A number of Hartford teachers say their return to school has been marred by safety concerns and the challenges of juggling in-person and remote classes.
The educators brought a slew of examples to Tuesday’s board of education meeting, where Superintendent of Schools Leslie Torres-Rodriguez acknowledged there have been “pain points” in the reopening of Hartford Public Schools. Not least of the hiccups, she said, was the ransomware virus that infiltrated the city’s computer systems just before the scheduled start of school, forcing Hartford to shut down its servers to minimize the damage.
However, teachers said Tuesday their concerns go beyond the inconveniences caused by the ransomware attack — which delayed the start of school by one day — or unwieldy COVID-19 protocols.
“The plan was not as put together as you all had hoped and the teachers on the ground in the schools, we are doing the best that we can because the children are here and they need us,” Mary-Olive Gosselink, a teacher at Annie Fisher School, told the school board and superintendent Tuesday night. "But I just wanted to let you know that I hope in the next coming sessions, you guys are going to work really, really hard to help us, because we are drowning.
“The teachers in the schools are drowning.”
Gosselink bought hand soap for her students after she heard that Annie Fisher, home to a Montessori and STEM magnet school, ran out. Carol Gale, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers union, also reported that the school ran out of soap.
Proper hand-washing is one of the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19, according to public safety experts.
Gosselink also admonished the district for stating that personal protective equipment was provided to all teachers before the first day of school last week. She didn’t get hers until more than halfway through the first day.
At another school, Gale said, contact tracing did not reach everyone who was in close contact with a community partner who tested positive for COVID-19. Three staff members at Dwight-Bellizzi Academy informed the principal themselves that they should quarantine at home after they weren’t approached by contact tracers, Gale said.
She also questioned the wisdom of packing 40 students into virtual classes when the digital platform only allows teachers to see a few students at a time.
Several substitute teachers complained that the district is only hiring school-based subs, and not offering any more part-time, per diem jobs.
And a remote learning teacher questioned why there wasn’t district training for the new role, or materials she could send home to her students.
“Very inequitable,” Marie Maselli, the teacher, said. “Not easy to teach when your students on the other end just have a pencil and a piece of paper” while in-person learners have workbooks.
Torres-Rodriguez said she would look into all the specific issues raised during Tuesday’s meeting. She also said the district relies on staff, teachers and families to report instances where things don’t go as they should, especially safety concerns.
However, she said the instances she’s heard of do not speak to the school reopening overall.
“They’re not at all representative of the whole,” she said in response to a question from board member David Jimenez. “This is why it’s important for us when we hear about these isolated incidents to hear about them and address them immediately.”
Shontá Browdy, another school board member, disagreed. She said she’s received a dozen emails of concern from educators, most of whom listed numerous problems.
“I feel like someone tried to suck the air out of the room and diminish these concerns and make them seem so minute,” Browdy said. “We have to be honest. ... I think we do a disservice to make it seem like these are very few incidents that are just blown out of proportion."
Teachers on Tuesday raised concerns about both safety and instruction.
E.B. Kennelly School science teacher Ashley Bonet said it’s cumbersome to carry her supplies to six to eight classrooms a day and to try to teach students in person and through virtual lessons.
Bonet, a member of the union’s executive board, also criticized the fact that Kennelly has classes with 23 kids sitting only 3 feet apart, the minimum recommended by state guidance.
“You’re not gonna tell me it’s safe for a kid to be 3 feet apart with their mask off while they’re eating" breakfast and lunch she said. “This is happening across the district.”
Torres-Rodriguez also shared some issues the district is working to address.
More than 1,500 students still need to borrow technology from the district to access virtual learning, she said Tuesday.
A shipment of devices arrived just before school started, but some of those were temporarily given to teachers in the wake of the cyberattack, according to Hartford schools spokesman John Fergus. He said the district has ordered enough computers and iPads to make sure every student can take home a district-owned device.
About 1,100 students were also considered “no-shows” last week, meaning they didn’t come to school in person or participate in any remote learning. That’s roughly 6% of the district’s 18,000 students.
“It’s an extremely difficult time for all of us and in addition to recreating essentially the way of work, we also have the overlay of the cyberattack, so we are doing the best we can and we will continue to try to do more every single day,” Torres-Rodriguez said.
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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