Capital educators weigh in, district refines hybrid plans

DOVER — From job protection, to health concerns, to planning time, to preparation — the Capital school board Wednesday heard from educators and administrators about the nuance of this evolving academic year, hoping to close the gap between the “boots on the ground” and those in the district office ahead of Monday’s reopening.

“I still feel good, but I had lots of trepidations about my vote last time,” board member Dr. Tony DePrima said Wednesday. “Every time we went through the session, I feel a little better that we’re more prepared. Things seem to be coming together. I think it’s a huge risk. I think we have to be nimble. I think we all have to be willing to make some changes on the fly. I feel like we are in the right direction, and I feel a little better every time.”

The board met at the end of October to decide its course forward. In a 3-2 vote, with board members Dr. Chanda Jackson-Short and John Martin dissenting, the board approved hybrid instruction to begin Monday for the district’s young learners in pre-K through grade four and Nov. 30 for grades five through 12. It will be the last district in Kent County to bring students in for hybrid learning, but the district held a partially in-person summer program.

The meeting wasn’t without its concerns. After a flood of responses from educators, the board moved into executive session for about a half-hour to privately discuss responses staff had to the district’s presentation.

Wednesday’s board workshop sought to address those concerns and clarify the district’s reopening plan.

“If you would have told me six months ago that we would have sports before academics, I would have said absolutely no way,” said Interim Superintendent Dr. Sylvia Henderson, recounting the athletic events she has recently attended. “But we all know how that played out, and it was because of our kids, and it was because of what was best for kids. When we talk about reopening, we have to keep our constituents in mind, and our constituents are our children. What I saw was happy students; our Senators back in their element and back in Senator nation. We have to focus on what is best for our kids.”

Preparing for hybrid
Wednesday’s meeting, which spanned just over four hours, included a demonstration of what hybrid would look like. Students are expected to have two days of in-person learning a week, and teachers will be balancing an in-person and remote population at the same time.

But ahead of that reality next week, teachers, who were invited by administration to speak during the meeting, chimed in with how they felt about returning.

Booker T. Washington Elementary fourth grade teachers Raysheeta Davis and Julie Eaby will be joining forces when they move to hybrid.

Ms. Davis isn’t a stranger to hybrid learning; she was an educator during the district’s summer program, “Summer Boost.”

“I keep hearing that we haven’t had this opportunity to do hybrid, or to teach hybrid — we have. We have done this before, and we voiced our concerns about Summer Boost and the things that worked and didn’t work,” she said. “Some of the concerns we voiced is: This is going to be difficult, to do both. In-person and virtual learning is going to be difficult. I only had probably six kids during Summer Boost, and it was difficult, and I had a (paraprofessional).”

She and Ms. Eaby will be combining classes this year. When Ms. Davis’ students are at school for in-person learning, she will teach them, while Ms. Eaby will handle Ms. Davis’ remote learners, as well as her own remote students. The schedule will flip when Ms. Eaby’s hybrid students come to in-person classes.

“We thought this was the best answer for our situation. Then, as we were developing our schedules, we realized I’m only going to see my homeroom students two days a week,” Ms. Eaby said. “That breaks my heart because we have developed relationships with these kids.”

Ms. Eaby and Ms. Davis’ situation is unique, however.

Mary Murrian, who handles technology for the district, has held a number of professional development sessions helping walk educators through how to manage their online and in-person students.

Dr. Jackson-Short, who joined the meeting remotely, as did Mr. Martin, noted that the presentation demonstrated it is difficult engaging those remote and in person.

“I feel like I wouldn’t be doing my job as a board member to be able to speak up in the best interest of our teachers and our students in asking, is there an opportunity, do we have the option to provide additional supports, so that teachers don’t have to do both at the same time?” she said. “I think we need to look at that. If it means using some of our reserves to hire additional staff to just help us get through this period, I think that’s what we need to do.”

Stephanie Cummings, a teacher at Fairview Elementary, said that she isn’t nervous about going back to the building, and she is confident in the technology. But she feels like there is a disconnect between administration and educators.

“I do not feel supported as much as I thought I would through this process. My questions have not been answered promptly. I just wish I would get an email that said, ‘I don’t know the answer,’ instead of not responding,” she said.

She noted that there’s stress about managing essentially two classrooms — one remote and one in-person. Her colleague, for instance, has 31 students, with 11 in the classroom for two days and six for the other two days. The others will be online throughout the week.

There are gaps in support for that colleague, she said, noting that there are students who are not being serviced properly.

“I think that’s a big, big concern of mine, as well, because we are not supporting their (individualized education plans),” she said. “As my role as an educator, I should be advocating for my students to do that.”

Katie Mazzio, a Dover High teacher, said that every teacher has nervousness and anxiousness this year.

“You have 20-year veteran teachers that feel like they’re starting on day one of year one, and they don’t know what to do, and it is frustrating,” she said, adding: “Being on a computer screen is not what makes me good at teaching. In fact, I feel like this has been the biggest struggle for me, ever, even from my first year teaching when I stepped into the classroom.”

She does feel supported and safe contacting her administrators, she added, and she feels like the building is safe when it comes to health.

Elizabeth Koons, an eighth grade math teacher at Central Middle, agreed that she feels supported by her administration but that the stress was weighing on many educators.

