Sightlines by Mercy A. Quaye

It’s hard to see the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus as an achievement worthy of praise when nearly 10,000 residents have died from COVID, evictions climbed to an alarming high, twice as many high schoolers from a sampling of districts across the state were poised to be held back, and we still don’t have a sound global approach to remote learning that works for parents, kids, and teachers alike.

Throughout the pandemic, aid — in the form of direct payments to replace income, rent and mortgage relief, increased Wi-Fi access, and access to remote learning software and equipment — went a long way towards quelling people’s financial concerns and bolstering quarantine efforts. But with the eviction moratorium coming to an end on Feb. 15 and students back in school buildings without comprehensive hybrid-learning plans available, we need the bold and innovative investments employed at the beginning of this crisis to continue.

Staffing cuts and a backlog in UniteCT, the state Department of Housing’s emergency rental assistance system, may be hindering people’s ability to get the rent relief they need, even if they qualify. Similarly, teacher shortages are currently plaguing many school districts, making it difficult to plan ahead or be prepared for sudden leaves of absence.

I’ve always been of the mindset that health care, education and housing are basic needs that should be publicly subsidized and widely accessible. But in the face of continued pandemic stresses, these systems need ongoing support just to stay afloat. At full capacity, UniteCT was efficient enough to accommodate countless applications a week. Now, the program website touts a processing apology: “Due to a very high volume of requests, you may experience long wait times in processing your application.”

Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, sites the latest Household Pulse Survey in saying that more than 107,000 households in Connecticut are not current on rent.

“In addition to that, we know that the ERA program, Unite CT, is going to run out of funds before it can assist the more than 20,000 households who have applied for rental assistance and have applications pending review. Given that rental assistance is more cost-effective and less inexpensive than shelter beds, it only makes sense to use that surplus to continue Unite CT program with state funding.”

“We can use this extra money in a strategic way to shape the future of our state to become a stronger, more equitable place by making important investments to generate affordable housing,” offered Erin Boggs, Executive Director of Open Communities Alliance, a non-profit agency working on creating equitable housing options for our state’s most vulnerable residents. “We can do this both in direct support of building mixed-income housing and through creating a structure for planning and zoning for the housing in our state.”

School districts are struggling with similar challenges. Staffing shortages, debates on the efficacy of in-person versus remote learning, and satisfying the social-emotional needs of students are all mounting concerns that seem to plague teachers and parents and evade district leaders.

I contracted COVID at the beginning of the year and was down for two full weeks. I ended up in a Quest Diagnostic Center for blood work and overheard exasperated complaints from my phlebotomist telling her colleague about yet another email from her kids’ school district about dozens more cases. She desperately wanted a remote-learning option for her children.

The omicron surge, which has caused more deaths in the nation than the delta variant, wasn’t our first go-round with the COVID-19 virus. We’ve had an opportunity to reflect on what we could have done differently to support educators and students in their efforts to stay safe while at school.

But instead of adapting, learning from the past, and creating people-centered policies that ensure everyone’s safety, we sent thousands of students and educators back to school after holiday traveling contributed to one of the largest surges since the beginning of the pandemic. Without sufficient contingency plans for classrooms that may be down a teacher who is out sick, along with flexibility for parents who may want in-person or remote options on occasion, we’re bound to be chasing our tails trying to address one group’s concerns while ignoring another’s.

We’ve had two years of practice with remote and hybrid learning, and we know it’s not ideal for kids’ long-term social-emotional development. As debates persist on whether school buildings are super-spreaders, the CDC recommends looking outside of the buildings to decide what to do inside.

“Although outbreaks in schools can occur, multiple studies have shown that transmission within school settings is typically lower than — or at least similar to — levels of community transmission, when prevention strategies are in place in schools,” the December report states.

But since one-third of school districts reported not having sufficient funding to maintain or improve air quality in their schools, and with Gov. Ned Lamont poised to lift the mask mandate for schools, our prevention strategies are questionable at the moment. Some flexibility for parents and teachers might be worth a second look.

“Teachers are feeling so very exhausted from doing the work we show up to do every day, and we’re experiencing stressor upon stressor to the system,” said Leslie Blatteau, the recently elected president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, who has been actively advocating for teacher and parent flexibility during this time — especially as a teacher shortage affects districts throughout the country.”

Blatteau is among a number of educators asking that the state Department of Education ease its 180-day requirement for in-person learning and institute a policy that would allow remote or hybrid learning to count toward those days.

This is a sound approach to a complicated problem. Policies like these could pave the road toward the development of a surge response plan that could be invoked once a threshold of cases is passed. That plan should identify which classes can be remote or hybrid, which students would be remote on which days, what technology to purchase and employ during the surge, and who can step in when teachers get sick.

This kind of preemptive planning would give parents the power to decide what is best for their children while educators focus on what’s best for learning.

“We recognize that remote learning is not ideal for extended periods of time,” Blatteau said,  “but some flexibility — 5-10 days — would help districts when understaffing is an issue.”

Regardless of our desires and attempts to return to normal, surge after surge and variant after variant has shown us this virus isn’t on our schedule. Actually, our schedules, attendance mandates, and sick policies don’t matter to COVID at all. That’s partly why we must be as agile with our responses to every surge as we were in spring 2020.

Blatteau is not indifferent to the economic impact the pandemic has had on parents throughout the state. She knows that for many parents, having children learn from home meant using their personal time off or sick time, or losing job opportunities altogether. Her requests for flexibility come with recommendations for protecting income while protecting everyone’s health.

“Back in 2020, when I was part of a grassroots group organizing for remote learning, we were pushing for the governor to use the rainy day fund to support families who couldn’t go to work,” she said. “We could have opted for that, and we chose not to.”

Blatteau’s two-year-old recommendation makes our state’s current $2.2 billion surplus look like a pile of money collecting dust while people lost income, and in some of the worst circumstances, their homes.

What’s happening in our education and housing systems throughout the state stands as just a few examples of how various sectors could use innovation and investment during this time.

Here’s a thought: Let’s deplete this surplus by investing in education, housing, social programming, people-centered policies, and direct financial aid to support workers and families who need it the most.

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Mercy A. Quaye | Columnist

Mercy A. Quaye writes a monthly column called Sightlines for CT Mirror and is the editor of CT Mirror's Community Editorial Board. In 2015 she founded and continues to lead The Narrative Project, a mission-driven communications consulting group providing communications support to non-profit organizations throughout the state. Born and raised in New Haven, Mercy has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Public Relations, Social Media and Applied Communications, both from Quinnipiac University. Her work experience includes roles as a columnist for Hearst Connecticut, Adjunct Professor of Digital Journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, radio show host, and communications specialist for advocacy, community, and educational organizations.