Connecticut’s largest teachers’ union is encouraging educators to wear black to class on Wednesday to raise awareness over the lack of COVID safety measures in schools as the Omicron variant has sent state positivity rates to record high levels.
The “Black Out” on January 12, is meant to “bring attention to the fact that our schools are not as safe as the should be,” the Connecticut Education Association wrote on their website. “There has been a failure to distribute the promised N95 masks and home test kits, extensive staff shortages, and the need for flexibility in allowing for short-term remote learning.”
The CEA points to their nine core principles to help schools stay safe, which include more aggressive COVID testing, cost-free access to COVID testing, in-home test kits, requiring students and staff to wear N95 masks, ensuring classes are not combined due to staff shortages and ensuring that teachers’ sick time is not affected during quarantine periods.
The CEA is also surveying its members regarding COVID safety at schools and in classrooms.
However, not all teachers are on board with the push for more regulations and mandates on in-person learning.
Aaron Hoffman, an Ellington High School history teacher, is instead encouraging Connecticut teachers to wear red on Wednesday in opposition to CEA’s Black Out campaign. The goal is to “sound the alarm for Connecticut children and their well-being,” Hoffman said, according to a press release.
“Every day, I see first-hand how my students are struggling,” Hoffman said. “They are disengaged, depressed and have excessive anxiety. With discussions around remote learning resurfacing, ongoing bullying and stigmatization around medical status and masks, and growing achievement gaps, I felt compelled to sound the alarms.”
Hoffman bases his concern on students’ mental well-being and test score declines, pointing out that there has been an increase in suicide attempts among adolescent girls since the start of the pandemic and a decrease in standardized math scores.
At-home test kits and N95 masks have been coming into the state following a rocky rollout of Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to purchase and distribute 3 million at-home test kits and 6 million N95 masks, and Connecticut residents have been met with hours-long waits at distribution centers.
But Lamont’s administration has also set aside masks and testing kits specifically for schools to distribute to nearly 550,000 K-12 students and roughly 114,000 public and private school employees.
According to the governor’s office, 620,000 tests were delivered to Connecticut schools and an additional 50,000 tests delivered to early childcare providers.
Although the vast majority of Connecticut teachers are fully vaccinated – with vaccination rates topping 95 percent in some districts – the CEA is warning about breakthrough cases, particularly in light of the Omicron variant, which leaves schools short-staffed.
“While the vast majority of Connecticut’s teachers and public school staff (more than 93%) are vaccinated, they, like the rest of the general population, are experiencing breakthrough COVID infections,” CEA writes. “At this continue rate of spread a shortage of teachers, paras, bus drivers and other essential school staff is likely, which would lead to intermittent closings and cause additional problems for parents and communities.”
Waterbury public schools were forced to close on Monday due to staffing shortages.
Both the Lamont administration and President Joe Biden’s administration have said that schools should remain open for in-person learning following reports that many students fell behind during the initial COVID-19 lockdown and closure of schools in 2020.
The Omicron variant is more infectious than previous variants, causing rapid spikes in positivity rates, although early data indicates that it may not be as severe or deadly, particularly as more and more people are vaccinated and treatments are developed.
Hoffman cites findings by the University of Washington School of Medicine, which showed Omicron’s rapid spread, but also showed much lower hospitalization and death rates. Dr. Chris Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, told USA Today that the Omicron variant is more transmissible but less deadly than the flu.
Transmissibility and infection, however, remain on-going concerns for schools, teachers, businesses, the government and the public in general as it leads to absences, apprehension and illness.
However, severe illness in children from the Omicron variant remains very low. Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, “We have not yet seen a signal that there is any increased severity,” in children under 5 who are not eligible for the vaccine, according to Reuters.
“Current data indicate that COVID-19 policies in schools could be harming children more than the virus is,” Hoffman’s press release states.