What teachers want to see before agreeing to start in-person classes are plans from school districts that ensure everyone’s safety and quality education, says the president of the Delaware State Education Association.
“If our local members are satisfied with our district plans and feel like they can go and stay safe, then I think our folks will be ready to go back to class,” said DSEA President Stephanie Ingram Thursday. “I think it all depends on what’s in those district plans.”
DSEA on Wednesday issued a press release saying the first six weeks of fall classes should be taught online to give schools time to plan effectively.
The association, which represents 13,000-plus teachers, bus drivers, para-professionals secretaries and other educators, was reacting to comments made by Gov. John Carney and others Tuesday during his weekly coronavirus press conference.
Carney said it was his opinion, schools were likely to open with a mix of in-person classes and some remote learning, with a goal of as much in-person instruction as safely possible.
He and Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, went on to talk about how children under the age of 10 were less likely to be infected and also less likely to infect others.
And those younger children need in-person instruction, Carney said. Children from preschool through third grade are learning to read, he said. After that, they are reading to learn, he said.
Ingram, who is a fourth-grade teacher at New Castle Elementary School in the Colonial School District, said calls and emails started immediately from DSEA members alarmed by three things in the press conference.
The first was the idea of a hybrid start in the fall, with some kids in class and some out.
The second was the talk about young children not being as susceptible to the virus or as likely to spread it.
The third was what they felt was a lack of concern about the safety of teachers and education professionals.
“We’ve been very, very focused on what happens to students if they catch COVID,” Ingram sasid. “But there wasn’t as much concern about what happens to teachers and professionals.”
Teachers and students haven’t been in classrooms since March, she said. A lot of questions about COVID and children are still unanswered questions with new information arriving every day, she said.
“Our members wanted to make sure that first and foremost their safety is being kept in mind, no matter what the plans are being made at district level,” as well as the safety of students and everybody’s families, she said.
Carney spokesman Jonathan Starkey said Wednesday that it’s took soon for any decisions to be made about going back to school.
Carney’s comments Tuesday came a week after the Department of Education released its Returning to School guidelines. Nearly 20,000 people, including teachers and others, offered input on the recommendations.
They ask school districts and charter schools to make plans for three scenarios: if virus spread in a community is mild, which they call green; if virus spread is mild to moderate, which they call yellow; and if virus spread is widespread, which they call red.
If a community is green, schools will open for in-person classes. If yellow, it could mean a mix of in-person and online classes. If red, classrooms would close and all learning would be online.
Carney predicted Tuesday that the state will have mild to moderate spread when schools restart in the fall and likely have a mix of classes.
“We haven’t even seen if the districts have determined they are able to follow the guidelines,” Ingram said. “We haven’t seen any district plans to know if our members think it’s feasible for them to do everything to keep everyone safe and give quality instruction to their students.”
Teachers are on committees working with their local districts, she said.
Here’s what else she said. The comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
If schools start remotely for six weeks, that lands classes right in the middle of cold and flu season. What happens then?
“I don’t think we had flu season in mind when we thought about six weeks … I think it just gives us time to reassess. What does the situation look like now? How much more resources have been focused on the virus? How are students doing?
“We picked six weeks because it kind of coincided with a lot of districts’ end of the first marking period. So, stop, take at look at where we are.
“Who knows what it’s going to look like once flu season hits. It’s a good time to reassess.”
How long would you stay in remote learning mode?
“We need to reassess at six weeks. Is this working? Is there something we can be doing better? Are we able to move into hybrid? Looking at health metrics, looking at what’s happening at each individual district. Every area will be different. The district decides what’s best for it, with our union members at the table.”
What did you think of the reopening process with the three big committees?
“I was in the academic and equity group. I thought what finally came out represented what we spoke about in meetings … I know my concerns and the other concerns I remember my members voicing were reflected in the work group’s final product.”
Do you think teachers have been a part of the decision making?
Yes, at the state level.
“On the local level, I can’t tell you for every district, but I know that part of the work groups have been union members working to create a plan with red, yellow and green. I would hope that our educators are also bringing their concerns to district officials.”
Could this all be the start of year-round school?
On social media “I’ve seen educators across the country asking, ‘What would this look like? How would we morph into year-round school.’ I can’t say it’s not out there, but I haven’t seen anyone from Delaware talking about it.”
