Teacher survey says pandemic has deepened school inequities

Nearly 2,000 teachers answering a union survey say funding inequities between school districts have worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic, jeopardizing the safety of students and staff and widening the technology gap.

Released on Tuesday, the Connecticut Education Association survey found teachers in large poorly funded school districts are more likely to report shortages in cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and learning resources.

Of particular concern, the union says, is the apparent lack of tools to properly engage students who are learning from home instead of the classroom.

“We are witnessing a broader awareness of inequities in our school districts and the dire consequences that come with them,” said CEA President Jeff Leake. “These issues are most severe in our lowest-performing school districts. We must demand changes in policies, programs and practices that condone or ignore unequal justice and hinder student success.”

The survey collected 1,935 responses, including 571 from teachers in Alliance Districts — a state designation that means the district, because of poverty levels and student performance, requires more state support. There are 33 Alliance districts statewide. The CEA represents teachers in 23 of those districts.

In response, the state Department of Education on Tuesday issued a memo detailing much of what it has done since last spring to address the educational emergency caused when the pandemic abruptly put an end to in-person learning until this fall.

“While we are in the midst of a pandemic and there is always more to be done, Connecticut students are attending school fully in-person — 34 percent — at a higher percentage in comparison to neighboring states such as Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey,” said Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona in an email. “We are proud of our district and school leaders’ efforts to prioritize equity and access and implement mitigation strategies to allow for in-person learning.”

Cardona conceded that remote learning cannot replace in-school learning and all of the academic and social emotional benefits it provides. But he said the state has issued guidelines to help districts continue to educate some 527,000 students.

The CEA lobbied hard over the summer for the state to delay the start of in-person school until adequate safety measures and funding were put into place.

All but two districts in the state — Danbury and New Haven — have opened in some form for in-person learning.

Faith Sweeney, a teacher at Coleytown Elementary School in Westport, said it was important to do the survey after school had been in session for a few weeks.

“Now we are in the middle of it, ” said Sweeney. “We are on the front lines… I hope decision-makers see this is what teachers are experiencing.”

In Bridgeport, where 50 percent of students are attending school in-person, 14 students and 4 staff have tested positive across a dozen schools since classes began a month ago, according to that district’s website.

Bridgeport Schools Superintendent Michael Testani said that all of the cases have been traced to community transmissions and not the schools.

Bridgeport Education Association President Ana Batista said her district is at a disadvantage because it is underfunded and understaffed. There are not enough teachers, substitutes, custodians or technology staff, she said.

“Teachers are doing their absolute best,” said Batista. “We don’t have enough people to handle COVID. We just have not been able to keep up.”

The CEA survey found air ventilation to be a common concern among teachers, with 78 percent of Alliance teachers saying buildings and classrooms are not properly ventilated compared with 66 percent of teachers in non-Alliance Districts.

About 21 percent of teachers in non-Alliance Districts said students receiving special education are not receiving the accommodations identified in their Individual Education Plans. In Alliance Districts that number is 33 percent.

Most troubling, according to Leake, is that 61 percent of Alliance District teachers compared with 41 percent of teachers in other districts say they were not provided with effective strategies to engage students who are absent or disengaged because of the pandemic.

Said one teacher in the comment section of the survey: “Teaching both students in class at the same time as the students virtually is proving to be an extremely inadequate way to teach and learn. One group is always missing out because the teachers have to split their focus.”

Leake said he hopes the survey will prompt officials to create long-term solutions for addressing and ending the inequities that are known to exist.

Of students attending school remotely, the state said 96 percent are now logging on and participating, far better than in the spring.

Toward that effort, the state provided more than 142,000 laptops and improved connectivity.

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