Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie
Shellye Davis, co-president of the Hartford Federation of Paraeducators, and Stacie Harris-Byrdsong, president of AFSCME Local 3194 CREC paraprofessionals, unfurl a list of educators who signed the petition (Hugh McQuaid / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT—Unions representing teachers and education workers delivered a petition to the state Capitol Thursday calling on the state to enact statewide COVID-19 protocols for schools or transition entirely to remote learning until mid-January.

Representatives of the unions gathered for a press conference on the North steps of the Capitol Building. They unfurled a long list of signatures from more than 14,000 education employees, who had signed the petition. The list, which stretched about 20 feet down the steps, didn’t last long. Within seconds a cold gust of wind tore it from the stairs and ripped it into pieces.

The teachers persevered. They called on the state to enforce consistent safety protocols across Connecticut schools. Mary Yordon, president of the Norwalk federation of teachers and vice president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, called the petition an “unfortunate last resort.” She said no one was “pleased or satisfied” with having signed it but the document represented the interest of educators who face unacceptable risks. 

Although districts across the state used remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic, many have struggled to maintain either in-person learning or a hybrid of both models this fall.

Jeff Leake, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said educators who have continued to teach in person have done so at great risk to themselves and their families. Teachers in many districts work amidst coronavirus outbreaks and unsafe working conditions, he said.

“With surging infection rates and vaccines for the general public not available until after the new year, the state must shift to full-time remote learning until at least mid-January to ensure that in-person learning is a safe strategy for our students and our teachers not an experiment,” Leake said.

Gov. Ned Lamont has made maintaining in-person learning, especially for younger students, a high priority. He often suggests that wearing a mask in a third-grade classroom is one of the safer places to be during the pandemic.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. But the educators at the press conference bristled at the suggestion that classrooms are a safe place to be as infections swell across the state.

As of Wednesday, the state’s infection rate stood at 7.56% and 1,262 people were hospitalized with the virus. The state reported 43 COVID-related deaths on Wednesday.

Cynthia Ross-Zweig, Paraeducator Council president of CSEA SEIU Local 2001, said the Centers for Disease Control updated its guidance last month and now considers in-person learning to be a higher risk activity than it was previously considered.

“Every time the governor claims that we are safe he loses support and confidence from our members and their students. If schools are safe, then let me ask you this: why are we constantly quarantining due to infections and exposures?”

During a press briefing later on Thursday, Lamont said the state has had a “clear set of guidance and rules” since schools reopened. He said the overwhelming majority of schools have adhered to the guidance and the state Education Department has worked to address “outliers.”

Lamont urged that schools stay open if possible, saying in-person learning was especially important given the “isolation and stress” people have gone through during the pandemic.

“I’d just say to the teachers, we’ve got what is it? Eight? Ten days left in this school year? I would say we’re doing everything we can to keep you safe,” the governor said.

“Your public health and safety is of paramount importance to us and I’m doing everything I can to keep you safe,” he said.