With two weeks until school is slated to start for Waynesboro Public Schools, a group of staff members is asking the school board and superintendent to switch to an all-virtual start saying they feel “neither prepared nor comfortable” returning to the classroom.
In a 16-page letter sent on July 29 to Superintendent Jeff Cassell and the five-member school board, the group of staff members said an “in-person reopening plan would [not] adequately protect our students, their families, school employees or the larger community.”
Originally, 123 staff mem- bers signed the letter. However, three later requested their signatures be removed. The 120 remaining signatures represent 23% of Waynesboro Public Schools staff. Most of those who signed the letter, more than 29%, are Waynesboro High staff. More than 18% of staff who signed work at Kate Collins Middle and William Perry Elementary, and another 14% represent Westwood Elementary. Staff who endorsed the letter represent classroom teachers, cafeteria workers, assistants, special education and more.
“It does take a level of courage to speak up in any employment situation,” said Stephanie Mullaney, a Pre-K teacher at Wayne Hills who helped co-write the letter. “For the signatures that we have on there, we all know of at least one person who wanted to sign but didn’t. I think 23% is significant, but it truly is not representative of everyone who has concerns.”
After a called meeting of the school board on July 22, Mullaney said it became apparent that what was being said publicly differed from what staff heard. Further learning that teachers sent individual letters with little or no responses, she felt the need to coordinate a group effort.
“What was being said publicly was, ‘We’re hearing a lot of different opinions, but we hear from a lot of teachers who are ready and excited.’ My personal impression was that the concerns were kind of being downplayed. As I started hearing from other people, it became evident that we weren’t necessarily going to get a response as individuals,” Mullaney said.
When she sent an individual letter expressing concerns, she received a response from two of five school board members — vice chair Diana Williams and Ward C representative Debra Freeman-Belle.
One Kate Collins teacher said when she sent an individual letter to the superintendent expressing concerns, she received no reply at all.
Williams and Freeman-Belle also were the only two who responded to the group letter.
However, Williams said receiving a response from just one or two members does not mean the entire board or superintendent have not received it.
“In general, we usually try to have just one or maybe two people respond to messages to be consistent. It doesn’t mean that [everyone] didn’t see it, it just means that between [the board] we try to make it just one person,” she said. “It’s certainly not anything personal. It’s just an agreement among ourselves.”
Board members also frequently reply all to keep everyone informed, Williams said.
“I know everyone wants to be heard, and I know it’s important for everybody to be heard. I think that in the jumble of everything that’s going on, some people might feel like they got lost in the shuffle,” she said. “We certainly don’t want them to feel that way. We want to hear it. We want to know what they’re thinking and feeling. We want them to be successful.”
Waynesboro schools reopening plan has two options for families — a hybrid model of two in-person days and three days of virtual learning or 100% virtual learning. For families opting for the hybrid model, students will be broken up into two groups by last name.
Face coverings will be required when social distancing isn’t possible, including while riding the bus. Classrooms will be set up with at least 6 feet of distance. Daily health screenings, temperature checks and cleaning procedures will also be in place.
“If one student or one employee dies from COVID-19, would you feel that two days of in-person learning per week were worth it? If your answer is no, then the hybrid plan is not the path we should take,” the letter said.
A July survey sent to families showed that 72% wanted the hybrid model and 28% would be virtual. Teachers said those numbers have shifted to more online students as school approaches.
“Right now, with numbers rising in the community and the state, I don’t feel confident that we’re ready to do this safely and effectively. I think we need to be safe before we go back. We need to know that we’re protected for exposure to COVID,” one teacher at Waynesboro High said.
At the time the letter was sent, Waynesboro’s COVID-19 cases were at 165 cases and two deaths. That number has since risen to 167 cases and 3 deaths as of Tuesday.
Williams said the decisions that the school board and superintendent make are based on the most updated data from public health officials. Should something “change significantly,” they would change their reopening plans to reflect that, she said.
While the letter calls for a shift to an all-virtual model for “the immediate future,” teachers have different opinions on how long the all-virtual model should be in place. Most teachers suggest the first nine weeks online and re-evaluating every nine weeks thereafter, while some want the entire first semester online.
“I think one thing that a lot of people are concerned about is that we’re going to start the hybrid model, and it’s not going to take long before there’s an outbreak and we’re all virtual. It’s going to happen suddenly, and it’ll be chaos,” the Waynesboro High teacher said. “I feel like if we could take the health and safety stuff off our plates and only be teaching all students remotely, it would really simplify the work we’re doing. Our instruction is going to be better if we can focus on doing it one way instead of all these other things we’re trying to do at the same time.”
For Mullaney at Wayne Hills, she said all-virtual instruction at the Pre-K level is something she doesn’t take lightly. While she agrees younger kids need to be in school, she said the health issues outweigh that need.
