EAST HAVEN, CT — Hundreds of teachers on Tuesday rallied against a full in-person school reopening. For hours, teachers protested outside East Haven High School while inside the auditorium, the Board of Education applauded the district’s work on its reopening plan.
By the end of the night, some board members said they were surprised by teachers' reaction, noting they were not required to approve the reopening plan, saying they were "not really involved." The board ultimately added to their agenda to talk about teacher concerns.
But without the teachers.
Per the local health department rules, only 25 people were permitted inside the auditorium that holds hundreds. A teacher noted that his classroom is a fraction of the size of the assembly hall and would hold around that same number.
In a petition to the education board, the East Haven Education Association said buildings aren’t ready, staff are not fully prepared and "teacher anxiety is through the roof."
Teachers said that the plan, presented by East Haven schools Superintendent Erica Forti, to open the doors to on Tuesday is a mistake. They want schools to reopen in a hybrid model. That’s the plan in myriad nearby school districts.
Forti defended the plan.
"Take the emotion out of it,” Forti said. "Trust the data. The data tells us it’s safe for a full reopening."
Nearly 800 have signed the petition, presented to the board Tuesday, which reads in part: "A full re-opening unnecessarily puts the health of all our teachers and students at risk, especially high-risk teachers who need accommodations. There’s no way to guarantee the kids will socially distance or keep their masks on."
The union said, "Instead of using an outside company, Edgenuity, to deliver instruction to students learning remotely, it just makes sense to use high risk teachers who are familiar with the curriculum and students. All students deserve to be taught by certified teachers who can provide individualized learning, including students who are learning remotely."
The concern is that a full reopening puts teachers in high-risk categories, like those who are over 60 or have underlying health issues, in harm's way.
"East Haven is one of very few districts in the state to have a full reopening," the petition reads. "The buildings aren’t ready, we aren’t fully prepared, and teacher anxiety is through the roof – over 75% of teachers are very concerned about returning to school. It is paramount to protect one another, our families, our students and the community. Please reconsider the reopening plan."
According to the reopening plan, masks are required to be worn at all times with scheduled breaks and social distancing will be practiced. There will be hand-washing stations, better ventilation and signs with safety messages.
If someone gets infected with the coronavirus, it will be up to the state Department of Public Health and the East Shore District Health Department on next steps, according to the schools reopen plan.
The first day of school in East Haven is Tuesday
“We will be here on Tuesday but our hope the board of education and superintendent will re-evaluate their decision," said Michael Archambault, East Haven Academy teacher and vice president of the East Haven Education Association. "We want to go back, but we want to go back safely for students and teachers and the hybrid gives us that option."
Archambault is the parent of three children in East Haven Public Schools. In his remarks to the board, as more than 200 teachers rallied outside, with their cheers and chants sometimes heard inside, Archambault said that what is clear to him and other teachers is that kids will not consistently comply with mask-wearing, noting that face coverings on their own are not a solution.
"We’re seeing outbreaks in schools around the country. We’ve had the conversation with them, and they say, ‘But the numbers are good, the risk isn’t there.’ That’s a testament to Connecticut doing a good job, yes, but we’re seeing schools opening, and we’re seeing numbers rise. All we are saying is there’s a much safer way to do it."
Archambault was followed by longtime award-winning East Haven educator, coach and art teacher Al Camera.
As he spoke at around 9 p.m., cheers and chanting from the 200 teachers outside could be heard inside the auditorium.
Camera told the board he is a COVID-19 survivor who wants more than anything to be in the classroom but is worried about the full reopening model and says the district should use the hybrid model, which reduces classroom and school bus density. He said he came close to death and worries about teachers already at health risk.
“The virus is real and it still exists," Camera said. "We’re going to see a spike. I don’t want to see anyone go through it. I didn’t want to be that poster person, but so be it I’ll take that role. Postpone. Take a day or two. I think lives are worth it."
Archambault urged the board to "change their thinking."
"We are not going to be safe if we go full in-person, we’re going to end up full distance learning," he said. "We should do the hybrid model. It will be safer for students and teachers."
But the decision has already been made.
Parent Tina Hedley addressed the board, saying her son would suffer greatly if he's not in school, noting that she believes she stands with the majority. "I know many parents support the reopening but are just not as vocal as the small 20 percent whom are contesting it for full remote learning. Please do not be discouraged and change your actions due to the louder few versus the many who opted to send their children in person."
She added the board should address teachers' concerns.
"Please listen to them, so we can come up with a plan that our teachers can be happy with and safe. I think many forget that this is the only lifeline some children may have that attend our schools who may not come from an easy home," said Hedley, who is the assistant to Mayor Joseph A. Carfora.
"This virus will not just pick up and leave, so we need to learn to live with it, like so many other obstacles in life," she said. "I’d like my children to be critical thinkers, to problem-solve and not be afraid of working through issues that arise. I think this will show our children that we move forward and instill all of these traits that I just mentioned above and watch our teachers overcome this challenge with strength."
By Wednesday morning, as it was clear there would likely be no change in plans, Archambault said that teachers would show up for school Tuesday.
“As a union, East Haven Education Association members pulled together to make our voices heard. I am very proud of the teachers and parents for coming together for the safety of our members and our students. Every teacher in this district cares about the students and as professionals are seeking to return in a safe work environment. If nothing changes, we will be at school on Tuesday providing the students of East Haven with the high quality of education that they are accustomed to," he said. "However, we will continue to make certain that our concerns are expressed by our members."