Teacher: Many questions unanswered in Clarke school district's COVID-19 reopening plans

Editor's note: The following letter was authored by a kindergarten teacher in the Clarke County School District. She requested anonymity to protect herself, her principal and colleagues from retaliation by district officials.

July 9, 2020

To Dr. Thomas and CCSD Board of Education Members,

After reading the CCSD plan for reopening, it is clear that the task force put much time and effort into each decision. I commend those taking on this responsibility. The parent letter and outlined plan covers safety protocols and instructional models, which answers many questions and addresses concerns being voiced by CCSD stakeholders and Clarke County community members. There are some questions and concerns that were not addressed or that could benefit from being further clarified. The goal of this response is to put forth these questions and concerns in a constructive manner that adds to the conversations taking place. While there is no doubt that many people have been working hard to formulate a clear and cohesive plan for CCSD staff, students, and families, there is always work to be done to improve the systems and procedures being proposed.

First, as of July 9, 2020, the membership of the task force was shared with the public. The composition of the current task force makes it abundantly clear why there were so many details regarding school-level operations and instruction omitted. Most district-level departments were represented, but it appears to be as far as they went when seeking input from stakeholders. There were no members representing early learning or pre-kindergarten, programs such as English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) or Spectrum, parents, students, local health services, or teachers. Additionally, some areas may have benefitted from an additional representative or two. I would suggest the district look for gaps in the current task force before moving forward. A more representative task force should be in place as soon as possible to make any final decisions regarding the reopening of schools as well as to problem-solve issues that arise related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Transparency and equal representation will lead to success for CCSD.

It is reassuring to know that the district received over six thousand surveys, which undoubtedly helped the task force make their decisions thus far. However, there are 13,965 students in our district, which indicates that the survey completion percentage is relatively low. In fact, when reviewing the detailed survey data, the data indicates that schools with a higher percentage of language learners and economically disadvantaged students completed the survey at lower numbers. That directly affects the response data for many of the pertinent questions that follow such as the availability of devices, internet access, transportation needs, and childcare availability. Ten out of twenty-one schools had less than 50% survey completion. Taking that information into account, it is difficult to rely on the survey data as an accurate representation of the needs of CCSD families. While the survey data is shared with families in English and Spanish, it is not clear that the survey itself was provided in both languages. I argue that this excludes a substantial proportion of CCSD families from providing input as it relates to their children’s learning. Additionally, the survey summary, which is available on the CCSD website is misleading in its representation of the data. For families that opt to read the summary results as opposed to the detailed result data, this means that they will potentially base their decision and acceptance of proposals on inaccurate information. It is imperative that the district strives for full transparency in times of uncertainty as we are experiencing today.

While the parent letter states that the start date is tentatively scheduled for August 3, 2020, and it references looking to current COVID-19 data for Athens and surrounding areas, there is no stated reason regarding the drawbacks or implications for making the preemptive decision to push the start date to a later time. In fact, the first parent survey, which was provided prior to the recent increase in cases in the area, shows that there is overwhelming parent support (approximately 73%) for a later start date. Now that there has been an increase in cases and hospitalizations in the local area, more parents may not feel comfortable with the start date remaining on August 3, 2020. Why ask the question if the results were not going to be taken into account? Having a later start date has been brought up in previous years as well as a potential solution to lowering operational costs and other reasons so it is a logical conclusion to revisit this idea with the additional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic to consider.

The current parent and family survey addresses many logistical needs. Is the survey being translated for families whose predominant language is not English? If it is not, then many families are excluded from the data being used for decision-making purposes. Additionally, will surveys be provided to parents in other formats since, as shown when CCSD switched to digital instruction in March, many families do not have access to digital devices or internet services? The input of parents is vital, but I would argue that so is that of CCSD employees. Will they be provided with a similar survey? After all, school-level staff members will be expected to follow whatever plan is decided upon. Families are being given a short time to complete the survey and then must, beginning on the following day, make a commitment to an instructional model in even fewer days. This does not seem like an adequate amount of time for families to make arrangements and explore what options will work best for them. If the start date for instruction was pushed back, that would provide families with the time necessary to make these big decisions and accompanying arrangements.

