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Clarke teacher expresses fears as schools prepare to reopen amid COVID-19 pandemic

Catherine Shinholser, a veteran local educator who is an Early Intervention Program teacher, wrote the following letter to be read aloud at this evening's Clarke County School District BOE meeting. In a Facebook post to her personal page Shinholser said that while the letter "by no means addresses all of my fears and concerns, especially for student safety and families facing an extremely challenging decision," it's a starting place.

The teacher stated in her post, "I literally feel that I am fighting for my life and that of my unborn child."

She said she decided to share the letter online since it was to be read publicly.

The letter reads as follows:

My name is Catherine Shinholser, and I am entering my 11th year teaching in Clarke County. I am an EIP teacher for grades 1-5. I love this county, I love my job, I love my colleagues, and, most of all, I love my students. I saw firsthand the dramatic disparities in the educational equity during emergency distance learning. I also know our students’ social-emotional and physical well-being has suffered during the Covid-19 health emergency. It is heartbreaking. I know that being back in the classroom is the best option for our students, and I want to be back in the classroom with them. I am also terrified.

The lack of communication and teacher input throughout the planning process is both shocking and unnerving. I was stunned, therefore, when I received the July 6 staff email. Not once in that communication did the district acknowledge the amount of work teachers committed to distance learning in the spring. Not once did the district acknowledge that they were putting teachers into an incredibly difficult situation. Not once did the district outline specific plans regarding the start of school. We were instead told to wait for the parent letter to learn more. The phrasing and use of quotations referring to teachers being “fearful” or “not feeling safe,” seemed to convey the message that my feelings were of no concern to the district. The apparent lack of empathy is extremely demoralizing.

I am six months pregnant. I am a type one diabetic. I have every reason to be fearful of returning to in-person instruction in the midst of a global pandemic. If my understanding is correct, I have two choices. First, I can return to school and risk contracting Covid-19, which threatens not only my life, but also my unborn child. Second, I can take up to ten weeks of unpaid FMLA time, which means the loss of half of my family’s income. I cannot apply additional sick days to cover more paid time because I need them to cover my six weeks of maternity leave. Simply put: I can risk either mine and my unborn child’s life, or I can pay my mortgage and support my family.

Earlier in the summer, the district asked my colleagues and I to complete a survey indicating our teaching preferences. I selected teaching digitally since I am at increased risk for severe illness. I had assumed that this would be an option for me and other high-risk teachers. On July 7, however, my principal explained that Clarke County teachers would not have the option of providing digital learning in the fall to students selecting that avenue. Instead, we were told that the district would be handling the online learning. Indeed, many Clarke County families rejoiced that a digital learning option is available. They were not, however, informed that a classroom teacher would not be guiding that instruction. I maintain that many families would feel quite differently if this distinction were explained clearly. Again, if this information is incorrect, I welcome correction and further explanation from CCSD administration and/or the BOE.

In conclusion, the district has made it very clear this week that I, as a teacher, am completely dispensable. My years of commitment and service to our students and their families do not matter to the district. I truly do not know what my next steps are, but I know for a fact that I need to explain exactly how I feel at this moment. Although I cannot speak for others, I know many other high-risk teachers must also be experiencing similar emotions. I understand that this is a difficult situation for all involved, but I had hoped it would be handled with the utmost empathy and consideration for our most vulnerable. Please reconsider the options for Clarke County’s high- risk teachers.

Respectfully, Catherine Shinholser

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