New Haven Public Schools grapples with rocky return from break
NHPS deals with student absences and a new test and stay policy while the teacher’s union participates in “Blackout Wednesday” state AFT protest.
After the New Haven Public Schools spring semester started with significant staffing shortages and a mandate for in-person instruction, staff attendances have returned to normal levels, city officials said Monday.
Newly inaugurated New Haven Federation of Teachers Union President Leslie Blatteau ’97 GRD ’07 told the News that the first week was a “challenge,” as teachers had to fill in the staffing holes that had emerged due to the omicron surge.
“The district has been trying to fill as best as we can,” Blatteau said. “There were so many people out [from Jan. 3-7], so we’re having to pull a lot of staff from a variety of places to step in so that they can support colleagues who are out sick. It’s definitely been a challenge and a lot of the responsibility is falling on teachers as they have to step in and support these classes.”
Student absences also spiked during the first week, with some district schools having more than half of their students absent. According to Anthony Fiore, a student representative on the Board of Education and a senior at High School in the Community, many high schools within the district had to deal with “classes that only had 30 percent of students present” due to students becoming sick, living with someone who tested positive or fearing falling ill. In an email to the News, NHPS spokesperson Justin Harmon clarified that “between 5,527 to 6,593 of 19,245 students” were absent in the first week of school.
NHPS Superintendent Iline Tracey announced Monday night at a Board of Education meeting that staff attendances are back to normal daily absences. Earlier this month, 624 of the roughly 1,900 district staff members called in sick, according to Harmon. Tracey added that bus routes were covered for the first time Monday. In response to an increase in student absences, Tracey said the district has organized a team to track missing students.
Harmon added that NHPS is following CDC quarantine and contact tracing guidelines to address rising COVID-19 case numbers in New Haven. Rapid tests are made available to all students and staff members at their schools when needed. Harmon said that the district is working to provide free masks to students and staff.
K-8 students who test positive for COVID-19 have free virtual tutoring sessions, staffed by volunteer teachers and Yale students, available to them via Google classroom. High school students are instead assigned asynchronous work from their teachers to complete at home.
On Jan. 18, the city, including NHPS, started to implement a new policy entitled “test and stay.” Under the policy, any student or staff who has been exposed to COVID-19 but is asymptomatic and tests negative daily with a rapid antigen test over five days will not have to be quarantined.
According to Blatteau, students and staff members in the district are “nervous” about catching the virus and taking it home to their families, and that “it’s impacting some students’ ability to learn.”
“The ongoing stress is really impacting people,” Blatteau said. “We have to recognize it is impacting learning and that doesn’t mean it’s anybody’s fault. It’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s not the school district’s fault. It’s not the students’ fault. We should collectively reflect and say, our society, our community is going through a very traumatic experience. How can we respond? How can we emerge from this crisis, learn from this crisis and grow in a positive way out of this crisis?”
Students and staff call for remote instruction option
On Jan. 12, staff members across Connecticut and in NHPS participated in a blackout protest to “raise awareness about the need for safe and healthy schools,” according to Blatteau. Blatteau said that the protest’s demands include greater access to PPE, testing, the option to go remote if necessary and specific metrics to trigger a switch to remote learning.
The protests were part of a larger advocacy effort by the Connecticut branch of the American Federation of Teachers, which led thousands of teachers across the state to wear black last Wednesday.
Blatteau added that NHFT was “appreciative” that resources like testing and masks are available, but wanted to engage in the protest “in solidarity with other districts who might not have those resources, and to send a clear message that these resources should be available, ongoing and not just for a few weeks.”
Students, district administrators and staff members have all called for an option to trigger a switch to remote learning if cases rise. At a recent board meeting, student BOE member Ma’Shai Roman called for an option to go remote. In an interview with the News, Fiore seconded the sentiment.
“I always like having options, and I think it’s important for our education that there should be an option to stay home,” Fiore said. “Parents are at risk, and it’s important to students that they feel safe especially when they’re learning.”
Connecticut state law prohibits NHPS and other school districts from switching to a remote only learning model because all schools must have at least 180 days of in-person learning. This requirement was waived during the 2020-21 school year with NHPS being the only school district to begin the year on a remote basis. Governor Ned Lamont and the Connecticut General Assembly have ignored calls to waive this requirement.
“It is important that we keep our doors open for children and I’m here to say we are happy we had school open for our families,” Tracey said in Monday night’s Board of Education meeting. “No regrets there. Even though we saw a spike in COVID and it still probably will climb. I guess they said things have to get worse before they get better.”
NHPS has 44 schools.