Addressing the outlined safety protocols leads to many questions that need answers in order to clarify the district’s plans. What kind of PPE will be provided to all staff? Will staff members be able to provide their own and preferred type (mask, face shield) of PPE? Scientific research has indicated that wearing a mask protects others while wearing a face shield protects the wearer from others. Additionally, wearing both a mask and a face shield together provides an even higher level of protection especially when used in conjunction with other procedures such as social distancing and hand washing. If face coverings are being required when social distancing is not possible, how will that be decided? Leaving such an important protocol up for interpretation could lead to lower compliance as well as confusion for all parties involved. If exceptions are made based on a student’s disability or extenuating circumstance, what will constitute an extenuating circumstance? Will this be handled on a case by case basis and by whom? Putting mandates in place can be a very difficult and divisive decision, however simple observation of individuals’ choices since the beginning of the pandemic has shown that many people are not choosing to do what has been recommended unless it was mandated.

Social distancing has been interpreted in different ways based on individual opinions, physical space, and other circumstances. How will socially distanced spaces be created? School buildings have a limited amount of space as it is and most schools in CCSD do not have the ability to “create” more classrooms in the physical spaces they have. How will classrooms that typically use table seating be socially distanced? Will those classrooms be provided desks for students? For example, if a kindergarten classroom is at its minimum class size, it would still mean that a few students are seated at each table, which does not allow for adequate social distancing. Further, what if class sizes are closer to the maximum numbers? If there are schools with families whose access to technology and time off are greater, they will undoubtedly have more of an opportunity to choose the distance/digital option. That translates to our families with the fewest resources not being given a choice. Those schools will then have a greater number of students using the in-person model, making those schools more

crowded than others, which creates an equity as well as a safety issue. In that case, would class sizes be distributed across schools so that numbers are equitable? There is already a large disparity between elementary schools in CCSD.

The letter mentioned “teachers will be provided sanitizing wipes to clean students’ desks between transitions,” meaning some students will be transitioning between classes. How will social distancing during those transitions look? What students and grade levels will have outside of the classroom transitions? Special area classes such as art, music, PE, and others may have more shared spaces and materials other than just desks. Will these teachers be sanitizing all of these areas and materials? How much time will they have to do so? Many school transition times are as low as 5 minutes between classes.

If temperature checks are required, how will they be done? Will schools conduct the checks or will families be asked to self-report? If a student or staff member exhibits symptoms when arriving at school or during the school day, what is the protocol for sanitation and communication? If it is a teacher, who will be responsible for leading the in-person instruction? One symptom of COVID-19 is fever, but research has shown many people are asymptomatic while still being contagious. If a person tests positive for COVID-19, they are considered contagious until they receive a negative test result, which can be a varied period of time. In addition, how will the district address positive COVID-19 cases of staff, students, or immediate family members of staff or students? How and when will the school community be notified? Is there a plan for assuring that contact tracing will be done with efficacy and fidelity?

The letter states “parents will be asked to drop students off at the door,” and that limited visitors will be allowed in the school buildings. What if a parent refuses to drop off their student at the door? Many schools already operate in this way by encouraging parents to drop off instead of walking students into buildings. Again, setting forth requirements and mandates can be difficult, but offers much more clarity for those who will be in direct contact daily with students and parents and enforcing the outlined safety protocols.

Additional questions/concerns regarding safety:

● Will additional PPE be available at every school in case something happens (damaged, soiled, etc.) to a student’s face covering while at school?

● How many face coverings will be provided to each student who needs them? What type of face-covering will be provided (reusable/washable face mask, disposable mask, etc.)?

● There was no detailed information about how the district plans to use social distancing on buses. If students are required to wear a mask on the bus, what happens if they do not have one? Will bus drivers be provided with extra face coverings?

● The CCSD plan did not mention recess. With students facing many restrictions, time outdoors that provides the ability to be active will be crucial to school success. Most schools have recess at the same time by grade level, which can have student numbers four or five times higher than in the classroom. How will safety be ensured during this time? Some studies have shown lower transmission when outdoors. Will outdoor equipment be sanitized similarly to other shared spaces?

● If teachers are providing in-person instruction, there are often materials that are shared (books, science kits, math manipulatives, etc.). How will these be used during this time? Will families be asked to

supply more classroom materials than in previous years in order for students to have their own set of materials? What if a family is unable to provide these materials?

● Will any COVID-19 testing or screening occur prior to or during the school year for students and staff?