“As teachers, we’re almost parents of our children in a way. I’m sure most of you are parents in this room or watching the Zoom — you don’t let your children go without, no matter what it takes. If it’s an extra job, if it’s extra hours, whatever it may be, you don’t let your children go without,” she said. “I don’t have children of my own, but I can tell you, I’m working insane hours, as are every single one of us. I mean, I do not put my computer down until 9 o’clock at night on a good night.”

Nancy Vaughn, a math teacher at Dover High with 39 years of teaching experience under her belt, has come to the high school to work every day even when they were remote.

“I know there are a lot of people who have their concerns. I’m far from perfect, I’ve got age on me, and that’s a detriment, supposedly, and a health thing here or there but not anything big. I hear people saying, ‘Oh, I can’t do, I can’t do.’ But I know for full good and well, they have not spent every single moment inside their house,” she said. “That part I’m not concerned with.”

She noted that people talk about stress, which she understands.

“I know it’s a lot of work,” she said. “If teaching was easy, everybody would do it.”

Mr. Martin noted that it’s important to hear feedback from the educators; he called it “organic” and “spoken from the heart.”

“If we were in war, we wouldn’t just be having generals discuss things that sound really good,” he said. “We’d have to get some feedback, have people down on the ground, saying, ‘Look, this is what’s going on.’”

Health concerns and potential COVID-19 cases
Educators with health concerns must meet the requirements established by the Americans with Disabilities Act when it comes to addressing job protection amid COVID-19. Staff works with human resources and their physician to determine a plan or seek accommodation.

In addition to ADA and short-term disability, under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which expires Dec. 31, employers must give their employees emergency paid leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. However, this only is applicable to 10 workdays. Any leave beyond emergency paid leave will be charged against accumulated leave and, if no leave exists, the employee will be deducted. Employees are entitled to only 10 days of emergency pay through this, according to the act.

Teachers will be allowed to work from home if they are being quarantined, are self-isolated or are sick with COVID-19 but only experiencing mild symptoms, said Mary Cooke, director of human resources.

“We’ve got some individuals right now who are actually doing that,” she said. “We’re going to do that because we’ve really had to look at a risk-benefit analysis. We need, especially right now, our certified teachers, who are certified in the content areas, to be working with these kids.”

If someone is exposed to the virus, the district will assist in filing a workers’ compensation claim, if they wish to pursue that option, she said.

There remains a medical gray area, however.

For those living with someone who might be immunocompromised or elderly, there is concern about bringing the virus back to them.
Ms. Cooke said that ADA doesn’t cover that.

“In those conversations I’ve been having with employees, I have concentrated those conversations with, ‘What can we do to help mitigate their exposure risk within the workplace?’” she said, adding that they have offered additional personal protective equipment.

Other options — such as temporary leave — also exist, she said.

But Dr. DePrima doubled down, citing Ms. Cooke’s comment that the district wants to retain their certified educators leading classrooms.

Ms. Cooke said that, under state and federal law, nothing addresses giving educators the ability to work remotely. She added that educators are essential employees — meaning they’re not necessarily included in stay-at-home mandates issued by the state.

“We allow people to work remote right now — or we were — and we just said under certain conditions, we’ll allow them to work remote,” Dr. DePrima said. “I don’t understand why we can’t extend it to folks in this situation.”

Though administration pushed back, Dr. DePrima suggested the board could utilize its local funds to supplement state support for educators’ salaries. He later added that this is a “rainy day,” and the board could tap into its reserve to target specific needs caused by COVID-19.

In total, since March, seven staff members have left due to COVID-19. Three were paraprofessionals; others included a teacher, secretary, child nutrition employee and related service employee, amounting to 0.5% of the total staff, Ms. Cooke said.

Planning time
How the district utilizes its Wednesdays sparked discussion last month, which carried over to this week’s meeting.

Wednesdays are asynchronous learning days for students, giving educators time to prepare lessons, grade, etc. The day has also included professional development, learning opportunities and planning across the district.

Dr. Henderson announced that the Wednesdays would be left as is, but the district is now opening up the opportunity for staff to work at their school or remotely, to help with child care.

“Some of the concerns we’ve heard is the teachers are working 14, 15, 16 hours a day between Zooms, grading work, catching up with kids, parents, what have you,” board member Sean Christiansen said. “I understand PLCs are very important, collaborating with people amongst your home building, and I understand we’re doing cross-district collaboration as something new. Is this the right time to do (Wednesdays like this)?”

The sentiments were echoed later by Dr. DePrima.

“They look for the Wednesday time to do things that they haven’t been able to do,” he said, “and they just feel overwhelmed between all of the training and the contractual stuff and the district stuff and all of this. It’s just adding to the stress. So I’m asking the district, and I’m asking the principals whether, under these circumstances, there’s just opportunities to be more flexible with your teachers to give them some choices.”

Mr. Martin said he feels like there are still many things for the district to put into place before its doors open in just a few days.

“Some of those concerns that I had initially, when I didn’t support the vote the last time, are still present,” he said.

Dr. Jackson-Short agreed.

“But hopefully, we’ll be able to execute, and everyone remains safe throughout the time,” she said.