Despite Staffing Crunch, Greenwich Schools to Reopen on Time; Covid Testing Possible

In Connecticut, where Covid positivity rates remain very low, Governor Lamont met on onday with state legislators about extending his emergency powers to February 9, enabling him to continue to make Executive Orders for another five months.

The Aug 31 meeting fell slightly short of required notification, and proceeded as an “emergency meeting.”

Monday afternoon, during his daily press teleconference, Governor Lamont mentioned that Connecticut had seen an influx of 25,000 New Yorkers.

“They have formally changed their address from New York – mainly New York City – to Connecticut,” he said.

On Monday night an emergency Board of Education Zoom meeting was attended by well over 800 people. The meeting was called because the administration was concerned they didn’t have enough staff to reopen schools on time.

Karen Kowalski said families “had palpitations” over the weekend after receiving an email from the district Friday warning there might not be enough school teachers, including substitutes, to reopen.

K-8 students are scheduled for a full in-school return, and Greenwich High School is scheduled to reopen with a hybrid model with half students going in person on Monday/Tuesday and the other half attending Thursday/Friday, and Wednesdays serving as a deep cleaning day with all students learning remotely.

Orientation for 6th and 9th graders is Sept 8; the first day of school for all students is Sept 9.

Why the shortage?

Some teachers have resigned. Others decided to retire. While teachers typically retire at the end of the school year, they are legally allowed to do so now.

Dr. Jones said the district had hoped to use the existing 22 long-term substitute teachers to staff the remote school, but only 6 were interested in returning. Plus, the number of students opting for remote learning jumped from 500 to 700 after the recent storm.

Also, 10 teachers are expecting babies, and certified long term subs are needed to fill in during their leaves.

Also, there is a new Covid specific interpretation of the Family Leave Act (FMLA), which typically provides an employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year.

In this instance, the FMLA is interpreted to allow a teacher take leave 2-3 days a week if they have children learning remotely. They can do that for 12 weeks at 2/3 pay.

“That happened just last Wednesday,” Jones said. “That was brand new.”

Five teachers have indicated they wish to take advantage of the FMLA.

The teacher shortage is not unique to Greenwich. Dr. Jones said other large districts including Fairfield and Stratford were also trying to fill staffing.

But Greenwich is unique in that it is likely the only district in Fairfield County to offer a full in-person K-8 return to school, and 83% of students have chosen to return in person.

Of 9,000 students, 700 have opted for remote learning at the elementary school level (increased from the initial 500), and 1,500 overall in K-12.

Head of HR, Shamain Johnson, said she had interviewed 140 current teachers about potential medical issues that might keep them out of the classroom, and that 25 of them qualified for leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for pre-existing conditions. She interviewed some of them multiple times.

Also, Ms Johnson acknowledged that additional teachers may opt to take leave when they learn their assignments for the year.

Over the weekend Dr. Jones and her administration worked non-stop to fill gaps and plug holes. That meant hiring substitute teachers and monitors.

“We still need to hire a few more people. We will get that done, yes,” Jones said, announcing school would reopen on schedule.

She explained that typically there are 22 substitutes built into the budget for elementary school buildings, and those were the positions they hoped to use to staff the remote school.

This year, however, Jones said, “By the time we’re said and done we’ll probably have closer to 28 sections to run the remote school with 700 students.”

Ms Johnson said she needed to hire 7 additional teachers before Sept 9.

A particular substitute teacher crunch is in the realm of special education. Head of Pupil Services Mary Forde and Ms Johnson said they may be short six people.

Ms Forde noted that two teachers had been promoted into administrative jobs earlier in the day, leaving a gap of two teachers.

Ms Johnson said there was no pool of special ed subs with experience to draw from, and that at least four special education teachers had expressed concerns about their personal medical needs.

“We may certainly have to back fill those positions, for a total shortage of six special ed staff,” she said.

Noting it would not be her first choice, Ms Johnson said the district might turn to staff members whose jobs are to support evaluation teams and behavior teams.

“In terms of immediately addressing the IEPs, those would be individuals within our existing staff who are qualified to do so,” she said. “That buys a little time.”

Ms. Johnson, a former special education teacher herself, said it is important to alert families if it becomes impossible to fulfill their child’s IEP.

“My hope and prayer is we don’t have to have that conversation, but we have existing staff who will be able to support these learners on day 1,” she promised.

Ms Forde said there were multiple qualified candidates for recent positions they interviewed for, and some of those candidates might be appropriate to hire now.

“If we can’t provide the service, we provide them (parents) with some sort of compensatory service for the time they did not get services provided,” Forde added. “We could do a monetary settlement with a family – you missed four hours of service. Or if we do get somebody on board, we could make up the services if there is enough time.”

The district is also advertising for substitutes. They are paid $110 a day, though the amount increases after 40 days.

Karen Kowalski said she was alarmed about the possible shortage of special education teachers. She noted there might be BET members on the call, and that it might be necessary to “sweeten the pot.”