The decision to separate the instructional model options by age/grade levels will make it clear to parents when deciding which option is best for their families. It is worth noting that the hybrid option was only given to high school students. A hybrid model like the one proposed for high school would help to reduce class sizes at all levels, which allows for more social distancing inside of classrooms, and especially if there are some students choosing the distance/digital option. There were several comments and suggestions at the end of the initial survey stating that parents would prefer a hybrid instructional model. It would also replace the need for a traditional in-person option at the elementary and middle school levels. The in-person model is business as usual for the most part with some safety protocols in place and a four-day school week. Many parents may choose this option regardless of the details because it is what is most familiar.

The wording of the distance/digital option reads as discouraging by stating “a major commitment from families will be needed.” All education regardless of its format necessitates a major commitment from families. Including that statement under the distance/digital learning option implies that the other options do not require a commitment from families. Additionally, the digital learning experience that took place at the end of the year may influence parents’ choices even if the distance/digital options and resources have been improved or altered. At the end of the distance/digital option, it states that students must be enrolled in the model for nine weeks before transitioning to in-person instruction. How will this be enforced logistically and legally? The basics for each model are provided, but details are seriously lacking.

Additional questions/concerns regarding instruction:

● Since all proposed options include distance/digital learning on Friday, how is that instruction supposed to look? Will it include all students together (those doing in-person and those doing distance/digital learning)? Will teachers be working remotely or in the school building? Will additional cleaning and sanitizing be done on Fridays? How will CCSD be providing meals on this day?

● Who is responsible for providing distance/digital instruction? What resources or platforms will be used? Will teachers have appropriate professional learning addressing these platforms and resources? Are schools left to decide on their own how to provide distance/digital instruction or will there be one plan for the entire district? How will support services (SpEd, ESOL, Spectrum, and others) be provided if a family chooses the distance/digital model?

● What funds, if any, were used to purchase these platforms? Were the funds diverted from resources typically afforded to our schools? What if families decide to switch from the in-person model to distance/digital learning?

● Did CCSD receive any of the newly available federal funds for technology? If so, how will that additional funding be used to support student learning?

● The reopening plan did not address substitute teachers at all. The district has previously had a shortage of substitutes. What protocols are in place regarding the provision of substitute teachers?

● How will attendance be addressed for all proposed instructional models? Will students be penalized for moving from the in-person model to a different option if a parent is concerned about their health and safety at school?

● Could there be an option for a shortened school day? Without transitions, special area classes, extended learning time, and in-person lunch, the school day could be shortened to reduce the contact hours and possible transmission of the virus. Students could take a sack or boxed lunch home.

● Many of the skills taught in early elementary grades and early learning focus on school readiness and social skills. How will these teachers provide instruction and support in these areas? If they are not spending time at school doing this type of learning, what will they do instead?

Teachers were given a letter earlier this week along with a one-question survey about their plans to return to work. In that letter, they were not given the option to provide distance/digital learning. Who does the district plan on providing distance/digital learning for the families that choose that option? What resources are teachers being given if they are going to be expected to provide instruction in both formats? Once again, the information sent out to parents was not sent to teachers or staff in advance, and teachers were not given the opportunity to provide input or feedback prior to the plan’s release to parents and the larger community. It is difficult for teachers to adequately adapt instruction or create a new instruction model with authenticity and intentionality without the time needed to do so. The district’s choice to release the reopening plan in this way highlights how little its leaders value the opinions and ideas of those who work most closely with students and families.

It is my hope that you will receive this letter in the spirit in which it is intended. I, like many teachers, want to help create the safest, most learning conducive environment possible as we return to school. The length of this letter may serve as a testament to the many details that those within schools would anticipate--have anticipated, whereas district employees working primarily in office settings may not have the perspective to foresee those details with the same acuity. Teachers conversely would not be the ideal group to make decisions regarding other workplaces or how to proceed with due caution within them. My intention is to be of service in presenting concrete, day to day issues that are better addressed at this point than in haste when we are again with our students.

An earlier version of this letter can be found at https://www.change.org/CCSDreopening. The petition has amassed over 180 signatures of support, 60 shares, and over 1,000 views thus far in the past 21 hours. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your responses and to providing a safe and welcoming environment for families and students as we approach the return to instruction.


Concerned Stakeholder


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