Advocacy return to school School Board Work Session Documents

SEPTA Return to School Response – 10.16.2020

We all are lucky to have wonderful educators in our community. Unfortunately, with the return to school plans underway, our teachers are stressed to the limit. Our community needs to show our support for those wonderful professionals who have dedicated their lives to serving our children!  Perhaps you have a teacher in your neighborhood? Please, take action now! You can: leave flowers, chocolates, thank you notes & more at their front doors. Send them thank you emails; send emails praising their work to their principals or nominate them for an FCPS Cares Award. Our FCPS staff are busting their butts to plan and implement virtual lessons for our kids. We’ve heard from many teachers who are beyond exhausted and are heartbroken — they hold themselves to high expectations and they KNOW that virtual schooling is far from ideal. They cry from frustration just like their students and us, parents. We are hearing from incredible, super-involved teachers, many whom we know personally, who are actively looking for new jobs due to the incessant amount of pressure, constantly changing plans and platforms, and concern over the well being of themselves and their families. That our amazing staff feel pushed to this point is a really big problem for our whole community and for the future of FCPS schools.

Last night’s marathon 7 hour school board meeting was exhausting for participants and observers alike.  Please send your School Board representatives a thank you note for all of their hard work — these meetings are grueling!!   Thank you to Stella Pekarsky, Rachna Sizemore Heizer, Abrar Omeish, Karen Keys-Gamarra, Ricardy Anderson, Laura Jane Cohen, Karl Frisch, Karen Corbett Sanders (who rocked running this meeting), Melanie Meren, Elaine Tholen, Tamara Derenak Kaufax, Megan McLaughlin, and student member Nathan Onibudo. These members were asked to make major decisions with little preparation time and few necessary details. The Board ended up with multiple split decisions and rarely were able to come to consensus. Each member brought insightful, valuable questions and perspectives to the discussion. While they did not agree in many cases, I cannot praise them enough for their collective ability to recognize that the entire situation was problematic and, rather than rushing through decisions, they ended up opting to gather additional, vital information for many aspects of the proposed plan. 

There was much discussion about concurrent instruction — and as the evening went on, it got even more muddled as to what “concurrent instruction” actually meant, how many students and programs would be involved in it, and how it would actually be implemented on the ground. Several schools are slated to pilot this program (admittedly we lost track of which ones or when). As the evening went on, apparently many more principals reached out to FCPS top administration during the meeting to volunteer their schools to help run pilots. 

Who was left out in so much of the decision making? Teachers, staff and building level administration. All of these groups have been asking key questions for months – some since the spring closure – without receiving firm responses. The plans presented lack firm explanations and examples of how they would actually be implemented in our schools. As the expression says, the devil is in the details. 

Our school staff are working extraordinarily long hours to prepare virtual lessons for our students. Despite their incredible efforts, teachers share that they are heartbroken because they KNOW the weight of the problems — they know that this structure is not ideal, that students are struggling, that anxiety is skyrocketing, that for many this just does not work well, if at all. Nevertheless, they persist. They love their chosen careers. They love their students, and their colleagues. Many teachers are also “career switchers” who left more lucrative fields to teach because they felt that something was missing in their work — a sense of making a positive difference and a contribution to our society at large. 

These people are now in jobs where the expectations are unclear and frequently changing, the setting and required skill set is variable, the preparation time is sorely lacking, and their concern for their personal safety (and, by extension, that of their families) is not being fully addressed. And, on top of this, they are receiving massive pushback and criticism from many in the general public. Their input is not requested, their serious health concerns are not valued or validated, and they are finding out about major changes to their roles at the same time as the public.

Our school board members and school staff alike are receiving threatening, scathing public criticism via social media. Removed from face-to-face exchanges where they don’t immediately see responses, some people use this distance to say things to others that they might never say in person. What has happened to respect and courtesy? To polite disagreement without personal attacks? As a former teacher, I know the emotional burden, the care and love, that I felt for my students and that I accepted as a part of my work. To have that dedication questioned or challenged, to have my character criticised in public… I cannot imagine the emotional hurt this causes.

