‘We’re exhausted and we’re frustrated’: Fairfield parents rally to reopen schools
FAIRFIELD — After a plan to return elementary school students to the classrooms full-time was delayed Monday due to a new surge in COVID cases, parents gathered to voice their frustrations.
Dozens of families, carrying handwritten signs, came out to Sherman Green where they called for transparency and a reopening plan that included more guidance from school officials. They also questioned why Fairfield remained in its hybrid model as other area districts and even private schools in town have been able to fully reopen.
“At this point, Fairfield is behind 21/2 months and with no plan in sight, I don’t know how we’ll catch up,” said Amy Ruggiero, one of the rally’s organizers. “We’re going into the winter, what will they do?”
Ruggiero is a working single parent and said it’s been hard for both her and her son. She said her work has been very understanding, but she knows a lot of other families who aren’t as lucky. She also worries about what a lack of in-person instruction means for their children’s education, especially those with special needs.
Sally Connolly, another parent, works in health care and has never stopped visiting patients throughout the pandemic. Her husband works for a private school and is teaching in person five days a week. They have four children, who are 10 to 15 years old.
“There’s that frustration that we’re out seeing patients and students in person and we need more in-person help for our kids,” she said, adding her children are left to their own devices to learn, “literally and figuratively.”
Connolly also said the extra device time isn’t healthy for children.
Other speakers, including students, echoed a desire to not have to learn from screens.
“We should be in school full-time because I’m not getting the good education I have in years past,” said Kate Leavay, a fifth-grader. “I don’t think we should be staring at computer screens all day and learning from YouTube videos.”
Some parents also spoke about how they chose to move to Fairfield because of the strong school system, but have since put their children in private school where they can attend in person.
They said Fairfield is usually a leader in education, but the district seems to be lagging behind. Many also echoed comments from Gov. Ned Lamont, who said classrooms are “one of the safest places to be” because of the coronavirus protocols in place and the evidence so far that shows the transmission is happening outside of school.
Speakers also stressed the rally wasn’t against teachers and all of the extra work they’ve been doing.
“We miss them, we love them, we know they’re working three times as hard,” Connolly said.
Superintendent Mike Cummings sent a letter to families last month explaining the decision to hold off switching K-5 to fully in-person learning was because COVID cases were continually rising, ultimately placing the town in the red on the state’s new coronavirus classification system. While he said the bulk of that increase was due to the universities, he added their cases were largely among students living off campus among the community.
His letter also said more staff members have requested leaves of absence because they’re concerned, particularly about the reduced distancing more students would cause in the classrooms. He said his priority is supporting them through the instructional changes for the remote learning, but they continue to work on reopening in person.
“We have been completely transparent about our decision making,” said Andrea Clark, the district’s communications director. “We have always said that the best learning environment for students is full-time, in-person and we will continue to work towards that in a safe and responsible manner.”
“As vocal as this particular group is, we have received feedback from many families who trust the decisions being made and are relieved that we are not reopening based on the current health data,” Clark said. “In a district of close to 10,000 students and 3,500 families what guides us is what is best for all our students, staff, and families - not just the loudest.”
Among them was Ann Harvey, who said she felt school officials were being transparent and listening to parents.
“I do not believe that the views of this group represent the views of the majority of FPS parents,” she said in an email to Hearst Connecticut Media.
But Kathryn Grayson said at Monday’s rally that she hasn’t heard of any parents in her social circles or sports teams who don’t want to fully reopen now. She said the district should release the numbers on how many employees want to return because she suspects this decision has more to do with that.
“We’re tired, we’re exhausted and we’re frustrated,” she said. “I’m beside myself because I see my kid drifting without guidance.”
Other parents at Monday’s rally also said there was overwhelming support among parents and students to return to full in-person, which was shown in the survey responses they sent the district.
Ruggiero said they feel like the superintendent and other school officials are not listening to families who want to be fully in-person, even though she’s collected hundreds of signatures on a petition on the subject.
“We’re hoping they hear us a little louder,” she said looking around at those gathered on the green.