Won’t there always be something people could cite to prevent classrooms from opening?
“I think if you look at it that way, you’re absolutely right. There’s always going to be an area where it might not work and we definitely need to think about area by area, district by district, what it looks like for the people living in that district and for the district to make that decision for what’s best and safest.”
What about kids without internet, support and places to work?
“Remote learning definitely puts them at a disadvantage in that situation, and we have been trying to work with the government on some of those concerns … I know we’ve been trying to get them the little hot spot wifi for their homes. I know libraries provide wifi in their parking lots, which is not a great situation. We have been working to try to see what we can do to mitigate those circumstances.
“I know remote learning is not the best for everybody involved. We are trying to come up with solutions that work for them. We are thinking about those solutions.”
The state is trying to help get broadband internet service into areas that don’t have it yet, she points out. Districts are working on it, too, especially after kids began dropping off in the spring.
“We fell short and we didn’t meet the mark,” she said. “I hope that’s reflected in district plans. How do we reach our students who are high risk in this situation.”
Dr. Karyl Rattay said in one coronavirus press conference that she was stunned to find out that only 40 percent of the kids in one school were still in classes at the end of the spring. How do you help the kids catch up if they weren’t there and might not be there again this fall if school starts remotely.
“That’s a hard question,” Ingram said. “How do we find them and what do we do to make sure they continue learning.”
Ingram said districts tried to keep kids involved, but couldn’t do routine things like have home visits because of COVID, but districts did try to distribute technology — sometimes along with meals — and help families get wifi.
She said the state has a plan to both help kids catch up and accelerate, so they don’t miss a year of school and fall behind. She’s not part of the working group on that in her district.
Did you read the comments on any of the stories about DSEA wanting school to start remotely? What do you say to people who say teachers are acting entitled?
“I don’t know how to respond to the entitled part … To say that teachers don’t care about their students really hits you hard. I know all the things that educators do for their students on a daily basis.” That includes keeping food for the hungry and buying school supplies, shoes, belts and pants for those who don’t have them.
“To say that we’re entitled because we want to keep ourselves safe — it’s not fair to make that blanket statement. We want to be with our students. We want to be in the classroom, if that’s possible. Right now with the lack of data and the lack of district plans and just the unknowns puts us in a position of saying, this is where we know we can be safe, at home, through remote learning with student packets.
“That’s why we’re asking to start remotely. It’s not because we’re uncaring or entitled. We want to stay safe, not only for ourselves, but for our students and our families.”
More studies come out every day, she said.
“In this vacuum of the unknown, we are erring on the side of caution by asking to start remotely for six weeks, to find out what we don’t know, to give people time to get things right for educators and students.
“I know it’s hard. And I know there are parties on all sides asking for a lot, but we’re asking to stay safe and do what we can for our students in this environment.”
What do you say to parents who say they can’t work and teach their kids at home at the same time.
Ingram said she understands that dilemma, because while she was teaching online in the spring, she also had her two nephews staying with her, and they needed help in their classes.
“It’s tough,” she said. “I’m not going to say it’s not.”
The virus has exposed Delaware’s lack of childcare alternatives and how expensive childcare is, she said. Parents need an inexpensive alternative that’s safe and would allow their children to focus on studies while they work.
“But I don’t know that going back to school in a classroom would be the best considering what we don’t know about COVID,” Ingram said.
What do you say to people who say teaching is your job and you should get back in classrooms or go into another field?
“That’s harsh,” she said. “We are still teaching. We are still educating our students. We’re just doing it in a different way. I think part of what this requires is for us to look at education in a different way. We’re not going to be able to go back to educating in the way it was pre-COVID.
“We are still providing education for our students. It just looks different.”
Even when classrooms were closed and many people stayed home, she said, teachers were putting together packets for their kids, food service workers were preparing meals, bus drivers were delivering them.
When asked what teachers need to be able to go back to classrooms, you never mentioned a vaccine. Would a vaccine be a game changer?
“It might. I don’t know. I think it’s like 18 months out, right? In our concerns, a vaccine has never really been mentioned. Educators never brought up the idea of ‘Vaccine or we’re not going.’”