Trumbull may not have enough teachers to reopen school
TRUMBULL — Less than two weeks before students report for their first day of classes, Trumbull officials are hoping they will have enough teachers to reopen the schools in-person.
The information was disclosed at Tuesday’s school board meeting following a report that about two dozen teachers will not be returning to their classrooms because of concerns about COVID-19.
“We’re making progress,” Interim Supt. Ralph Iassogna told the Board of Education at the meeting. “Worst case scenario: Not enough returning teachers, and substitutes not adequate. We may have to consider another learning model.”
The district had planned to reopen Sept. 8 using a hybrid learning model, with students divided into two groups and splitting time in the buildings. One group would attend live classes Mondays and Tuesdays, the other on Thursdays and Fridays. Each group would have remote classes on the three days they are not in school.
But the number of teachers who have opted out of returning to the classroom, which Iassogna estimated at between 20 and 25, is causing concern.
“Right now, our numbers are OK, but there are a number of staff members whose (return to work status) are not processed yet,” he said. “It could go over 30, but I doubt it.”
Information on the status of the non-returning teachers, what buildings and grades the teachers had been working in and what percentage they were of the district’s teaching staff was not immediately available. Trumbull has six public elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school.
School officials are in daily contact with local colleges seeking eligible candidates to hire as long-term replacements, he said.
Though he remained optimistic that the buildings could reopen as scheduled, he conceded that the district may have to call a special board meeting next week if it became necessary to delay reopening. The Wilton school system made a similar call earlier this week.
“If you can’t get teachers, you can’t run in-school or hybrid learning,” he said. “We are monitoring the situation very closely.”
Board members had plenty of questions for Iassogna following his statements. Jacqueline Norcel expressed her concern that a last-minute change in plans could put families in a difficult position, especially considering many families had scrambled to arrange child care for a partial school return. Even temporary distance learning “could be really difficult for a family,” she said.
Scot Kerr also expressed concern over the impact of even temporary return-to-school delays.
“Just to clarify, it’s possible we could open remotely” before transitioning to hybrid learning? he asked.
Iassogna confirmed that was possible, adding that the district would continue to search for replacement staff during the period of remote learning, if necessary.
“We may have to say, ‘let’s go remote for the first month’ while we’re still trying to hire them,” he said.
Assuming the schools do resume in-person learning on some scale, there also is a need for as many as 40 more lunch monitors, according to Assistant Superintendent Jonathan Budd.
The issue, Budd said said, is that lunch monitors typically supervise the elementary school students while they are eating lunch in the cafeteria. But the current plans call for meals to be delivered from the cafeteria and eaten in the classrooms. Teachers contractually have a break during lunch times, he said.
“Now we need two types of monitors,” Budd said. “Some to deliver the meals, and others to watch the children while they are eating in the classroom.”
The district is currently seeking to add lunch monitors for two to three hours each school day, and Budd said the schools would work with people who were available only on certain days.
Aside from staffing, board members also had numerous questions about the readiness of the buildings to receive students. Chairman Lucinda Timpanelli commented that many of the schools do not have central air conditioning and asked about improving air circulation in those buildings.
John Morello, the facilities director, said adding ventilation to the buildings was a tricky task given the age of most of the buildings.
“The only thing would be exhaust fans, like a bathroom fan on a larger scale,” he said.
Portable air conditioners, which also have built-in particle filters, were out of the question because of the schools’ antiquated electrical systems, he said. Portable air purifiers were a possibility, given their much lower power draw compared to air conditioners, but finding them was a challenge.
“The quickest place to get them is Home Depot,” he said. But the school system would need dozens of the $270 units. Six Trumbull teachers required air purification for their classrooms because of existing health problems, Morello said, and so far he had only been able to find purifiers for five of them. A search of the stores around the state showed that most had either none or very few in stock, he said.
“The (Home Depot) location in Trumbull is the only one, they received a pallet of 23 today — and 20 of them are going to Sacred Heart,” he said. “They’re going to see if they can get more.”
Even placing cheap box fans in the windows of classrooms is not feasible because of their design, he said.
“The windows don’t open like a window in your home so you can put the fan in the window blowing out,” he said. “The windows swing open.”
Simply placing a fan on a table pointed at the window would not work, since the angle of the glass in the open window would deflect air back into the classroom, he said.
Iassogna, who took over as interim superintendent when Gary Cialfi took early retirement in January, said the entire staff deserved praise for the can-do attitude and round-the-clock effort with which workers had addressed a series of unforeseen and unprecedented challenges.
“People don’t realize what we have overcome,” he said. He rattled off a handful of issues that the schools have faced in just the past six months, including a new interim superintendent and search for a permanent one, a board member resigning during a public meeting, a national examination of race relations that has been led in part by students, COVID-19, emergency remote learning, and a $1.2 million budget shortfall.
“These things take their toll,” he said.
So with those challenges met, finding 20 teachers, 40 lunch monitors and a truckload of air purifiers doesn’t seem quite so daunting, he said.
Or, as board member Tim Gallo said, a whole new set of problems could be right around the corner.
“One thing we’re sure of is that tomorrow things will change,” he said.