'I don't want to be rushed back:' Some Stamford teachers not ready for full-time return

Photo of Ignacio Laguarda

STAMFORD — Elementary school teachers in Stamford breathed a sigh of relief on Saturday, when many of them received the COVID-19 vaccine. But some said they’re still not ready for a full-time return to school.

Starting on Tuesday, students in elementary schools who are not in the remote-only distance learning academy will be able to go to class every school day for the first time in a year. Middle school students will be able to do the same the following week, and teachers in the secondary level will have access to the vaccine next weekend.

Many educators in the school system questioned the timing of the reopening of school buildings to more students just as the vaccine is distributed to teachers.

Kathy Chambers, a teacher at Newfield Elementary School, was thrilled to get the vaccine this weekend.

“I’ve been waiting and I’m excited and happy,” she said. But the third grade teacher said she would have liked more time to prepare for a full classroom of students this week.

“As much as I’m definitely anxious to get the kids back, because I think it’s best practice and I think it’s better overall for the kids and the parents ... I do feel it was a bit rushed,” she said.

Superintendent Tamu Lucero has said on multiple occasions that the vaccine was not part of the decision to go back to full-time in-person learning. Instead, she has said she was driven by guidelines released last month by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those guidelines included recommendations for schools related to community transmission, and Stamford’s transmission rate dropped from “substantial” to “moderate” risk in the CDC’s latest recommendations.

Under the moderate risk threshold of 10 to 49 new cases per 100,000 in the previous seven days, the CDC recommended “K-12 schools open for full in-person instruction,” with “physical distancing of 6 feet or more to the greatest extent possible.” Stamford’s most recently reported rate per 100,000, for the two weeks from Feb. 14 to Feb. 27, was 31.

More than 700 elementary teachers had access to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose, this weekend as part of a dual effort between the school department and Stamford Health. Nonetheless, the CDC estimates that it will take a few weeks after the vaccine for recipients to build up immunity to the virus.

“To make this decision after we waited like nine long months ... is insensitive and it’s irresponsible,” said Jason Pavia, a seventh grade social studies teacher at Turn of River Middle School.

He added, “If there’s one year to play it safe, it’s this year. I don’t want to be rushed back.”

Laura Dickey, a sixth grade science teacher at Dolan Middle School, echoed those sentiments.

“I think we’re being reckless,” she said. “It just is being rushed.”

Chambers said she was relieved that the district delayed the reopening by a day, allowing her to reconfigure her room on Monday.

As of Friday, her classroom did not yet have the extra desks brought in to accommodate the larger class sizes. Desks at elementary schools will be shielded by trifold clear barriers, but will be placed much closer to each other than the 6 feet of separation recommended by the CDC. Lucero said the district’s goal is to keep desks at least 3 feet apart.

Diane Phanos, president of the Stamford Education Association teachers union, said she wasn’t happy with the 3-foot rule.

“Teachers want schools back in session,” she said. “Teachers want to teach kids who are sitting in front of them, but they just don’t feel this is safe.”

She added, “Teachers have been left out of the equation. They have not been asked what they think.”

As a parent of two school-age children, Chambers said getting children back into classrooms “needs to be done.”

“I just wish I had more time to prepare as a teacher,” she said.

During a meeting with elementary staff on Thursday, Lucero said lunchtime was the biggest challenge for the district in terms of getting ready for reopening.

“Lunch is complicated because it’s the time that your students take off their masks,” she said.

In order to make it safe, Lucero said students will have to behave. That means no shouting and no singing, for example. She compared it to teaching children how to properly use scissors.

“We don’t just hand them scissors and assume they know what to do with the scissors. … We help them understand the importance of using scissors correctly,” she said.

Some aspects of reopening are still unclear.

For instance, if a parent of a student in the hybrid model elects to keep that student home due to fears of the increased attendance at school, will a teacher be tasked with providing instruction to that student through live-streaming?

Lucero said one of the next steps for the district is figuring out what to do with families in the distance learning academy who want to return to the in-person model, as well as hybrid families that don’t feel comfortable with the going back into school buildings full time.

Up until Jan, 8, Stamford students had the option of attending classes in-person every other day under the hybrid model, or participating in the fully remote distance learning academy. But students were told they would have to stick to one of those models after the January deadline.

Only students in the hybrid model will be allowed to return to classes every school day. Those in the academy, roughly 25 percent of the district, will remain in remote learning.

Also, quarantining may change with teachers vaccinated. Lucero said during the call that whether or not a teacher has to quarantine after exposure will depend, in part, on whether or not the teacher has been vaccinated, and how long ago it was.

“We are getting specific language on that from the health department for our elementary teachers,” she said.

While elementary and middle schools gear up for more students in the coming days, high schools will remain in the hybrid model for now. No date has been set for an eventual five-day-a-week return for the district’s oldest students.

Drew Denbaum, an English teacher at Westhill High School, advocated for keeping high schools in the every-other-day hybrid plan until the end of the school year.

“The hybrid schedule has been working well, so there is no pressing need to institute a radical change just as vaccination is becoming available to our teachers,” he said, in an emailed message.

Denbaum referenced a sentence from Lucero’s weekly email message that said, “Health and safety remain at the forefront of our decision-making.”

“If that is true, then social distancing should not be abandoned in our high schools, and the hybrid schedule should be maintained for the remainder of the year,” Denbaum said.

ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com