Dr. Jones said Monday had been the first day back in person for teachers, and that it had had gone very well, describing the day as “joyful.”

Karen Hirsh agreed. Having stopped at GHS she said she witnessed teachers happy to reconnect, if at a social distance.

Meghan Olsson said there were also many teachers who were anxious and afraid.

“It’s a mix,” Olsson said, adding that Greenwich, by offering a full return for K-8, is following the less stringent Connecticut Health Dept guidelines of 3-6 ft of social distancing rather than CDC guidelines of 6 ft of spacing.

Jones said substitutes will be very important this year. “It’s a much different role for a substitute when you’re talking about the possibility of remote teaching,” she said.

She explained the term “reverse remote,” which is when a classroom of children are in the school building, but their teacher is working from a remote location.

This might be the case when a teacher has a medical exemption and their subject is hard to find a substitute for. For example, if they teach Chinese, Latin, Chemistry or Physics.

“For some of those teachers it’s almost impossible to replace them. And if they are really dynamic teachers, and for instance, they have a medical exemption, they’re teaching from home and remoting back into the live classroom.”

In these instances the district is hiring “monitors” to be in the classroom with the children.

While the teacher is projected onto the smartboard, there must be an adult in the room to start up the computer, bring up Google Meets and make sure students are safe inside the classroom and following the school rules.

Staffing Up

Since the email went to families on Friday, Jones said applications had poured in, with 88 people applying to be long term subs and 112 applying for 17 monitor positions.

She noted that over the summer 44 new teachers were onboarded.

“We’re in a much better place,” Jones said. “We’re doing everything we can to get our doors open on the 9th.”

She noted Greenwich Police Chief Heavey had offered to ramp up fingerprinting to get background checks completed quickly for new hires.

“Over the weekend we worked to reach out to people, call references and vet those applications,” Jones said.

She also said high caliber applicants had been waiting a long time to get their foot in the door at Greenwich Schools.

“A lot of people stop looking this close to the school year,” she said. “This is a hard area to get into – in Fairfield County…There are some very highly qualified people waiting.”

Referring to the Friday email, Karen Kowalski said the district should be more mindful about setting off alarm bells in future.

“We as an administration and a Board sent shock waves throughout the community that gave people in the community heart palpitations,” she said. “We can handle that better with how we chose our words and how we communicate.”

Covid Testing

Another topic that came up was Covid testing.

During the meeting Jones said the local teachers union, the GEA, had been requesting Covid testing to make them feel more comfortable about returning.

“We’ve been working for the past two weeks – and thank you to Mary Keller – we’ve been working with state legislators and local companies to get testing,” Jones said. “We think this week we may be able to do that.”

State Senator Alex Kasser has been pushing for testing. She noted the district cannot mandate testing without an Executive Order from the Governor, but as of Monday, with the Governor’s emergency powers extended, it is not ruled out.

“Toni Jones and staff have been amazing in creating the safest environment,” Kasser said.

She pointed out that private schools including Brunswick and Greenwich Academy are requiring students be tested before they return to school.

“I feel strongly public school students and teachers should have the same protections,” Kasser said.

Senator Kasser said the district might be able to contract for mass testing with a lab, and that with clearance from the State, students wouldn’t have to get doctor’s orders to be tested.

“I have concerns about opening schools without Covid testing students,” Kasser said. “That’s what I’ve been pushing for – testing all students and faculty before they begin and start congregating again. Conducting a mass test is the only way to isolate asymptomatic cases.”

“I understand that cost is an issue, but that was why I was trying to appeal to the administration to reallocate existing free testing resources we have for the next week to the public schools,” she added. “The resources are there.”

At Wilbur Peck the Family Centers operates a FQHC, which stands for federally qualified health center, and offer free Covid testing.

Kasser said as the school year unfolds robust contact tracing will also be important.

Greenwich Health Dept Director Caroline Baisley told GFP in a July interview following a Covid spike from a series of teen parties that people were not responding to calls from her staff of contact tracers, or were reluctant to provide information.

“If the State Health Dept gets on it, and the closer the testing is to reopening, the more effective it is,” Kasser said, adding that the ideal time would be between Labor Day and the first day of school.

“That’s what they’re doing at the private schools: drive through testing with appointments. And requiring every student submit a negative test before school starts, which is the right thing to do.”

“Everything hinges on schools reopening safely and staying open. The economy can’t really start flourishing until kids are safely in school for the year,” she said. “We need the Governor to issue an executive order and put the money behind it.”

Responding to an email asking about the possibility of Covid testing, Monday morning Nurse Mary Keller and Dr, Jones replied, “As we’ve shared, we cannot legally mandate COVID-19 testing for our students and staff; however, we are looking into ways to provide optional testing for students and staff who may be interested. We hope to have more information about the feasibility of such an offering soon.”

Full BOE Aug 31 emergency meeting on Youtube: