Op/Ed: Darien teachers say secondary in-person return too soon

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Send letters to the editor to: Editor@DarienTimes.com

Hearst Connecticut Media

From the moment Darien’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Alan Addley, first announced the district’s plan for the reopening of school last August, he and the Board of Education have repeatedly stated that the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff were the top priority. Until recently, he and the district administration have done their best to honor that promise.

Unfortunately, Dr. Addley’s announcement this past Friday that the Darien’s secondary schools will begin a gradual return to a full in-person effective this Monday, Jan. 25, calls this commitment to safety into question. Though the members of the Darien Education Association support the premise of a gradual return to in-person learning in the middle and high schools, we fear that this current plan poses a serious public health risk to students, faculty, staff, and their families at a time when COVID-19 infection rates are surging in both the town and Fairfield County, and newer, potentially more lethal strains of the virus are spreading.

According to the data available, including the metrics that the school district established as criteria for reopening, Middlesex Middle School and Darien High School are not in a position to bring all students back safely.

While we have repeatedly been told that the district uses data to inform its decision— specifically the metric of case rate per 100,000 tests — the numbers that were released on Thursday, Jan. 21, show a case rate of 56.5, which is one of the highest levels of the school year for the town. According to the district’s own guidelines, this is well above the number required to be in a completely remote model, let alone a hybrid model. (By contrast, the case rate was 13.5 when the secondary schools shifted to hybrid learning in November.)

And since Jan. 16, Darien High School alone has seen more than 25 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including nine in a single day. On Thursday and Friday, the high school had more than 60 students and staff in quarantine because of exposure; another thirty-six will have to quarantine starting Monday. All of this has occurred while Middlesex and DHS are still in hybrid mode.

Please do not misunderstand the position of Darien’s teachers; of course, we all would all prefer to be teaching in our classrooms with all of our students together. None of us prefers teaching from home while simultaneously caring for our own children and at-risk family members, and none of us thinks it is best practice for half of a class to join the other half via Zoom.

Like everyone in the community, we are frustrated and exhausted by the limitations imposed upon us by this virus. We too worry about the long-term consequences for our students’ academic growth and social-emotional well-being. For this reason, we supported the district’s decision to return all elementary students to school. We support the concept of a gradual, data-driven return to full in-person learning for older students, but now is not the time to begin.

There is a good reason that most area secondary schools plan to follow the data and remain in remote or hybrid learning models. Cases are going up, not down, and it is no longer feasible to hold classes or eat lunch outside. As challenging as hybrid learning has been, preventable community spread of COVID-19 will be far worse.

Since the DEA is unlikely to persuade the administration and Board of Education to postpone this hastily communicated plan until it can be supported by the science, we teachers find ourselves in a position where all we can do is make this humble plea to the rest of the community: please, do everything in your power to keep the schools as safe as possible.

Unfortunately, each building is only as safe as the least careful who enter. While most families have been diligent about limiting travel and social gatherings, we are all aware that not everyone has been as conscientious, that there are families who continue to host social gatherings and allow their children to congregate indoors without masks, in defiance of state safety recommendations. As hard as it is to believe, there are families who have ignored district-mandated quarantining policies after returning from their out-of-state travels.

The consequences of these behaviors could be huge, perhaps even fatal — if not for our students, then for their parents or grandparents, and for our teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, campus monitors, and their families. If returning everyone to school full time is what’s most important, it is only fair for teachers and staff to expect all families to make the same basic sacrifices so that we can get back to normal as quickly and safely as possible.

Thank you for continuing to shoulder this burden with us.