Darien teacher: Students are ‘breathing down each other’s neck’

DARIEN — Parents, teachers and Board of Education members continue to discuss the district’s plan to resume full-time in-person learning next week.

Many teachers gathered Tuesday night in a rally outside the Board of Education building to raise awareness to their concerns about returning to the classrooms full-time.

During the school board meeting, parents voiced their support of in-person learning and some even suggested the teachers should consider another profession if they didn’t feel comfortable in the classrooms.

And just before midnight, five Board of Education members did not support a public board affirmation for the superintendent’s plan to reopen schools, which failed to pass— but that doesn’t mean they oppose it, according the board chairman.

The non-action was preceded by a series of discussions on whether the board, per Robert’s Rules of Order, could amend the original agenda item.

This follows an impassioned discussion at last Thursday’s meeting when Schools Superintendent Alan Addley said a BOE vote on a decision most board members agreed fell under his purview could publicly question his integrity and authority.

When the board finally did vote, it was on an amendment to the agenda after an unusual action item was added in response to an effort organized by Greg Grambling and signed by 175 fellow parents.

The wording of the motion proposed by board member John Sini was “The Darien Board of Education fully endorse the Darien Public Schools administration’s current plan to return to in-person learning Sept. 29, 2020.”

The motion was supported by Sini, and board members Dave Brown, Jill McCammon and Dennis Maroney. It was not supported by Board Chairman Tara Ochman, Vice Chairman David Dineen, Secretary Deb Ritchie, and board members Mike Burke and Katie Stein.

On Wednesday, Addley told The Darien Times he felt supported by the Board of Education and was grateful to move forward to the next stage of reopening.

Ochman said she did not support the amendment because it included a defined date.

“I believe Dr. Addley when will and should open schools for a full return when the experts in their fields have been consulted and agree it safe to do so. Putting a date to that is artificial. If I have learned anything during this year is it that we must be flexible and responsive to the world around us,” Ochman said.

“Currently, Dr. Addley believes this can be achieved Sept. 29 and I saw full Board support that for a safe reopening. Suggestions otherwise are misleading,” she said.

Ritchie also said she has always supported Addley’s plan.

Teachers rally

Before the meeting, some 125 Darien teachers gathered along the Post Road and at the entrance to the Board of Education building on Leroy Avenue, holding signs opposed to the resumption of in-person classes scheduled for Tuesday.

Many teachers, led by Darien Education Association President Joslyn Delancey, have expressed concern for the safety of staff and students. One of the biggest concerns raised by teachers is a lack of 6-feet social distance.

“This was not a protest. It was a rally. A rally for safety, a rally to show love for teachers, a rally for best practices, for clear and consistent protocols, and to be a part of the process,” Delancey said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the Darien teachers. We love our students and want to keep them safe.”

Addley said he respects there are different viewpoints “magnified by concerns for everyone’s health and safety” and modifications and responses continue to be made to reflect concerns raised by staff.

“Federal guidance lacks credibility — it’s been plainly exposed as non-credible. The alternative is leadership and a heightened regard for human life,” Darien High School teacher Jesse Cerosimo said during the public comment section of the meeting. He mentioned lack of masks during lunch and students “literally breathing down each others’ neck.”

Those concerns were echoed in nearly 90 minutes of public comments by numerous teachers from kindergarten through high school who said the environment has not been safe. Concerns included the lack of social distancing, lack of proper cleaning supplies, and a lack of authoritative federal guidance.

Delancey said the rally made the teachers feel “empowered, united and supported.”

She said members of the community honked as they drove past the teachers. Delancey also said some of the comments at the meeting were “disheartening and disappointing.”

“I am sorry that some parents and stakeholders thought this was a protest. It wasn’t. I’m sorry that some parents feel that a teacher’s only option to feel safer and supported as a teacher is to go teach in another district,” she said.

Delancey also said teachers appreciated the support they received during the public comment.

“Parents need to realize that the schools are just not ready for full-time in-person learning,” eighth-grade teacher Lindsay Cruickshank said. She also said one of her students expressed concern about a full return to in-person learning. Cruickshank said she asked the administrative staff to visit her class to assist with some solutions to meet CDC guidelines.

Addley said there would be a revision to the lunch plan to address concerns and will be rolled out Thursday to teachers.

Addley also gave an update on the status of the reopening plan, including an update on technology problems, the need for more staffing, additional hand sanitizers and portable sinks, repurposing space to accommodate 6-feet spacing at lunch and establishing a weekend COVID hotline.

Parents: Teachers have options

Comments by various teachers contrasted with many parents, who maintained the need for in-person learning, especially for the youngest students.

Some speakers suggested teachers who were concerned should either find a job in another district or select another career.

Parent Jon Dunn said his experience is that most parents want a return to in-person learning.

“The very foundation of the Darien Public Schools’ education integrity is at stake here,” he said.

Dunn said teachers have options in other districts if they do not want to return to in-person learning in Darien.

Taylor Carter, who began a Facebook group called Teach Our Kids, said the district’s youngest students need more in-person instruction.

This week, Teach Our Kids circulated a graphic that apparently showed the amount of instruction time students in grades K-5 are receiving during distance learning.

According to the graphic, Carter said between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. are designated as “learn alone time.” The graphic also shows 9:30 to 10 a.m. assigned for a morning meeting, 1 to 1:30 p.m. for office hours and 3 to 3:15 p.m. for an optional closing circle.

During the meeting, Board Chairman Tara Ochman urged the community to get its information from school officials or ask Board of Education members rather than Facebook groups. Some cited the graphic as unfair and not representative of the daily schedule.

“I take issue with the allegation that the graphic is not representative of what our elementary children experience every day when they are at home,” Carter said during public comments at the end of the meeting. “Across my three elementary students, and after speaking with many other parents, it has proven to be 100 percent accurate, across grade level and school — that our children are receiving zero live instruction, two days a week.”