‘A cowardly way to put our kids at risk:’ Stratford school re-entry plan advances despite opposition
STRATFORD — Elementary school students will return to in-person learning four days a week next month despite opposition from several board members and every member of the public who spoke during the meeting.
“I honestly believe that it is too soon for Stratford to move students back to school full-time,” said Anne Tranquilli-Brausher, the first of six speakers to express concern about the school district’s “re-entry plan” during Monday’s Board of Education meeting’s public forum.
Under the school district’s current hybrid plan, students at each school are divided into two cohorts who attend in-person learning two days a week and distance learning three days.
The re-entry plan, first discussed by the board last week, envisions kindergarten, first grade and English language learning students district-wide returning to school four days a week starting Nov. 16.
Students in second, third and fourth grades would follow Nov. 23 and fifth and sixth graders Nov. 30.
The plan calls for decisions on grades seven to 12 to be reviewed in December.
The plan is also dependent on cases of COVID-19 remaining low — though as several who spoke during Monday’s meeting noted, many districts in the area are pulling back on plans to return more students to in-person learning because of rising case numbers.
In Stratford, cases have remained relatively low compared with some other Fairfield County communities, at 5.2 cases per 100,000, though 33 new cases were reported between Oct. 23 and Monday, according to Mayor Laura Hoydick.
Tranquilli-Bausher pointed out the school board itself has been holding meetings virtually since the beginning of the pandemic. And she criticized the board for delegating the decision to return to school full time to Superintendent Janet Robinson, who board members unanimously reprimanded in May for what they called poor communication and “the giving of misinformation to board members.”
“You are elected on a promise of transparency and communication,” Tranquilli-Bausher said. “Allowing this to move forward without a vote in favor or against is a major shirking of responsibility and a cowardly way to put our kids at risk. Own your choice.”
Theresa Manus-Piccolo read a letter she said her 11-year-old daughter, Ava Piccolo, a sixth-grade student at Wilcoxson Elementary School, asked to write to the board.
In the letter, Ava wrote that she is opposed to the re-entry plan because it would be difficult for children to socially distance at the small school.
“Though I love going to school, it wouldn’t help anything,” she said. “I’m learning fine from home and staying safe.”
Manus-Piccolo said Tuesday she emailed the school district asking specific questions about the reopening plan — and asking if families would be permitted to stay with the hybrid learning plan — but never got a response.
Michael Fiorello, the president of the school district’s teachers union, asked “Why now?” regarding the re-entry plan, reading headlines from news reports about rising cases across the country, region and state.
He also wondered why the plan called for ramping up a return to in-person learning right before Thanksgiving, when many in the community will be gathering in groups with families and friends.
“No rational person could say that the news and the metrics are driving the decision to re-open,” Fiorello said.
Robin Julian, the union’s vice president for elementary schools, told the school board she had been flooded with emails from teachers since Friday, when Robinson sent a letter saying students were not succeeding with online learning.
The letter, which Julian said prompted “outrage” from teachers, was not posted on the school district’s website, and Robinson did not respond to a request for a copy.
Julian said the school district’s custodial staff was spread too thin, that classrooms were “barely being cleaned,” and mostly by teachers, which she said violated a memorandum of agreement between the union and school district administration.
“Shouldn’t those things be addressed before adding more kids back into the building?’ Julian said. “Given our increasing COVID numbers, returning to full in-person learning seems very unwise.”
Though public sentiment during the meeting was universally opposed to the re-entry plan, as the meeting progressed, many people watching a live-stream on Youtube expressed support for more children returning to school in the video’s comments, where users can be shielded by anonymity.
According to a survey from the school district to which nearly 2,000 parents responded, when asked “If school resumes in-person, do you intend to send your child?” 1,374, or 70 percent, responded yes.
Board member Janice Cupee agreed with Tranquilli-Bausher that the board should vote on the plan, not leave it to Robinson.
She noted that the board had intervened with Robinson’s decisions regarding matters like students getting waivers to go to school for more than two days a week.
“There are things that we disagree with Dr. Robinson on,” Cupee said. “I don’t know why this should go through without our input.”
Board of Education Chair Allison DelBene said the decision was up to Robinson.
In an email Tuesday, DelBene reiterated her position.
“The superintendent and the department of public health are working together to ensure a safe and successful transition plan is implemented,” DelBene said. “Their collaboration has been very informative.”
Board member Robert DeLorenzo noted the re-entry plan included a date for more kids to return to school, but that could change depending on what happens with the pandemic, a point repeated later by administrators and town health officials.
Two other members, Andrea Corcoran and Karen Rodia, expressed misgivings about the plan.
“We all want students back full-time,” Corcoran said. “That’s the ideal situation. But we are living in times that are not ideal.”
Rodia echoed the sentiment. “I am absolutely opposed to going back all in at this point, and I can’t emphasize that enough,” she said.
Vice Chair Amy Wiltsie said kids were more likely to practice unsafe behaviors when outside school.
“I feel very confident that the safest place for my children right now is in school,” she said.
Robinson said that she received about 40 letters from parents “begging” for a quicker return to in-person learning. Many students are dropping off of distance learning, she said.
“What we are doing right now is not equitable,” Robinson said.
She also said she and building administrators have received “innumerable” alerts from students using school-owned devices to search the internet expressing suicidal ideation or how to harm themselves.
“Those kids are in isolation at home,” she said. “I want to see those kids. We want to have them in school ... I’m really emotional about this, because I am concerned. The principals and I see these. You don’t. You’re not hearing those cries for help.”