The state Board of Education has called a special meeting at 11 a.m. Monday to approve a batch of waivers and rules to guide public schools when they return to class in mid-August amid the coronavirus pandemic. Last school year was finished by “alternative means of instruction” when health concerns brought an early end to conventional classroom instruction (and sports, graduation and more). This year classroom, online and “virtual” education are going to provide some semblance of conventional schools.
The board agenda:
Will teachers be heard (in one last meeting to be chaired by Diane Zook)?
They are trying.
Shelley Smith, who just retired as a Mountain View teacher, and is the administrator of a Facebook page for school employees, writes:
Teachers and school employees are absolutely worried sick about how they will have to handle this school year, and most are being kept out of the decision-making process. They’re also putting in tons of unpaid hours this summer trying to turn their curriculum into online content, much more so than the AMI days of the spring semester just ended. Many will have to teach in person AND online with no extra compensation. It is sizing up to be the beginning of a tidal wave of retirements and worsening teacher shortages.
Smith conducted a survey on her Facebook page and has provided the results with a letter to the state Board for its Monday meeting. Her letter:
I am writing to you today to share some very important survey data about decisions being made regarding the upcoming school year. We all know these are difficult times in which we find ourselves, and no decisions are easy.
As the group admin of AR School Employees & Friends on Facebook, a large and diverse group of school personnel, I am always interested in surveying to find out their thoughts on important subjects. There have been lengthy and sometimes heated discussions lately about the upcoming school year, but the common threads that are constantly evident is that most educators have been completely left out of the decision-making process and have no idea how to plan for the fast-approaching school year. They are fearful of the extra work being required of them, with no compensation of course, and fearful for the health of their own families. These fears and frustrations are not being addressed in most districts.
Attached you will find the current results of what is still an open survey that I posted earlier this week. Please take the time to look at it and read the comments that the respondents shared.
As you make decisions about the waivers that have been requested please know that the vast majority of teachers are terrified but do not feel they can voice those concerns publicly. My survey guarantees anonymity for that reason. What are they terrified of? I’m glad you asked. They are scared of reprisals if they question the authority of their superintendents to use waivers as a way to pile on many hours of extra work, scared that they will be forced to come to school when their health or that of a family member is at risk, scared that they will be written up or fired if they refuse to do something they do not feel is safe. You may think that the chain of command for expressing concerns is adequate and fair, but I assure you that it is not. For many there is no recourse if they have concerns or problems. Communication, or lack thereof, is a huge problem all over the state. Please do not assume that you have enough guardrails in place to prevent abuses of these waivers. I would urge you to look very closely at the ones that allow for flexibility in class sizes, additional minutes of non-instructional duties, and most importantly the ones that state “Changes to policies adopted on or after July 1, 2020, for the purposes of implementing the Arkansas Ready To Learn Model shall take effect for the 2020-21 school year, and are not required to be submitted to the personnel policy committee before the board votes.”
There may be valid reasons for providing the latter but I know a lot of teachers losing sleep over that one because they know this means that superintendents can and will make policies that will not be in the best interests of their staff.
One very common example I can provide is that a large number of teachers are being required to create up to an entire semester of online curriculum for their courses. All of this, with the exception of a very few districts, is expected with zero compensation for the teacher’s personal time over the summer. One teacher told me she had to prepare a whole year of online work. All of these are massive amounts of work. I retired this year, but if I had to do that it would be for 7 separate classes (3 different subject areas) of different ages. In small schools we have 7 preps per day and multiple grade levels. What guardrails are in place to prevent these kinds of situations?<
Waivers are very slippery slopes. Please consider the ramifications before approving any that have been requested. Additionally, please provide a safe and private way that can be used by teachers and staff to express concerns and report unreasonable demands to the department of education, perhaps a designated email address only for this purpose. Almost nobody will file grievances because that automatically brands you as a troublemaker. The rules for whistleblowers don’t seem to be effective and I’m not sure that the majority of employees are even aware there is such a thing. This situation should be addressed immediately.
Thank you for taking the time to hear me out, and for studying these survey results.
Short version of the results on specific questions: Most districts don’t have final plans; few teachers were included in planning; they are dissatisfied with the state plan.
The results are followed by page after page of comments from teachers, identities protected for obvious reasons.
Just a few of them:
…. At my school we the teachers were already sharing classrooms and had packed classes of 25-30. There were classes taking place in the cafeteria. I am skeptical they will be able to enforce any sort of small class size/or socially distanced class size without more construction. Additionally, they keep cutting back electives which makes the elective classes even larger. I am also VERY concerned about how teachers will be treated with blended learning/wholly virtual options. We have been told to prepare our curriculum for blended learning, but we don’t know what that will look like at all. If some students are wholly virtual and some are traditional/blended, are teachers going to have to perform double duty?
… Very concerned about the lack of at-home resources and internet access for our low income families. We can’t teach them if we can’t reach them. All the (probably necessary) attendance waivers are going to make it easier for abusive adults to keep their kids out of school and potentially hide abuse. Masks and dividers will not work in elementary and middle school. Testing should be waived again. We all need HQ training for HQ online teaching – and raises. Will we have to use sick days if we are quarantined? What about health-compromised teachers? They can’t just suddenly be out of work but these conditions certainly didn’t factor into their decision making when choosing a career. It’s all so unprecedented, so hard. Praying for the decision
….Cancel sports – look at the NFL and MLB – college teams…don’t let an outbreak happen first. These waivers about classroom size and doing away with planning time are very concerning. If we need more teachers this year, hire them on a one year contract which they know may go away. We must have professional development from the state which better equips us to do blended learning. I feel it is a HUGE challenge that I need resources to meet. I want to meet my students’ needs, but I need help with technology and best practices. Some colleges have been teaching remotely for years and having success. Please have some of those people create PD for us at the high school level so we can continue to deliver good instruction. We can’t just figure this one out as individual teachers.
..Dr. Key stated that districts don’t have to follow CDC guidelines and each district makes their own plans. Putting students and teachers in small classrooms with no ventilation, masks, protective equipment, and increased class sizes is going to be a disaster. CDC says you are most likely to catch virus if in close proximity for more than 15 minutes. Teachers and students should not have to return to a school that they do not feel safe in. Please consider how people in confined spaces have been the cases where most Covid transmission has occurred. Until Schools can guarantee that the schools are safe, and following CDC guidelines on- site instruction should not be
resummed. Educators are not infectious disease specialists and should not be the ones planning the return to school safety protocols.
….I know our children need equity, they need an education, and they desperately need a safe place where they can feel loved and are fed. But teachers are yet again being left out of this conversation. My district has not asked any of us what we feel safe doing, and they won’t until they have already decided. We might get a Google Form, at best, from them. I work with some amazing educators and support staff who are incredibly vulnerable to this new virus and in a building as big as ours there is no way to guarantee their safety. Faculty and staff’s children and families are also being risked. Even if our kids were able to stay home with a distance learning option we are still coming home to them. We are being asked to serve as frontline workers without any options, plans for PPE, or additional hazard pay. Target is paying their employees
who are facing exposure extra, Target. This time we have needs to be spent ensuring equity in online and distance learning, and finding an effective strategy for food distribution for our vulnerable kids. I’m scared for my family and no one seems to care.
…I do not trust our Department of Education based on actions they’ve done over the past several years. My fear is that they are using the Covid-19 issue to further erode traditional public education. The on-line program they are advocating for is questionable & has generated complaints in other states. The ADE has a terrible habit of not trusting educators in AR to do what they are trained, licensed, & well qualified to do.