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CEA Members Discuss Ways to Enhance Equity for Students

State Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker.

Issues of equity are top of mind right now for educators watching the news and listening to their students’ worries and concern, and an online forum hosted by CEA’s Ethnic Minority Affairs Commission (EMAC) Tuesday gave teachers an opportunity to come together and discuss what was on their minds. 

“There is no doubt in anyone’s mind given the last months, let alone the last week, that equity does not exist in our Connecticut education system. We need to do something to change that,” said CEA President Jeff Leake.

“We can’t map out the entire route to equity today, but we will start that journey,” he continued. “This is about listening to all of you—we want your input.”

“We want to identify strategies, policies, and ideas to put Connecticut on the road to enhancing equity for all students,” said CEA EMAC Chair Sean Mosley, a Waterbury teacher. “Equity means giving all of our students the best shot at hitting a grand slam when it comes to educational achievement, no matter their ZIP code. We’ve seen the lack of consistent, effective models of distance learning in our districts and the lack of technology.”

The forum gave more than 250 CEA members a chance to hear from State Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker before moving into virtual breakout rooms for small group conversations.

Russell-Tucker thanked teachers for their dedication and adaptability during this difficult time, and acknowledged that the death of George Floyd and protests nationwide are exacting a toll on educators and students alike. “I’m certain most of you have had to create space for students to address what they have heard while at the same time dealing with your own emotions,” she said.

Teachers share concerns

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted inequities that exist among school districts and between students within the same district. Many teachers shared their frustrations with town councils and boards of finance which are cutting education budgets around the state.

“We need more funding now, not less,” Russell-Tucker said. “At the State Department of Education we are looking at how we can leverage some of the funds the department has to support districts that are not as well resourced.” She also said that the Department is working with other state agencies to look at funding streams to determine what the state will be able to pay for.

Russell-Tucker recommended that teachers contact their state legislators and members of Congress to make sure their voices are heard on the vital need for additional school funding.

Schools closed suddenly in March, leaving teachers to rapidly learn dozens of new platforms, programs, and apps in order to teach remotely—usually with zero training.

“It has been a roller coaster,” said a New Milford teacher. “Luckily parents are very understanding, but once the fall comes around—we don’t know what that’s going to look like, but if we’re still distance learning—I do imagine our inexperience with online learning platforms is going to wear thin for parents. But we’ve had no training. I think there needs to be a shortened work week just to accommodate PD, in a thoughtful manner, so we can learn platforms with a high degree of fidelity.”

“Personally, I believe we’re going to be remote teaching from day one in the fall,” said a Stratford teacher. “My concern is the inequity teacher to teacher; the potential for disparate educational experiences in the fall due to teachers’ individual differences in technology prowess. It’s completely unrealistic to think that teachers on their own time and own dime should be learning to do all of this over the summer in prep for fall. I would love something at the state level that would pay teachers and provide professional learning before it becomes a crises during the first week of school.”

A Bridgeport teacher suggested conducting surveys of what technology families have at home in order to see if it’s compatible with what schools use. She said her district has done a good job of providing staff with resources and training, though teachers are still often overwhelmed. A help desk with hours that extend into the evening for parents who work days would allow more children to access online learning, she added. Her multilingual district has families who speak 70 different languages, and she noted that she has a classroom of English learners whose parents are illiterate, which poses additional challenges. “You have a six- or seven-year-old trying to explain to a parent how to log in,” she said.

Educators agreed that the state should ensure that every student has access to a device and the Internet. The state should provide technology and connectivity so that this is not left to the districts—which, inevitably, results in inequities.

One teacher mentioned that she cares for a severely autistic son as well as an older son who has been busy with his own distance learning. “It’s a struggle. I want to be there for my students as well as for my kids, but it has been near impossible. I’m also making myself available to translate on PPTs for parents who don’t speak English.” 

She continued, “Support for those of us needing to teach and struggling with a more difficult home life is something that is lacking.”

Many teachers echoed her concerns. A Vernon teacher who came on camera with her young son said, “Teaching with a little one at home. This is my challenge.”

A Windsor Locks elementary teacher said that teachers have had to navigate a work day with very different hours. “With parents going back to work, my students sometimes aren’t available during normal school hours. They may be at daycare or grandma’s house during the day, so I have to be available to them at 5:30, 8:00 p.m., or later.”

CEA Executive Director Donald Williams added that when schools reopen, poor districts must not be left to fend for themselves when it comes to the health and safety of students and teachers—another area where vast inequities exist.

“It is the state’s responsibility to step in and make sure all schools have the resources to open safely, and that includes providing sufficient personal protective equipment for students and teachers,” he said.

Mosley also urged forum participants to become more active in their union. “Please visit the CEA website and join one of the association’s many commissions and committees. We have an EMAC, a Human and Civil Rights Commission, and other groups of educators with common interests and concerns,” he said.

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