“Given what we’re dealing with in this pandemic, we have to look at which needs weigh more. At this point, the health needs outweigh the educational needs in terms of what needs to be a priority,” Mullaney said. “This is not about wanting to be lazy or not being dedicated or not caring for families. We have to keep our kids safe.”
All teachers agree they’d like to be back in the classroom as soon as possible, but want to wait until it’s safer.
“I think there’s a misconception that teachers that want to go virtual just want to work virtually. We want to be back in our classrooms. Ideally, we want our kids to be back in the classroom. We just want to do it when it’s safe, and right now it’s not a safe choice to do that,” one elementary school teacher said.
The all-virtual model comes with the assumption that children will be at home 100% of the time, which isn’t true, Williams said. Children may be completing their online instruction at a neighbors home, a daycare center, at their parents place of work or any number of alternate locations.
“Exposure can come from other places children will be where they might not be required to wear a mask like the school division is and might not have the same cleaning standards,” Williams said. “There is an idea that a student is safer at home, but that’s not actually true. I think there’s part of the conversation not being had that involves vulnerable families and the idea that 100% remote instruction means children go home and stay home.”
A rise in COVID-19 cases, limited social-emotional connections and equity issues are among the concerns addressed by Waynesboro Public Schools staff in their letter.
With a “new normal,” the socializing aspect of school won’t look anything like it has before, teachers say.
“I think the social aspect of school is highly important. However, I think the socialization piece that parents are thinking about isn’t going to be seen this year,” the elementary school teacher said. “The desks are 6-feet apart. Kids are eating lunch in the classroom. Even the playground is an issue — they still have to practice social distancing and can’t share equipment. It’s not going to be the school parents think it is.”
Beyond the socialization aspect, the Waynesboro High teacher said under either model there will be equity issues to address.
“As a school system I think we can address a lot of the inequalities for those students if we go about it thoughtfully and carefully,” the Waynesboro High teacher said, adding that things like meal distribution can continue.
Other issues like students who need face-to-face instruction could be addressed as well, the elementary school teacher suggested.
“I don’t think it would be unrealistic for us to still have office hours [under an all-virtual model] where we could work with students now and then who needed to sit down with someone. I think that if we were given the opportunity to start off virtual, we would be able to address a lot of these issues and find solutions to fix them,” the elementary school teacher said.
Staff returned to their buildings Monday for the first time which allowed teachers to learn how the classroom setups will work, Williams said. Individual concerns from teachers who don’t want to return to the classroom are being handled on a case-by-case basis, she said.
“I’ve heard from some people that said, ‘I didn’t know what things we’re going to look like until I saw it today.’ That’s changing what they think about it. That’s delaying some anxiety,” Williams said.
Williams noted that teachers having the opportunity to get in the classroom and get a feel for it allows for valuable feedback before the start of the school year.
“It’s important that we continue to have open communication and continue to hear from them because for every that teacher that might say, ‘I didn’t know what the classroom was going to look like, and I can do X, Y and Z’ we might have other teachers that say, ‘I didn’t know what the classroom was going to look like, can I get these things?’ So we have to respond to them in that way, and I think it’s going to take a few days for the feedback to come in and give us an opportunity to handle it,” Williams said.
But returning to the classroom made the elementary school teacher feel worse, especially after the central air conditioning system was not working. The Kate Collins teacher said after setting up her classroom Monday, desks 6-feet apart still didn’t feel safe.
“Knowing that it’s been said that they don’t have to wear masks if they are 6-feet apart is not a comfortable situation. I will open my window as much as possible, but I wouldn’t want my own children sitting in that room with children not wearing masks,” the Kate Collins teacher said.
Half of the letter is dedicated to a slew of questions staff members say have been left unanswered regarding the reopening plan — including when and if the playground will be sanitized, what to do if a child shows symptoms during the school day and a parent can’t be reached, and if a negative test result is required before returning back to school.
“We’re not really told what happens when a staff member is found to have a fever and goes home. We don’t have a plan for substitutes if teachers need to be out. We still need clearer answers to a lot of the questions teachers still have,” the Waynesboro High teacher said.
Williams said the administration has answered most of the questions posed by staff.
“A good majority of the questions have been answered in some way. I think the challenge for them is that it’s a lot. It’s so much they might not have realized that question was answered,” Williams said.
But the elementary school teacher said the answers have just been, “We don’t know” — which isn’t good enough.
“We don’t seem to be ready for this, not when we’re still getting ‘we don’t know’ for a lot of our really important questions,” the elementary school teacher said.
Even if all their questions are answered, one teacher said they wouldn’t feel 100% comfortable returning to the classroom until there’s a vaccine. Some say they would feel safer if children were required to wear masks 24/7, while others say universal COVID testing for staff before students return would make them feel more comfortable before the start of school.
“I’ve compared it to a train barreling out a station, and we are just hoping that the people laying the track are going fast enough to have it done by the time we get there,” Mullaney said.
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