Editor’s Note: This story by Nora Doyle-Burr first appeared in the Valley News on Nov. 23.

The Hartford School Board is considering shortening the school day to reduce the burden on teachers who say the Covid-19 pandemic is hurting their morale, affecting school operations and straining staffing levels.

“Our goal is to strike a balance between staff needs and family realities,” the School Board wrote in an announcement of a “community engagement meeting” Tuesday evening to discuss changing the school day.

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The meeting comes as the head of the Hartford teachers union says the town’s elementary schools have seen unusually high levels of aggressive and violent behaviors, including hitting, kicking, pushing, biting, head-butting and spitting, by students against other children and their teachers.

“I know there is some degree of unrest in other schools as well, but this year has hit the elementary schools like no other,” Nichole Vielleux, president of the Hartford Education Association, wrote in a late October letter to the board.

The board seeks to help students’ families adjust to a shorter school day by providing options for out-of-school times such as expanding transportation options, after-school care or winter sports; or working with area nonprofits to offer weekly enrichment activities, the announcement said.

Should the board decide to shorten the day it would be a “temporary measure,” School Board Chairman Kevin “Coach” Christie said on Monday.

“This isn’t forever,” he said, but something is necessary to “provide some relief to our teaching teams around the schools.”

The board’s consideration of shorter days comes after elementary school teachers in recent weeks have sent the board and school administration letters, included in the board packet for Tuesday’s meeting, outlining the many challenges they are facing this year.

The letters pointed to a dearth of substitute teachers and paraeducators; large class sizes at Dothan Brook School; challenging behavioral issues; and a new elementary English and language arts curriculum as particular stressors this year.

“Students and staff are feeling a trauma impact from this pandemic and need to be supported, not asked to increase their workload,” one letter signed by a five-member team of Hartford teachers said.

Teachers are seeking a shorter school day or one early release day each week to give teachers more time to respond to student work, plan lessons, analyze data, make behavior plans and organize classrooms, Vielleux said in her letter.

“Now, more than ever before, we need time,” Vielleux wrote.

In addition to changing the length of the school day, Hartford teachers also are asking the board and administrators to delay the implementation of the new elementary English and language arts curriculum so that they can have more time to adjust; hire more substitute teachers; pay teachers for covering for others; hire general education paraeducators; and ensure that class sizes are equitable at all three elementary schools. They also seek to renegotiate the use of Covid days and sick time, so that some of the time is excused.

The challenges teachers are facing appear especially difficult at the Dothan Brook School, which this year has larger class sizes than Hartford’s other two elementary schools — Ottauquechee School and White River School. In grades K-2, there are 117 students at Dothan Brook; 77 at Ottauquechee and 70 at White River, Vielleux said. Each school has two teachers per grade level, K-2.

The differences in class sizes raise issues of equity, Vielleux said.

“It’s irresponsible to let this continue,” she wrote.

At Dothan Brook, students and employees have been injured in violent incidents driven in part by larger class sizes and a lack of paraeducators, Vielleux said. The situation is further exacerbated by a lack of substitute teachers. On the day of Vielleux’s letter, Oct. 28, there were 11 employees out and just one substitute, she said.

“Each absence leaves a hole for another staff person to fill, adding to the lack of safety, stress and sense of craziness that we are experiencing,” Vielleux wrote. “Teachers are giving up lunch times and prep times to cover for colleagues, and teachers are teaching out of their areas of expertise.”

The strain is causing some school employees to break down in hallways, said the related-arts team, comprising physical education teacher Melanie Farwell, Spanish teacher Natalie Chaput, art teacher Ashley Broderick, music teacher Alicia Dale and library/media specialist Tessa Johnson.

“We are feeling understaffed, overworked, and burnt out,” they wrote.

In their letters to the board, teachers said they are concerned that the stress of the current situation will force some employees to leave.

“Everybody is stepping up to try to do what is asked of them; everybody is feeling inadequate, exhausted, and defeated much of the time,” the teachers and staff at the Ottauquechee School wrote in a letter to the board and administrators last month. “Colleagues are questioning whether changing professions is in their best interest.”

Christie said he doesn’t expect the board to make any decisions on Tuesday, but likely would take up the issue of temporary changes to the school day at its Dec. 8 meeting.

“We’re trying to do our best,” he said.

The Hartford School Board is scheduled to hold its community engagement meeting on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in person at the Hartford High School cafeteria and virtually via Zoom.

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