Like in life, each decision in turn leads to new consequences and the next decisions to be made. And, whether we’re aware of it or not, the national discourse about how the pandemic is being managed weighs on us all. A major aspect of anxiety is a loss of perceived control and, as the national pandemic response is not in our control, this adds a “meta” level to our emotional baggage, which impacts how we all are dealing with unexpected challenges and changes.

To summarize, some of the breakdowns that need to be addressed include:

1) Consultation with & input from teachers and school staff:  It seemed that the recommended plans were lacking in the details about HOW concurrent instruction would actually be implemented. Central Office staff were unclear about how teachers would plan and run classes and how they would simultaneously monitor in-person and virtual students. School board members were confused, as they thought in-person students would be using their computers or the teacher would be smartboard projecting the same lesson to home & school students, but Central Office staff responses made it sound that this was not the case. The bottom line is that teachers on the ground must have a voice in developing the logistics for instructional methodology. The best laid plans help no one if they are not feasible to implement.

 2) Time to digest, review, and discuss:  This changed plan included a significant shift in the format of the hybrid plan that was presented as an option in the summer (2 days in person, 2 days asynchronous was changed now to 2 days in person, 2 days virtual). With essentially no notice, this new plan was presented, leaving school board members without the ability to have extensive conversations with FCPS leadership to ask questions and conversations with principals and teachers to get their feedback. 

3) The devil is in the details: staff and parents need details to make fully informed choices. This includes topics that SEPTA has been asking about since early this summer, such as how will whole classes safely take bathroom breaks at the same time while maintaining social distancing? If students are being temperature checked by bus drivers at bus stops, what happens to the child who is not permitted to ride but was waiting alone at the bus stop without a parent present? Have all school infrastructures been updated to provide enough bandwidth to sustain concurrent streaming from all classrooms simultaneously, which we were told this summer would be problematic? What type of professional development will there be for teachers to learn how to teach concurrently? When will such professional development be available? Will it be mandatory or optional? And many, many more questions.

4) Putting the cart before the horse: The timeline for the chain of events here seemed out of order. Principals and teachers have been planning for the first cohorts of students to return next week. Parents of these cohorts were asked to re-select their choices about in-person vs remaining virtual. Classes have been adjusted (& parents notified about these upcoming changes). Only these plans were made without approval by the school board for the concurrent delivery model. This is a similar dilemma to what we faced in the summer. Without knowing parent and staff preferences, you can’t make the plans. But at the same time, school staff can’t make the plans if they haven’t been approved by the school board. This process and timeline now feels rushed, yet long at the same time (with 7-12th graders not having the option to switch to in-person until February 1). 

5) You can’t please everyone: By giving parents the ability to choose their students’ school setting, FCPS has made things exponentially more complicated for themselves. Many school systems decided on one plan for the school system, & parents and staff had to deal with it and decide how they were going to respond, accordingly. It’s not what everyone wanted, but they’re dealing with it because it was clear, up front, & consistent. Giving parents a choice makes this entire situation much harder, so we parents need to remember that the complexity is, in part, due to our own demands.

SEPTA knows that students and parents and staff are struggling. We hear story after story about the challenges, particularly related to special education needs but also to general education needs as well. We are parents, dealing with these same situations with our kids. We are educators, some also parenting at the same time. We recognize that none of these decisions by the FCPS administration have come easily or without significant deliberation. That said, we must make decisions and move forward. The community as a whole – students, parents, and staff – are sent reeling after each of these Return to School work sessions because, in each one, significant changes are made to what had previously been said will be the model moving forward. The Central Office must find a way to move forward and stop changing the baseline ground rules at each work session.   This recurring pattern is eroding the trust in FCPS Central Office for students, parents, and staff alike. We recognize that this will not be easy, as there is no one solution that will address the needs of all stakeholders. It is a necessary step, however, to start healing the divisiveness we are seeing now.  

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