A Brandywine School Board member’s comment that teachers should quit the profession if they can’t accept the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom has set off a firestorm of reaction.
He’s been called heartless, callous and dismissive by teachers and others.
Ralph Ackerman, board member and past president of the board, wrote to Carrcroft Elementary teacher Abby Sipress in a letter published by WDEL, “The standard was bend the curve, not prevent any death. Our Governor has been proactive and sensible. Teachers are first responders to our future, if they cannot handle the risk, seek a new career.”
Sipress, who is her school’s teacher of the year, had written Ackerman asking him to vote to have the district start classes online.
“Demanding educators make an impossible choice between keeping their jobs and protecting the health of their families is heartless and wrong,” said State Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Brandywine West. She is a former high school Spanish teacher in the district. “Many who work in our schools have medically vulnerable children of their own or take care of medically vulnerable family members. Some are themselves at high risk for a poor outcome should they contract this virus.”
Ackerman did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The decision about how and when to open Delaware schools this fall has hotly debated in recent weeks.
Gov. John Carney has said schools are likely to open with some in-person and some remote learning. He’s said younger children need to be in school, especially those ages preschool through third grade, because they are learning to read. Data also shows that children 10 and under don’t get the coronavirus as easily or infect others as easily.
The Delaware State Education Association responded that the state should start all classes with remote learning to give districts time to put procedures and equipment in place to make schools as safe as possible.
Deciding how to open schools will be a tough decision, Ackerman wrote to Sipress.
“But bear in mind, medical workers, police, EMS, grocery cashiers and many others have to work in person bearing risk. We must learn how to live with this virus and move forward, that is what the working groups at the district and state level are working on.”
DSEA president Stephanie Ingram called him unfeeling for that juxtaposition.
“DSEA is disheartened to see such a callous and dismissive response to an educator’s email,” she said in a prepared statement. “To suggest that educators and their working situations and trainings are even slightly comparable to frontline health care workers is nonsense. So many profound differences exist between the two work environments, starting with ventilation and access to PPE (personal protective equipment).”
“Unlike medical workers, teachers are not being outfitted with PPE,” Sturgeon said. “Unlike retail workers, they cannot refuse service because someone is not wearing a mask. They cannot socially distance while teaching a class full of students. Some teach in classrooms that don’t have windows. And some are being asked to simultaneously manage one group of students in the classroom and another participating virtually at home.
“It is understandable that school employees would have concerns about their safety and the safety of students.”
Ackerman told Sipress he had just attended five in-person graduations where recommended protocols were followed.
“Personally, I will not live in isolation for the next 5 years, if it means wear a mask, I will, for myself and others,” he wrote. “The damage to our society from not opening is too great not to consider it in some form.”
Ingram said, “This reply shows a complete indifference to the lives that Mr. Ackermen, as a board member, is ultimately responsible for. DSEA and our local associations are working in good faith with districts, including Brandywine, to prepare for and maintain a safe re-opening of schools. Responses like this are not helpful to making that happen.”
Schools and districts need to work with teachers and staff, Sturgeon said.
“Rather than handing down ultimatums, our school boards should work with teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, secretaries, food service workers, transportation workers, nurses, librarians and the other professionals who make up our school communities,” Sturgeon said. “They work in our schools everyday and know better than anyone what measures we can take to provide the safest learning environment for our children.”
Steve Rulon, who is the president of the Brandywine Education Association, a local division of the DSEA, called Ackerman’s comments “disappointing.”
“What really concerns me is that one our board members thinks the work that teachers do is equivocable to what people in those other professions are doing,” Rulon said. “Each one presents a unique set of circumstances.
“If you’re working at a grocery store, you have one set of challenges and certainly safeguards have to be put in place to address the challenges to do that job. If you’re a hospital workers or a nurse or any other medical practitioner, you have a certain set of risks and protocols in place and equipment in place to address those risks.”
Beyond that, he said, “Mr. Ackerman’s comments are kind of dismissive of the work the district and the work groups are doing right now to try to address the challenge of reopening.”
The BEA wants to make sure teachers who go back to class have the protocols and materials they need to ensure they can teach in a safe environment, Rulon said.
“I think if you have sufficient time and funding, you can overcome almost any challenge,” Rulon said. “It’s just a matter of how much time do we have to address these challenges.”
Nine teachers are members of three Brandywine School District committees set up to mimic the committees appointed by Carney and the state Department of Education to craft its reopening guidelines. To support those nine, Brandywine teachers are holding weekly meetings to pass on input.
The teachers on the committees can’t know or anticipate all the needs of every kind of educator, from English teachers, special ed, art teachers, psychiatrists, therapists, librarians and more, Rulon said. Having the weekly meetings allow teachers to help their counterparts on the committees be better informed, he said.
Rulon praised board members Karen Gordon, Kristin Pidgeon and the Rev. Shanika Perry for attending some of the online teacher work group meetings, calling it “bright spots in regard to our engagement with the school board.” Also attending have been Sturgeon; State Rep. Deborah Heffernan, D-Bellefonte; State Rep. Ray Seigfried, D-Arden; and State Rep. Krista Griffith, D-Fairfax.
“What it’s coming down to is the reason a lot of teachers are pushing to start remotely is that we don’t see that we have all of the pieces in place,” Rulon said. He praised the Brandywine School Board for voting to push the state of school to Sept. 16 as “prudent.”
“There’s a lot of things we’re trying to figure out,” Rulon said. “It’s a very complicated system where one issue impacts another issues and addressing one impacts the other.”