'Safety is really the utmost concern': Westport teachers push for delay to full return

Students leave Kings Highway Elementary School on the announcement that Westport Schools will be closed for the unforeseen future Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in response to the Covid-19 virus pandemic in Westport, Conn.

Students leave Kings Highway Elementary School on the announcement that Westport Schools will be closed for the unforeseen future Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in response to the Covid-19 virus pandemic in Westport, Conn.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — With the district’s youngest students expected to return for full in-person learning in the coming weeks, teachers are asking for a delay to allow staff an opportunity to be safely vaccinated.

In an email update last week, Superintendent Thomas Scarice announced elementary students would return to full, on-site learning on Feb. 1, while middle school students would take a phased approach before returning fully in March.

“As a community, we are faced with obvious public health obligations to ensure that we are responsibly doing our part as a school system to minimize virus transmission,” Scarice said. “However, we are also obligated to balance our public health responsibilities with the perhaps less obvious risks that have impacted our children as a result of the reduction of on-site schooling.”

But on Jan. 14, the Westport Education Association called on district leaders to delay the return to give staff an opportunity to be vaccinated out of concern for students, staff and their families.

“Now that the prospect of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is on the horizon, it is difficult to comprehend why the district would risk compromising the mitigating measures that have been successful in maintaining the health and safety of students and staff,” the WEA wrote in a letter to Scarice and the Board of Education.

The WEA said bringing more students into the schools could also result in the loss of the successful mitigating measures that have prevented the spread of COVID within schools. This included making contact tracing harder, less distancing in classrooms and hallways, and losing cohorting, which could lead to greater person-to-person contact.

“The vaccine is at our doorstep, and teachers are concerned for everyone’s safety if all students are brought back in before the staff can be inoculated,” the WEA wrote. “The health, safety and social/emotional well being of students and staff must be at the forefront of this critical decision.”

Teachers’ concerns

Karen DeFelice, WEA co-president, said most teachers would like nothing more to be in their classrooms with their students.

“We understand all the challenges, but we’re looking at a vaccine which is another mitigating measure and we’re also seeing that bringing more students in would challenge the mitigating measures we have in place — and that concerns us as well,” DeFelice said.

April Harvey, WEA secretary and a sixth grade math teacher at Bedford Middle School, echoed her sentiments.

“Believe me teachers want the kids back,” Harvey said. “However, safety is really the utmost concern. Kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe in school, and we need everybody to feel safe.”

She said it didn’t make sense to have a full return before the vaccine is made readily available.

“We keep being told how essential we are, we’re needed in the schools, and the schools need us,” Harvey said. “Yet we’re not essential enough to have the vaccine before we provide the services.”

Teachers also said the proposed full return would not be what students or staff experienced before the pandemic.

“It’s not just going back to school and being in a weird representation of what school used to be,” said John Horrigan, WEA co-president. “They’re not going to go back to what it was.”

David Willick, a social studies teacher at Staples, said there could also be challenges that come with a full return. He said with more students there will be less flexibility for teachers and students to move around, and both will lose the current benefits of a smaller class size.

“Once everyone is vaccinated I think you might be able to see people loosen up more, but right now I think the notion that we’re going to all of a sudden be back to a pre-COVID classroom is just false,” Willick said.

He said in a couple more weeks teachers could be vaccinated and the weather will begin to get warmer.

“Of all the times it’s just seems like the need to rush shouldn’t be there right now,” he said.

On Monday, the BOE received more than 60 comments about a full return with most coming from teachers sharing similar concerns. Some also highlighted the current challenges of getting vaccinated and the new strain of the coronavirus.

“Some of us have family members with high-risk health conditions and ourselves are at risk,” said Deb Goldenberg, a Coleytown Elementary School teacher. “We’re very concerned for our own safety and the safety and health of our family members that we will bring this high exposure home to.”

Balancing act

Scarice said he was aware of staff’s concerns and had already planned a meeting with the WEA, which may be the first of many to address them.

“I really want to do what we can to ensure that all of our faculty and staff feel confident coming in,” he said. “It’s a very, very difficult time right now.”

But he said after this past weekend he was not 100 percent sure when everyone will have access to the vaccine. Scarice said in the meantime the district looks to build upon the success they’ve had in mitigating efforts so kids can have more access to in-person schooling.

He said he understood any decision made would be polarizing and was a balancing act, but he still wanted to address any lingering concerns of staff.

“It takes a lot of discipline to continually remind yourself and the system why we’re here,” he said. “Our primary mission is to support and develop our kids — but you can’t really separate that from the concurrent mission which is to support the people supporting the kids.”

Scarice said while the Westport district took a conservative approach in the first half of the school year, surrounding districts have been open at the elementary and middle school levels since September.

He said he wasn’t comfortable making the decision for a full-return in October, but was now after seeing the track record of the district’s mitigation efforts and neighboring districts.

“We’ve really held off but those other districts have shown a lot of success and we have a lot to learn from that so we can do the same thing with our kids,” Scarice said.

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com