Hartford, Connecticut Teachers’ Union: Too Soon to Reopen Schools

Closed lockers in a school hallway
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The president of Hartford, Connecticut’s teachers’ union said it is too early for the city’s school district to call teachers back for in-person learning in classrooms.

Hartford Federation of Teachers (HFT) president Carol Gale said the order from district superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez for teachers and students to report to schools Monday would have been more accepted by teachers if they were already fully vaccinated.

“I offer that there would have been great buy-in on the part of staff if the staff could feel comfortable that they were fully vaccinated — two weeks past the second shot – before more students were returning into already crowded classrooms by COVID standards,” Gale said, reported CT Mirror.

Torres-Rodriguez, however, said the district had never set a return date in April.

“Yeah, remote learning is working for some students,” the superintendent said. “However, for our most marginalized students, it is not – as indicated by the high chronic absenteeism rate and hearing directly from parents about the level of isolation that our students are experiencing.”

In a post published on HFT’s website in early March, the union said learning gaps caused by school closures should be addressed “in a way that does not create a stigma on students that experienced difficulties this year and may be falling behind their grade level expectations.”

The union continued:

Ever since standardized testing was mandated under No Child Left Behind, there’s been comparisons between districts and discussions of achievement gaps- especially those identified between students in our urban centers and students in their surrounding suburbs. This lens creates a superior-inferior dichotomy where predominately white students from the suburbs are on the top and students of color from the cities are on the bottom.

HFT recommended the book How to be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi, which reportedly suggests replacing the phrase “achievement gap” with “opportunity gap.”

In a survey of 1,170 of its members (about 70 percent), HFT said the union found 90 percent did not see a positive impact as a result of the current extended school day to seven instructional hours in Hartford Public Schools.

Additionally, 89 percent of union members surveyed said extending the school year by adding days to the calendar, or having a full-year calendar of classes “are ineffective supports for students.”

Union members instead preferred enrichment programs (70 percent), more services for students’ social and emotional health (82 percent), providing art and music for all students (82 percent), increased tutoring (89 percent), decreased standardized testing (84 percent), and smaller class sizes (96 percent) to address student learning gaps.

Torres-Rodriguez said the fact that school staff are obtaining second doses of the vaccine, together with lower infection rates and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) new guidelines that recommend three feet social distancing in schools, rather than six feet, all point to a window for reopening.

CDC officials relaxed the social distancing recommendations for schools in mid-March, stating students can meet safely in most classrooms with three feet between them as long as they wear masks.

“We don’t really have the evidence that 6 feet is required in order to maintain low spread,” Greta Massetti, CDC’s head of its community interventions task force, said, as reported by the Associated Press.

She added since young children have not become severely ill from the COVID-19 infection and are not considered causes of virus spread, “that allows us that confidence that 3 feet of physical distance is safe.”

Torres-Rodriguez also observed only about 25 percent of students in the Hartford district were expected to return to schools Monday, according to a family survey.

Gale, however, said teachers are concerned it will be difficult to keep students sufficiently separated, especially during meal times when they are not wearing masks.

Some paraprofessionals will need to take charge of more than one student since disabled employees will not yet be returning to classrooms, added Shellye Davis, president of the Hartford Federation of Para Educators, according to the Mirror.

“What does that even look like?” Davis asked. “This isn’t really thought out.”

Though Torres-Rodriguez said the return to in-person learning has been in the planning stages since February, Gale said teachers must now prepare their classrooms on short notice.

“You have not only the lesson-planning and the mental preparation, but the physical preparation,” Gale said. “We have virtual teachers whose classrooms have been cleared of furniture because they didn’t need it.”

WTNH News reported over the weekend HFT union members rallied Saturday morning as they marked the one-year anniversary of schools closing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While union members acknowledged students’ learning losses during the school closures, particularly in the case of low-income students, they stressed they want to have a voice in how education continues in classrooms.

“We want to recognize everything that has happened to staff inside schools to get us through to this point as well to take this as an opportunity to start looking forward in terms of what effect the pandemic has had on education, where education is going in the future,” Gale said.

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