Survey shows CT school staff concerned about safety ahead of planned demonstration

Photo of Cayla Bamberger

A new survey, released on the eve of a planned demonstration Wednesday, shows many Connecticut teachers and staff are concerned about safety within school buildings amid the latest wave of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, teacher and school worker unions released a member survey that pointed to concerns over failures to distribute N95 masks and at-home test kits, staff shortages, and in favor of more flexibility for temporary remote learning. The results came ahead of public school employees’ plans to wear black and use the hashtag #Blackout4SafeSchools on social media to demand better mitigation strategies during the omicron surge.

In the lead up to the demonstration, the state offered some plans to address a few but not all concerns, from additional shipments of masks and test kits, to an executive order to reemploy retired teachers.

“We’ve got well over 500,000 rapid tests out to all of our schools, we’ve got millions of N95 masks,” Gov. Ned Lamont said on Tuesday afternoon. “That’s all to give people the confidence that you can teach in school, your kid can go to school, you can go safely — and right now, I think it’s working.”

“I appreciate that there’s some teachers who want us to do more, and every day we’re going to try to do more,” he said.

Close to two-thirds of survey respondents reported they do not have the supplies and protocols in place to feel safe doing their jobs. Those polled included more than 5,500 teachers, paraprofessionals, school bus drivers and monitors, custodians, nurses, and support staff in 169 districts across the state.

“We’re in a pandemic, and there’s a lot of infections,” Lamont said. “Fortunately, milder repercussions, but that doesn’t mean you’re not cautious.”

More than 2,300 employees reported positive COVID cases early last week, according to state data through Jan. 5. The count is subject to change as schools become aware of more positive results.

“But that doesn’t mean we deny kids the opportunity to be in a classroom, as long as we can keep them there safely,” the governor said.

Lamont also signed an executive order on Tuesday that gives districts greater flexibility to enlist retired teachers amid shortages caused by the recent spike in cases.

“We are fortunate to have retired teachers available to provide some relief for their colleagues who continue to do great work for school children across our state,” said Lamont in a statement. “We will continue to utilize all tools at our disposal to provide for a safe and meaningful classroom education for students.”

Education department spokesperson Eric Scoville said the state “continues to deliver on the promise” for test kits and masks, but some educators reported differently. In the union survey, 70 percent of educators said they didn’t have access to N95 masks and home testing kits when they returned to school — though more stock is in the pipeline.

“We have additional distributions planned for the future as soon as supplies are available, and we are actively working with school districts to ensure they receive their needed supplies,” said Scoville. “The state also continues to expand testing capabilities, which will help ease wait times for PCR tests for both staff and families.”

Another round of test kits are scheduled for distribution again “in the coming days” to every public school district and private school in the state, Scoville said. N95 masks for adults and other masks will also be part of that delivery.

But teachers across the state are calling on elected officials and department heads to hear what they say they need to be safe — which included those high-quality masks and COVID tests before schools reopened last week.

David Bosso in Berlin planned to wear black on Wednesday to ensure teachers’ voices are part of important decisions.

“We’re on the ground,” he said. “We have the pulse of things. We know best about the impact on our school communities.”

Bosso said he wants to be in person with his students, but schools — that made every effort to reopen — have closed as COVID cases left them short-staffed. While the coalition agreed that in-person learning is best for students, 88 percent of poll respondents believe superintendents should have the flexibility to temporarily shift to remote instruction without needing to make up the days later.

“We’re putting ourselves in a position where rather than taking a proactive, preemptive approach, things have blown up,” he said. “It lacks a practical approach to the reality on the ground.”

Mary Kay Rendock in Bloomfield said she feels supported by local administrators, but recognized not all Connecticut educators have had the same experience.

“As much as we are cared for, there a lot of people in this state that are not cared for,” she said.

More than half of educators said their administrators don’t understand the challenges they are facing, according to the coalition poll. And 70 percent reported their district is not successfully balancing professional expectations and social-emotional needs.

Rendock is in touch with other teachers and on social media, where posts and memes have circulated about a lack of regard for their safety.

“People don’t feel listened to,” she said.