The first day of school in Union County is less than two weeks away, but not everyone is willing to accept the reopening plan, which includes a mix of in-person and online learning.
A group of teachers, staff and community members called EduAdvocates is pleading with Union County Public Schools to go fully remote instead. Some teachers feel they didn’t have a seat at the table and that district leaders failed to take their comfort level into consideration.
Other top concerns include sanitation; students following guidelines; having enough supplies; temperature checks on buses; plans during an outbreak; staffing shortages; poor HVAC systems in older buildings and the overall quality of education.
The group held a “Motor March” Aug. 3 in front of UCPS headquarters in Monroe to urge the district to consider going virtual. According to data from EduAdvocates, the protest drew more than 170 attendees from 47 schools in the district. Nearly half of the people were UCPS employees and 37% were parents, guardians or caretakers of a school-age child.
They also started a petition with over 2,700 signatures calling for remote learning, but none of that was enough to convince school board members to change their minds during an Aug. 4 meeting.
Under Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order, no school district in North Carolina can reopen at full capacity. Schools can either choose Plan B — a hybrid model of in-person and online instruction — or Plan C, which is exclusively virtual learning.
Superintendent Andrew Houlihan told the school board during a meeting July 14 that UCPS would be aligning with Cooper’s Plan B, but also offering an additional Plan D virtual academy.
“I will say, subject to change,” Houlihan said. “It is very important for everyone to understand that this is a very fluid situation.”
In the virtual option Plan D, a dedicated set of teachers will provide online instruction five days a week for grades 2 to 12. The application for this option closed July 26. Families who enrolled had to commit to a minimum of one semester.
All other students under Plan B will be divided into groups that will rotate Monday through Thursday for one day of in-person instruction each week at school. When students are not in school, they will work remotely from home in an online environment. All students will be remote on Fridays.
To help make online learning easier, students in grades 2 to 12 will be given a Chromebook and younger students will have access to iPads.
UCPS is installing physical barriers, such as sneeze guards, in schools where practical and markings on the ground to ensure social distancing in areas outside of restrooms and cafeterias. Signs in key areas will remind students, teachers and staff to wear masks, wash hands and stay six feet apart.
All students and staff must wear a face mask and there will be daily symptom and temperature checks for everyone who enters a school building. Self-serve cafeteria lunches will be replaced with individually prepared grab-and-go meals and students will be spread out one per seat on the bus.
Before recommending Plan B, Houlihan heard from a Professional Advisory Council made up of elected teacher representatives from each school. PAC members serve as liaisons and are expected to bring staff questions or concerns forward. However, some teachers claim they were never asked for their opinion on a reopening plan.
Teachers were also sent an “interest survey” on July 23 that Houlihan said would gauge what models work best for them and their “feelings based on our Plan B about returning.”
However, some teachers say that survey failed to properly measure their comfort levels about returning to in-person instruction. Instead, they were only asked in what capacity they intend to return to work, if at all. The options were: report in-person, apply for a leave of absence, provide a medical note for a virtual position (if one is available), retire or resign.
Some teachers who submitted a medical note for a virtual position say they still have not been contacted by human resources and do not know if they have a position or will need to resign.
Tahira Stalberte, UCPS assistant superintendent for communications and community relations, confirmed the survey asked teachers for their intent, but said there was an open section for feedback at the end.
“It did not specifically ask, ‘How do you feel about plan B?,’” Stalberte said.
According to school board member Gary Sides, 86% of school-based employees took the survey and 91% indicated they intend to return to a face-to-face environment. The school board and superintendent have leaned on this data as indication that teachers in Union County feel comfortable going back to school, but some say that’s not the case.
A UCPS elementary school teacher who asked to remain anonymous called the survey a “veiled threat.”
“For them to rely on that as we’re comfortable coming back to the building is insane because there was literally no other choice,” she said. “I feel like the only reason that survey was responded to in the way it was, was because people are terrified to lose their jobs. Just as terrified as they are to go back into school.”
She said the survey did not ask her how effective she will be teaching in person while worried about contracting COVID-19, cleaning her classroom and making sure students keep their masks on, social distance and not share materials.
“We’re fed up. We’re tired of being the doormats for everybody,” she said. “It’s not our responsibility to get the economy back on its feet for the state of North Carolina just because we’re viewed as your personal free babysitters. That’s not my job. My job is to educate your children, not walk into a building knowing there’s a virus that could kill me.”
A UCPS English language arts teacher who asked to remain anonymous felt the survey backed teachers into a corner.
“When the district says teachers were asked for their feedback, they weren’t. They were asked for their intent,” she said. “The reality is staff need their jobs, health insurance and retirement. They were given this intention form with two weeks notice and minimal information about what their job would entail. This is an intimidation tactic.”
Unhappy with the district’s survey, the Union County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators (a professional development and advocacy organization) put out its own “return to work comfort level survey.”
The results were recorded at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 4 and presented to the school board. Out of 456 responses, 83.6% preferred Plan C and 75.7% said they were “not comfortable at all” with Plan B.
Sophia Stephenson, a UCPS teacher and resident of Indian Trail, spoke on behalf of EduAdvocates at the board meeting. She told members to consider the feelings of teachers and that they should have had a seat at the table.
“You are playing Russian roulette with the lives of this community,” Stephenson said. “I am pleading with you that I don’t need a medical condition to love my students from afar and I don’t need a medical condition to tell you I can’t do this,” she added.
Brittany Gendron, a UCPS teacher who lives in Monroe, called out district leaders for leaning too heavily on the results of the “interest survey.”
“When teachers were asked about their comfort level, let’s be very clear, it is not 86%, it is not 91% because comfort level was never asked in the survey that we were given,” Gendron said.
Only two board members, Melissa Merrell and Gary Sides, acknowledged teacher concerns during the meeting.
Merrell said while Plan C is an option under Cooper’s order, it’s not an option for Union County due to the county’s rural nature. She said some parts of the county lack the infrastructure for online learning and there are students and employees with inconsistent connectivity.
“Unfortunately, Union County is not able to go 100% virtual at this time,” Merrell said. “It is something we’re doing and we’re trying to figure that out. But are we ready today? No.”
Merrell added that Plan C would also not work for students with disabilities.
“We have students, families and maybe even employees that desperately need services that can be offered if our doors are open,” she said.
Sides said he took county data into consideration as well as his own feelings as a parent and owner of an essential business when choosing to support Plan B.
“I don’t make this decision lightly and I don’t make it to demand or command anyone to do anything, but to offer other choices,” he said.