In playing hardball, do districts risk losing teacher trust?

November 19, 2020 Marietta - Participants hold signs  during a peaceful protest rally at the Cobb County Civic Center on Thursday, November 19, 2020. The participants are among the growing number of CCSD staff and nurses who are concerned about how the school district is managing the spread of COVID-19 in its schools. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
November 19, 2020 Marietta - Participants hold signs during a peaceful protest rally at the Cobb County Civic Center on Thursday, November 19, 2020. The participants are among the growing number of CCSD staff and nurses who are concerned about how the school district is managing the spread of COVID-19 in its schools. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Many districts have alienated staffs by leaving them out of decisions regarding COVID-19 safety

As with many school districts, Henry County is going to fully remote instruction starting Monday due to rising COVID-19 infections. Face to-face classes may resume on Jan. 25.

In an email from the superintendent, families were told, “…we have kept a keen eye on the local impacts of COVID-19 in our community, and we have unfortunately seen the number of cases rise dramatically in our county. This troubling trend created a sense of urgency in our school district to look at all options for the continued health and wellbeing of our school community.”

But Henry, as with a lot of other districts, still expects staff to show up in the school buildings, telling employees: “All employees should report to work as expected for this first week of the second semester.”

That demand met with resistance Monday when teachers at Stockbridge Elementary School attempted to work in the parking lot. The staff had held an early morning memorial for a beloved and longtime colleague, kindergarten teacher LuAnn Burns, who died of COVID-19 two days after Christmas.

After the service, the teachers set up chairs and laptops in the parking lot. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but we do know that we don’t feel safe going into schools and we want something done to ensure our safety,” teacher Kira Cooper told the AJC.

A school official advised the teachers to either return to the building or take personal leave. I asked the Henry County Schools spokesman about that stance. Here is what he said:

Today was an emotional day for many members of our Henry County Schools and Stockbridge Elementary families as employees returned to work from the semester break. As the day started, several employees and community members gathered outside of Stockbridge Elementary for a self-organized remembrance ceremony in honor of a teacher who passed away during the semester break.

The loss of any employee is tough for our school district, but we remain committed to supporting our employees and anyone affected by the passing of a colleague or teacher. Our focus is always on supporting those directly impacted in that specific school community with necessary resources including making counselors available to speak with anyone needing a professional with whom to discuss their feelings.

At the conclusion of this event, leaders from the district office and Stockbridge Elementary met with teachers and staff from the school to hear their recent thoughts as a part of the district’s daily efforts to monitor COVID-19-related matters. These conversations were a continuation of the dialogue that has been had with key members of our school community during the first semester and the two-week semester break that just concluded, all centered on support of district operations through this pandemic.

This week is the first week back to work for Henry County Schools employees in the second semester, and today’s work schedule was a focus on school-based professional learning. Many employees at Stockbridge Elementary continued to remain outside of their workspaces once the school day started, and they were reminded of their professional commitments within the building. They were also informed that remaining in the parking lot and not reporting inside the building would necessitate an accompanying personal day of leave. Henry County Schools is committed to a supportive and safe environment for our employees and the students who depend on our valuable teachers and staff.

We are appreciative of our teachers and their exceptional work as we navigate these challenging times together. Employee input, along with that of our key community partners – our local and state healthcare providers and agency officials, families, government agencies, and the business community – will remain a key consideration in any decisions pertaining to our efforts to resume learning and instruction for the second semester.

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I understand the commitment of school districts to children’s academic and mental well-being above all else. And, in most cases, children are better served in classrooms.

So, why aren’t superintendents and school boards doing everything they can to make classrooms safer for both students and teachers? For example, several major districts including Forsyth, Cherokee and Paulding have yet to impose mask mandates, only “encouraging” or “expecting” masks rather than requiring them.

Yet, as the AJC reported, Georgia is facing its third and worst wave of the coronavirus, which has triggered record cases and hospitalizations. Georgia ranked ninth in the rate of new COVID-19 cases nationally for the seven days that ended Friday, up from 11th a week earlier, according to the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Georgia also ranked fifth worst for new hospital admissions per 100 beds after ranking seventh a week earlier.

There are lots of predictions that teachers will resign in droves because of how districts treated them during the pandemic. However, historically teachers don’t quit in shaky economic times. While I don’t know if districts will lose teachers, I am certain they will lose teacher trust.

Consider these comments sent to me in the last few hours from teachers across the state:

-Please run a story about teacher burn-out, teacher mental health and student mental health. We are SCREAMING to our leadership and they are not listening. We are rarely given time to collaborate and this is a time when we need it most. They are changing policies constantly and parents, teachers, and students cannot keep up. There are “mental health” protocols in place but it is largely for show. When it comes down to real problems that we have expressed as teachers, they don’t care, they don’t listen and we are told to do our jobs.

-I am a teacher in Paulding, where we have been face-to-face since August, Despite our rapidly increasing COVID numbers in the county, we will return to school tomorrow. I am scared. Scared for myself, scared for my family, and scared for my friends and coworkers. At least one-third of the staff has contracted the virus at one school, several of those right before Christmas break. Instead of enjoying their much-needed break, they were quarantined to their bedrooms for fear of infecting their family members.

-Last night at the emergency board meeting it was said that Gwinnett feels going back to school will “lower community spread.” So, we are all heading back to school this morning, no matter what the community spread is. How do we know this is going to lower the spread? What if it doesn’t? I am truly fearful of what this is going to look like.

-Every day, Cobb teachers go into school buildings and pray we don’t come home in a coffin, but Superintendent Ragsdale does not care about our concerns or community spread. Ragsdale also refuses to provide ANY metrics on how high the COVID numbers have to be (or how high the hospital capacity has to be) before he moves schools back to full remote learning or, conversely, how low the numbers must remain to keep schools open face-to-face. Ragsdale touts his motto of “One Team, One Goal: Student Success,” but there is no team, and there is not going to be student success when the district continues to lose teachers.

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