Cape Henlopen educators, superintendent clash over hybrid model

LEWES — As school districts across the state follow the governor’s guidance to close buildings until the new year, educators in the Cape Henlopen School District raised concerns that the district is moving ahead with hybrid learning. Meanwhile, the superintendent maintains schools should remain open for in-person education.

The concerns were laid out during the school board’s public comment Thursday, a week after Gov. John Carney recommended schools move to remote learning beginning Monday, with hybrid teaching slated to resume Jan. 11. In his recommendation, Gov. Carney said districts that were not facing operational challenges could continue offering hybrid instruction.

A number of districts have already announced they would follow the recommendation, with some — like Appoquinimink and Lake Forest — citing a strain on operations due to quarantines.

In a letter, Cape Henlopen Superintendent Bob Fulton said the district would not follow the recommendation “to pause hybrid instruction due to significant operational concerns, because at this point, we are not experiencing them.”

The district has offered hybrid instruction since school began in mid-September, as determined by the board after an hours-long meeting in August. Also in September, the Cape Henlopen Education Association took a vote of no confidence in the school board and superintendent due to concern for “safety in the timeline” the district set for reopening.

On Thursday, six educators voiced apprehensions about the hybrid model, citing staffing issues, positive COVID-19 tests and stress.

Amanda Cordry, a teacher at Sussex Consortium who works with preschool-age children on the autism spectrum for five days of in-person learning, said there have been difficulties with staffing.

“During this time, I think most will agree, that the biggest and most challenging thing that we have had to deal with is the shortage of staff,” she said. “This has affected the days of staff and students in many ways.”

Beacon Middle School teacher Denise Matthews, whose comment was read into the record by Lacey Brown, Cape Henlopen Education Association president, agreed, noting she had covered classes for teachers, as had two others in her hallway.

Ms. Matthews wrote that, while at work Thursday, a coworker received a positive COVID-19 test. Ms. Matthews is now quarantining, noting she’s the third in her hallway to do so.

“I do not go out on the weekends. I wear my mask. I wash my hands. I missed Thanksgiving with my family,” she said, adding she often hears of her students going to birthday parties, having sleepovers, etc.

“They may not show signs or symptoms, but they carry it into my school,” she said. “A school is a direct reflection of the community it serves.”

Malorie Tartal, a fifth-grade teacher at Shields Elementary School, found she had tested positive for COVID-19 after having taught in-person for several days. Her daughter, a kindergärtner, also tested positive after attending class in-person. Her comment was read into the record by Ms. Brown.

She noted the point of her message to the board wasn’t that she blamed the district for the potential COVID-19 exposure, but rather, “The point is to bring to light that Cape does not have a magical orb around the perimeter that prevents COVID from entering its walls,” she said.

“I would never enter school knowing that I was sick with COVID. Yet I did unknowingly,” she said. “I have no idea who I could have possibly infected during those two days I was teaching. I don’t know if my students are sick, or my coworkers are.”

Educators acknowledged that in-person learning was crucial, but feared the conditions.

“We want to work. No one wants to go remote,” said Love Creek Elementary School teacher Lisa Schlater. “But the option of waiting to see if we have a problem is not acceptable.”

Ms. Brown said all educators know being in the building is the “most important thing for them and their students” but teachers are stressed and exhausted.

“Your educators are designing and implementing instruction on multiple platforms to be used with multiple groups of students, including in-person and remote simultaneously,” she said.

“Teachers are stressed and anxious because they aren’t confident that the district is being transparent about the number of COVID cases and those who are quarantined. Students cannot get the best of teachers who are exhausted and stressed.”

Later in the meeting, Mr. Fulton said the district isn’t facing significant operational challenges.

He said, prior to releasing his statement last week, he had spoken to the governor and secretary of education to clarify that the state “wanted districts to stay in-person at all possible if they weren’t seeing those significant operational issues due to the number of quarantines in their schools and their district.”

He said that, as of Tuesday, the district had 56 positive cases, 24 that were students and 32 that were staff members. As of that same date, 76 students and staff members have been quarantined.

“The cases within the schools aren’t increasing as things around us are,” he said. “Our quarantines were extremely low compared to other places. That’s due to the efforts of our staff and our reopening plan.”

He added that the data is also showing a decline in positive cases and quarantines. Four weeks ago, he said, the district had 14 positive cases in just that week. Since then, they have had less than 14 positive cases each week.

Fewer staff and students have been quarantined in the past five weeks combined compared to six weeks ago, he added. Six weeks ago, 32 people were quarantined. Since that point, they have quarantined 22 total, he said.

Mr. Fulton said he had “no trouble shutting things down tomorrow and sending home for remote learning,” if the conditions worsened, but that time hadn’t come.

“Thinking about the governor’s recommendation and, again, operational issues, although things are never perfect, I feel the operational issues that exist do not even come close to rising to the point of shutting schools down and sending students home for four weeks or a month,” he said.