools open, and this is a key tool for that, [which] we think will have meaningful impacts on children as well, which is a critical consideration here.”
A CT Mirror analysis of state data show that districts that are learning in-person are more likely to be predominantly white. Black and Hispanic students are most likely to be attending school online a day or two a week. State data also show that students attending remotely are missing almost twice as many days as those attending in-person.
The Democratic governor said last week that he intends to leave the decision of when to reopen schools full-time to superintendents.
Other states have taken different approaches. Ohio’s governor has opted to offer the vaccines to educators in districts that were already open or would open if vaccinated, and South Carolina’s governor is resisting calls to prioritize teachers, saying it would be “unethical, immoral, absolutely unacceptable” to put educators in front of more vulnerable populations. Nationwide, 34 states currently offer school staff vaccines access, according to a running tally compiled by Education Week.
In Massachusetts, the state’s education commissioner is seeking authority from his school board to remove remote and hybrid learning as an option for school districts and get students back into school full-time in April.
Lamont said he doesn’t see the need for a state mandate because he has already begun to see districts move towards full-time, when possible.
“I want to make sure these kids not only are going back to school this spring but [can attend] makeup and … summer programs that you’re going to have available to them. Maybe not all sit behind a computer. They’ve got to get out, they’ve got to see their friends, they’ve got to learn experientially to get them back into the groove going forward,” said Lamont, during a press conference in Waterbury last week. “Hartford has announced they’re moving back to a five day a week schooling. They’ll be doing the cleaning in the evenings a little more. I think we have a variety of other schools [that] are already full-time or going back to five days a week.”
Waterbury Superintendent Verna Ruffin said getting educators vaccinated means her district will soon be able to open schools for more than the current four hours a day.
“We’re going to be able to open schools for our students. We see our most vulnerable students in elementary schools that really need to see their teacher and be able to learn phonics and learn the reading skills that are essential and that cannot always be done effectively electronically or with our virtual learning,” she said. “We are so excited that now the plan for reopening schools becomes real in Waterbury.”
“Listen, this is really simple: We need to get our children back in school, and we all know that,” said Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary. “We are all very well aware it’s time to get these children back to school as soon as possible.”
Is it safe for students to return?
So if schools open full-time, will students come?
State Rep. Geraldo Reyes’s grandchildren will.
“I’m a father. I’m a grandfather. My grandkids need to get back to school. I’m too tired to keep watching them,” said Reyes, the chair of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
It’s unclear statewide how many students were given the option to return but were kept home by their families, but the state does track how many students are learning entirely from home. Last month, one out of every seven students were learning entirely online. In Waterbury, 75% of city students are taking courses entirely online.
If Connecticut is going to get more students back in classrooms, state and local officials will need to overcome a huge confidence gap among some parents and staff. They will have to show whether the virus is spreading in schools, and they will have to address the shortcomings that parents and teachers have highlighted in various federal recommendations, such as having proper ventilation systems or spacing students six feet apart.
The state releases data each week that shows the number of students in each learning model that have tested positive for the coronavirus, but those figures offer little context, since they do not show the rate of students in those learning models who have been infected. A CT Mirror analysis of last week’s data show that infection rates in all learning models are substantially under the 1% mark, the level above which community spread occurs, according to public health experts. However, the infection rate was higher for students learning in-person, with 13 out of more than 10,000 students infected last week, compared to a rate of six out of 10,000 students learning online and nine out of 10,000 learning in the hybrid model.
Research released earlier this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concludes that schools have not been super-spreaders.
“In-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission. Although national COVID-19 case incidence rates among children and adolescents have risen over time, this trend parallels trends observed among adults. Increases in case incidence among school-aged children and school reopening do not appear to pre-date increases in community transmission,” the federal agency concluded.
Vaccinated individuals can still transmit COVID-19, though data suggest vaccines reduce efficacy of that transmission. A COVID-19 vaccine probably won’t be ready for young schoolchildren until 2022, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Feb. 19.
What has to happen first, and what doesn’t
Sarah Miller, parent and organizer with New Haven Public Schools Advocates, said she plans to keep her sons Pablo and Mateo, who attend Columbus Family Academy, in remote learning — mostly because of limited space within the school.
“I know that space is an issue in the buildings, and my husband and I both work from home, and it’s not ideal but we’re able to be home with our kids,” she said. “But I feel like we try to leave space for the people who really don’t have the option, or have fewer options.”
She said if teachers and all school staff are vaccinated, she would consider sending her kids back to school in-person by April or May. She doesn’t think many parents are going to choose to send their children to school just because vaccines are on the horizon, especially since there are still questions about the COVID strains and concerns about school buildings in the district.
“I do think that over time if the vaccine rollout is relatively smooth, if teachers start feeling more confident and most importantly that the COVID numbers keep going down, that people will feel more and more comfortable,” she said.
While CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has said “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” Connecticut union leaders say it is much more complicated than that, as long as students can’t be vaccinated and various school safety measures they recommend go unfilled in certain districts.
So, to get everyone back in school full-time, everyone needs to be vaccinated.
“We had some districts that were able to do that, and some districts that were not able to do that, and so for the sake of equity, the only way to do that is to actually vaccinate our whole community or homeschool community, to make it equitable for all,” said Jan Hochadel, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “Those that need mitigation plans in order to get them back into school, this is what they need.”
Staffing two learning models — one for students who want to stay home and one for those attending in-person — can serve as a barrier to offering full-time instruction, since more staff may be needed to accommodate families’ preferences, said Fran Rabinowitz, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. The vaccinations, though, she said, will prevent teachers from needing to quarantine and avoid the resulting staffing shortages and disruption that causes for students.
“The staff shortages because of quarantines, that will be gone,” she said. “There is an expectation on the superintendents’ part that once teachers are vaccinated, we will be back in full-time. I mean, that is the expectation that we’re all working under. We do think that we will be back in full for the fall semester. Maybe that’s overly optimistic, but that is what we are thinking and planning for right now.”
Shellye Davis, a paraprofessional in Hartford and vice president for school related personnel at AFT, said that getting educators and school staff vaccinated is not the silver bullet to get schools fully reopened, and work remains to ensure children — and their families — are safe when they come to school.
“Even though the children won’t be vaccinated, this is a good start,” she said. “We have to make sure that the other protocols of safety are in place.”