‘It will be much safer’: Danbury to start school with hybrid model as teachers demand state funding
DANBURY — The district announced it will start school under a hybrid model that officials said will be safer than sending all students back into the buildings full-time.
With this plan, the district will offer a blend of in-person and distance learning, and about half of the student population will be in the buildings at once.
The announcement comes as teachers held car rallies in Danbury and across the state on Thursday afternoon to demand more funding to ensure a safe reopening of schools.
“Going slow is a good thing at this point,” Superintendent Sal Pascarella said at a school board meeting Wednesday evening. “Giving us the ability to split puts us in a good position to plan.”
He and other school officials said they would be able to sleep at night.
“We feel it will be much safer,” Pascarella said.
The governor had originally told districts to plan to begin the year fully in-person, but said Wednesday evening this may not be possible for some schools.
Danbury had been urging state officials for weeks to allow the city to start with a hybrid model, arguing the district had too many students and not enough space in the buildings.
Erin Daly, head of NEA Danbury, the teacher’s union, said returning to school full-time would not have been doable.
“There is no way a district like Danbury can return to normal with just wearing masks and a few safety modifications in the classroom,” she said. “That is not going to prevent us from getting ill. The hybrid model is a much better model.”
Daly, other Danbury teachers and other community members met at the high school on Thursday afternoon, drove down Main Street and toward Rogers Park on Thursday to demand more state funding and support the hybrid model. A police vehicle led the cars, which took about 15 minutes to drive by.
Across the state, a reported 24 other School Safety Car Rallies were held, all organized by local affiliates of the Connecticut Education Association — the state’s largest teacher’s union — aiming to literally put the brakes on a full reopening in September.
A main rally led by the CEA ended at the governor’s house.
“We know that you want to return to the classroom and be back in front of your students, but during these unprecedented times and while the pandemic is still accelerating across the country, we must take every precaution to ensure your safety and the safety of your students,” CEA President Jeff Leake said in a message to teachers.
The American Federation of Teachers, Connecticut, the state’s other major teacher union, is of the same mind.
“Our members have repeatedly called for directing additional resources to local and regional districts in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel. “Without the additional funding, many of our schools cannot implement the needed CDC protocols and guidance to keep students and staff safe.”
According to the CEA, more than half of Connecticut’s teachers are either at high risk for developing serious illnesses from COVID-19 or care for someone who is, placing severe constraints on teachers’ ability to return to in-person teaching.
Daly said the state must commit to covering reopening costs. Danbury expects it will cost $5.2 million to reopen.
“You need to show us the money for where the funding is coming from for the districts to do what you’re asking,” said Daly, a third-grade teacher at Pembroke Elementary School.
That funding must also be distributed in an equitable way, Daly said. Wealthier districts have more resources than places like Danbury, she said.
“They have a greater chance of health and safety than we do,” she said.
Under the hybrid model, half of the student population will go to school on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the rest complete distance learning. Everyone will have distance learning on Wednesdays while the buildings are sanitized. The groups will switch Thursday and Friday.
Groups will be chosen based on addresses to keep families and neighbors together, school officials said.
Parents may also choose to keep their their students on distance learning full-time or homeschool their children.
Before the district announced it would be on the hybrid model, Daly estimated she had talked to roughly 15 percent of union membership who had concerns about returning to school. But she does not expect all of them will need accommodations.
So far, the district is talking to about 30 employees about accommodations, said Kimberly Mango Thompson, director of human resources, but she expects that number to rise.
“We can manage all kinds of accommodations of different sorts in the 30s,” Thompson said. “When those numbers get up around a hundred, I’m not quite sure how we’re going to handle it.”
She said the district may use college students as substitutes.
The district and teachers’ union plan to discuss how the virus will affect working conditions, Thompson said.
In a “perfect world,” teachers that cannot return due to health reasons would support the students on distance learning, Daly said. “This way, everyone stays working, everyone stays safe.”
Lamont, during his afternoon press briefing said the state, rather than mandating all schools open for in-person instruction, instead would need to approve any district plan that calls for no in-person learning under current COVID-19 infection rates. Lamont said Thursday his focus is on public health and opening schools safely assuming Connecticut metrics stay positive.
When learning was abruptly shifted to home last spring, Lamont said as many as 25 percent didn’t learn well, nearly all learned less than they would have in the classroom and one in six had home life obstacles they couldn’t escape by going to school.
“Right now the metrics indicate we can have classroom experience in class as well as a mix of hybrid,” Lamont said. “If the kid has a chance to get to a classroom, I want that kid to have the opportunity be in the classroom.”
Districts that want to keep all learning distant would have to make a very good case for it with the state, Lamont added.
He said it would be a forceful discussion, acknowledging that when push comes to shove he probably can’t force schools to stay open.
Update: In an earlier version of this story, a comment about the state’s ability to tell school districts to hold in-person classes rather than distance learning was misstated. In fact, Gov. Ned Lamont said he probably cannot force schools to stay open.