NEW HAVEN — A coalition of six unions representing school workers has released a list of 13 principles they described as “non-negotiable” as school districts prepare to reopen buildings in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“On some level we understand their need to get students back into the classroom as soon as possible,” said American Federation of Teachers Connecticut President Jan Hochadel at a virtual press conference Monday, referring Gov. Ned Lamont and state Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona.
“Like the hierarchy of needs, we feel those things cannot happen unless our students and our staff are safe,” Hochadel said.
Some leaders said that there are apparent different standards for students — who are allowed to opt out of in-person learning if they so choose — and school staff.
“Teachers who have compromised immune systems are being told pretty much that you have to come into school, wear a mask and keep your fingers crossed,” said Don Williams, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association.
The coalition said it represents more than 60,000 staff employed by school boards in Connecticut.
Hochadel said all 13 principles are important, but the first — that schools may not reopen unless representatives from every labor organization be included in the planning process — does the best to sum up the coalition’s desires.
Cynthia Harris Jackson, a school nurse at Conte West Hills Magnet School, said that schools in cities such as New Haven are often akin to an acute care center because of lack of regular access to medical care.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional challenges that place more burdens on the existing health gaps we see every day,” said Harris Jackson, who is president of the New Haven union for school nurses. “The entire school staff and student body must work together. In many cases it takes a village to slow the spread of the virus.”
Harris Jackson announced two of the 13 principles: that all staff, including temporary and substitute workers, must be trained on COVID-19 safety protocols and that only trained professionals be allowed to administer healthcare related to COVID-19 or to medically assess students.
Other principles address constant mask-wearing among students and adherence to social distancing, a non-retaliation principle about staff raising concerns about workplace safety, the installation of partitions, ensuring that food service adhere to restaurant COVID-19 protocols and notification to all unions of positive tests within the school district.
Katy Gale, a fifth grade teacher in Darien and a CEA board member, said she believes social distancing cannot be done in her small school district, so it’s hard to believe a city such as New Haven could accomplish it in school.
“My own nightmare is one in which I’m looking down at one of my 11-year-old students who is becoming unraveled because of my death,” she said. “We must get this right. We must reopen safely.”
Ivy Delgado, a bus driver in New Haven and president of their union, read principle 13: that all buses have a trained monitor and students must adhere to seating protocols — no students may share a row unless they live in the same household and they will be seated in a diagonal formation by alternating sides of the bus in each row.
“As a parent, a driver and the president of the school bus drivers’ council, I would like to see a safe reopening for the students, drivers, monitors and school staff,” she said.