Opinion: Stamford schools social worker says ‘let us wait until most staff and students are fully inoculated’

Everyone wants the truth, but when the truth is brought to the table, no one wants to hear it or pay it heed. The following are hard truths that I am asking all to consider.

I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a School Social Worker for the Stamford Public Schools. My highest priority is to ensure the safety (physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially) of my students and my colleagues. It is no secret that this pandemic has spun the world from its axis. It certainly has spun mine, as I horrifically lost my healthy brother to COVID-19 in April 2020.

For the record, I, too, want students back in the school buildings, but, to be loud and clear, I want them back SAFELY and in an environment where they can thrive. In the last year, we have been constantly challenged to “seize these opportunities” and use them as occasions for growth. I fear that, as we inch closer to schools reopening, we will not be seizing opportunities but grappling with dire consequences.

Truth One: Our education system, now more than ever, needs an overhaul. In a data-driven society, we are ignoring some very significant statistics that should be analyzed closely before reopening schools. We can certainly look at numbers that support the impact of students being out of school. If, however, we are going to look at that information, we must also consider alternative data as well. Over the course of this past year, personal experiences at my own school, coupled with the input of colleagues throughout the district, substantiate a significant decrease in instances of: suspensions; expulsions; felony referrals; bullying; discipline referrals; physical and verbal altercations in schools and on buses; weapon possessions; suicidal/homicidal ideation crises; reports of unwanted student sexual advances; and, out-of-district placements.

Why aren’t we considering this data in the formulation of increasingly positive experiences for students and their teachers? Perhaps this glaring reduction in negative circumstances is alerting us that the traditional model of education, which has been perpetuated over the last 10-15 years, is no longer viable. The pandemic encouraged the implementation of a hybrid model that cut class sizes in half and, in so doing, had the positive effect of curtailing a myriad of problematic situations. The hybrid model also afforded teachers the opportunity to focus on education over discipline issues and student struggles over behavioral defiance. Irrefutably, then, the conjoined impact of the hybrid paradigm shift coupled with its readily evident benefits for students and teachers must be considered prior to a hasty return to five-day instruction.

Truth Two: During the 2019-2020 school year, the Stamford Public Schools was working on plans to raze several dilapidated schools and rebuild them. Cloonan Middle School was one of them. The purpose of this process was that these old schools suffered years of: poor ventilation systems; severe water intrusion and mold; old and damaged HVAC and roofing problems; and, asbestos issues. The pandemic’s onslaught forced plans for rebuilding to come to an abrupt halt. Consequently, the buildings remained in the same disrepair or worse. How, with all good conscience, can we permit these buildings to reopen to full capacity when the CDC, DPH, and the WHO stress that proper ventilation and HVAC systems in school buildings are paramount to keep students and staff safe from transmission of COVID-19? Why can’t the Board of Education, Board of Finance, and administration simultaneously work on a safe, solid reopening plan while continuing to plan for proper building projects? It appears to me that the expectation to multi-task is placed solely on teachers who have exceptionally learned how to do two things at one time (i.e.: teaching students in person while live streaming at the same time).

Truth Three: Staff and parents are now being told that school officials interpret the language in the CDC recommendations as, “Students should maintain at least a 2 meter (or 6ft.) distance when possible.” School officials are interpreting the term “when possible” as a flexibility statement, and they feel this permits for a 3-feet physical distance as being “safe enough.” If you read the CDC guidelines, the full sentence reads, “Students should maintain at least a 2 meter distance when possible between people who do not live together.” Most classmates do not live together, therefore, the statement should be interpreted for its intended purpose and a 2-meter social distancing should remain.

Truth Four: We need to consider the reason why boards of education, administration and teachers, and parent and teacher meetings are recommended to continue virtually. One argument is that continued virtual meetings help mitigate the spread of the virus. The second argument is that continued virtual meetings are necessary since the data supports that transmission of the virus and its effects from adult to adult are more severe than from student to student. No consideration is being made, however, regarding the transmission from students to adults. Clearly, if it is not safe enough for the aforementioned adults to meet in-person, then it is not yet safe for students to attend school five days a week for instruction. Conversely, if we are prepared and “safe enough” to have in-person instruction for all students five days a week, then all virtual meetings should be suspended as well. If we move to five-day instruction, I invite all board members and administrators to sit in those very same classrooms for just one week (five school days). Sadly, the real truth is that will never occur. Behind closed doors, they recognize the risk is just too high.

Obviously, intelligence needs to prevail. A safe and efficacious plan is a necessity. The majority of staff and students require full and complete inoculations before a return to five day in-person learning. This debilitating pandemic has taught hard-learned lessons in patience and pragmatism. Let us be smart about this return to school plan. Let us wait until most staff and students are fully inoculated. Let us use the virus’s instruction as a true pedagogic force to forge an educational model where all students and staff can thrive in a safe and secure environment.

Mina Bibeault, LCSW, is a clinical therapist and social worker at Cloonan Middle School.