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State at odds with education unions over post-Thanksgiving in-person learning

Bridgeport, Waterbury, Ansonia, Hamden, and CREC are just some of the districts opting to go virtual, at least temporarily, following the Thanksgiving holiday.

HARTFORD, Conn — In anticipation of a post-holiday spike in COVID, some school districts are choosing to go all remote following the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s causing a rift. On one side are state health and education officials and on the other side are some district administrators and labor unions.

Bridgeport, Waterbury, Ansonia, Hamden, and CREC are just some of the districts opting to go virtual, at least temporarily, following the Thanksgiving holiday. 

In a joint memo, the State Departments of Education and Health say they, “do not think arbitrary, date-based closures of school are warranted at this time.” In response, the state's education labor unions drafted their own memo saying the state's position, “contradicts our core principles for assuring students’ and staff health and safety.”

FOX61 talked with State Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona. He maintains that while spreading in the community, the virus isn’t spreading within the schools. "If that weren’t the case Matt, I’d be the first one to say shut down all the schools. If it was spreading within our schools, I would say shut them down. It is not spreading within our schools we have to maintain the social and emotional well-being of our learners are long as we can because we know remote learning does not compare to in-person learning," said Commissioner Cardona.

The labor unions agree education is best in the classroom. But they say the state can’t claim spread isn’t occurring in the schools when there is no regular recurring testing strategy. Donald Williams is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Education Association. He said, "If we can’t do it with all students and staff every week then we ought to do it on a random basis. Not just testing those who have symptoms because we know that somewhere between 15-40% of all the students who wind up COVID do not have symptoms but yet can still spread it."

The state did launch a pilot testing program in several school districts. More than 60,000 Binex now testing kits. But by the state’s own admission, "It is right now still for testing symptomatic individuals," said Deputy Commissioner Charlene Russel-Tucker.

The unions say they want more uniform standards. "What we’ve seen and heard are inconsistencies in how the virus is recorded and how the information is referred to staff, so they are informed about it. Contact tracing. That can differ from district to district," explained Williams.

The state is warning that school closures may accelerate community spread with thousands of young people in environments where they aren’t necessarily wearing masks or washing hands. Cardona said, "The concerns we have are when decisions are being made to close the schools houses down for a couple of months without having even the support of the local health department."

FOX61 asked the commissioner, despite best efforts to prolong in person learning, does he think schools will inevitably have to close? "It’s definitely within the realm of possibility," he said. Commissioner Cardona said that would only happen on a statewide basis if the public health data supports the decision. 

Meanwhile, Williams of the CEA says, "Were all on the same team...teachers are not saying let’s go all remote right this instant."