Orange County Schools teachers were required to return to school buildings to teach on Monday, despite classes still being remote. In response, some teachers decided to continue to teach from home to send a message to the district.
“We have yet to hear a sufficient rationale for why we must return a week after the Thanksgiving holiday as case numbers rise across North Carolina and the U.S.,” a Facebook post from the Orange County Association of Educators said. “We have yet to hear sufficient rationale for how teaching from our classrooms helps our students, who can tell when our morale is low and our stress levels are high.”
Many teachers in the district say this is part of a larger struggle. They feel their voices are not being heard in response to learning plans for the upcoming spring semester.
'Not a lot of good communication'
Christina Clark, a teacher at Cedar Ridge High School and president of the Orange County Association of Educators, said there are a few reasons teachers did not want to return to classrooms on Monday — it disrupts their current routines, they have to take care of children, they are at risk or they simply feel unsafe coming back to their school buildings.
Clark said she sent a survey out to teachers in the district on Nov. 20. Out of 417 respondents, 54.6 percent said they felt uncomfortable being back in the school buildings on Dec. 7. 59.7 percent of respondents said they did not feel that the district had addressed enough health and safety concerns to feel ready to return.
Clark said although she sent the results of the survey to the district, OCS went ahead with the plan to require teachers to return to buildings Monday.
“There could be more collaboration between teachers and district staff, and there could be more teacher buy-in if there were more collaboration,” she said. “There's just not a lot of good communication going on right now.”
Orange County Schools said its reasoning for requiring teachers to come back to school buildings is to help prepare them to teach hybrid classes in the spring. The district is planning to go ahead with a “Plan B” approach for the spring semester starting in January.
“All staff (teachers, front office staff, custodians, administration, teacher assistants, etc.) are necessary for our day-to-day operations," a Dec 3. email from Superintendent Monique Felder explaining the decision to staff members said. "This includes teachers maintaining their collegial relationships at a safe distance, assisting with and giving feedback on various processes and protocols, monitoring and supporting students throughout the day, offering coverage as needed, and providing students with much needed consistency.”
But a high school science teacher in OCS, who requested anonymity to protect her job, said she’s been teaching from home since schools transitioned to remote learning in March. She said both herself and her students have developed a routine, which coming back to the classroom disrupts — especially because teachers didn’t get any workdays to prepare for the change.
She said she is confused as to why the district would require teachers to go back into school buildings when COVID-19 cases are rising, especially before a major holiday.
She was one of the teachers who stayed home Monday.
“It just doesn't feel like enough has been thought of, you know, they are constantly changing or adding more to it as time passes,” she said. “And it's been hard. It's been hard to understand why they're presenting things as complete if they are very incomplete.”
Uncertainty regarding ADA accommodations
Some teachers who didn’t want to return to the school buildings due to child care or health risks received accommodations to stay home until January.
But Kevin Reese, a mathematics teacher at Cedar Ridge High School who has an ADA child care accommodation to stay home and take care of his son, said he was told by the district the accommodation will expire Jan. 12, before the start of hybrid spring semester.
Another OCS teacher at Orange High School, who requested anonymity, said she was told by the district her ADA accommodation would expire Jan. 25.
Both teachers said it is unclear whether or not they will be able to renew their accommodation for the spring semester, and a Wednesday email from Superintendent Felder to staff members reinforced these concerns.
“We cannot guarantee that individuals with accommodations will not be required to be on-site, nor can we guarantee that there will be no required in-person interactions,” the email said.
Reese said he's worried that once the time comes, he and other teachers will have to risk the safety of their families to go back to work.
“They're going to have to choose between their family, their livelihood, themselves,” he said.
Reese said he thinks the problem could be solved by letting teachers choose whether or not to continue to teach from their homes while COVID-19 numbers are “climbing and climbing and climbing.”
“This is not only an interest of the teachers, but the students as well,” he said. “We want them to have continuity, we want them to have consistency and we also want them to be safe.”
Looking toward the spring
The OCS high school science teacher who requested anonymity ended up returning to the school building on Tuesday after one of her co-workers received an email from the principal saying he could not grant staff members permission to work remotely if their reason was not feeling safe to return due to COVID-19. The email said staff members would have to go through human resources to continue to teach from home.
“If you have not reported to school, you will need to take a personal or sick day,” the email said.
As she spoke over the phone from her classroom, she described looking at empty chairs where her students would have been sitting in a pandemic-free world.
“It feels really weird, almost more detached,” she said. “Teaching on Zoom while in the classroom feels super strange.”
Looking toward the spring semester, she said she is concerned about shared bathrooms and classroom transitions that could increase exposure to COVID-19. She also said teachers are expected to clean in between classes, which presents another task to worry about in an already difficult semester.
The teacher said under "Plan B," she would be in charge of three different groups of students at all times, which she doesn’t know if she can handle — she’s already struggling teaching one group of students virtually.
“To be completely honest,” she said, her voice cracking, “I feel like I’m drowning, and I’m not doing right by my kids, and I’m only teaching online. It just doesn't feel right or fair, or equitable, or OK, to spread myself so thin.”
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