Just a week away from when some Connecticut schools will reopen, educators and other staff members are continuing to raise concerns about districts failing to follow state health and safety guidelines, as well as denying accommodations for workers with health concerns.
“Guidelines for districts are not a guarantee that all schools will follow them accordingly,” Leif Horstmeyer, a Norwich school custodian and steward for MEIU Local 506, said during a virtual news conference with other union members Monday. “Without strict enforcement, our job is futile.”
When it comes the state recommended spacing of 6 feet between students and educators, Connecticut Education Association President Jeff Leake said “almost half of the districts that we are getting reports from are saying, ‘We’re not even going to try to do that,’ and in the ones that are [trying], 76% are saying, ‘If we can.’ ”
“Those are huge, huge pieces of getting back safely,” he added. “It comes down to districts saying, ‘Well we can’t do it so we’re not going to even try.’ “
Leake, who has been involved in direct conversations with the state about reopening plans, said he has the impression that while state education Commission Miguel Cardona and Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, are “trying to help,” “that message doesn’t always get out to our local districts.”
“That’s where we’re finding at CEA some of the biggest problems,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
To help address the issue, the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and other members of the Board of Education Union Coalition discussed 13 “non-negotiable” core standards for state and district officials to implement. Some of the standards, such as those on mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing, parallel state guidelines.
Others standards, including the creation of joint COVID-19 labor and management committees in every district, go beyond the state’s recommendations. New Haven bus driver Ivy Delgado, president of the CSEA/SEU Local 200 Bus Driver Council, spoke about the importance of setting firm regulations for social distancing during transportation, as well as the hiring of bus monitors to enforce health and safety protocols. In another measure, Cynthia Harris-Jackson, president of the New Haven School Nurses Union AFSCME Local 1303-467, emphasized that only trained health care workers should be allowed to administer coronavirus-related health care to students.
The coalition also said that parents and union leaders must be informed in any instance of a student or staff member testing positive for COVID-19. If districts cannot meet the unions’ 13 requirements, the coalition said schools should remain closed and participate solely in remote learning.
AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel said the unions continue to have “respectful conversations” with the offices of Cardona and Gov. Ned Lamont, and “at some level” they understand why state officials are pushing for in-person education.
“We know that there is nothing better than being face-to-face to establish relationships with students and staff, and we understand distanced learning does not work for all children. We understand all of that,” she said. “But … we feel those things cannot happen unless our students and our staff are safe, and that’s what our principles are all about.”
Despite repeated assurances from Lamont and Cardona that schools would only reopen if it were safe to do so and all COVID-19-related expenses would be covered by the state, some workers remained skeptical. New Fairfield paraeducator Cynthia Ross-Zweig, who serves as president of the CSEA/SEIU Local 2001 Paraeducator Council, said some staff members are still being told to purchase their own masks because districts cannot afford to supply them.
“That’s a major concern,” she said.
Don Williams, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said there is also confusion over whether educators with health concerns would be allowed to teach remotely.
“We were talking about that for weeks and weeks … and there seemed to be a willingness and a recognition that of course we do not want to put … lives in jeopardy and we need to make proper accommodations,” he said. “Now that the school year is starting, those discussions at the district level are not resulting in accommodations for many, if not most, of those teachers. … That is a critical need that is unaddressed, that probably affects somewhere between 15% and 30% of teachers.”
Williams said unions may resort to calling out specific districts “in the near future.”
Hochadel said the unions are aware it would be illegal for them to strike in Connecticut, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t take other actions.”
“I think we’ll decide what comes next as school starts,” she said.
Amanda Blanco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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