Decatur teachers concerned about return to classrooms consider their options
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By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor
Decatur, GA — Some teachers in City Schools of Decatur were considering resigning over what they say was an inadequate plan to return to in-person learning. Concerned for their health, and the health of their families, teachers are “terrified” of exposure to COVID-19 in schools.
Many of these teachers spoke to Decaturish but all asked to be anonymous because they feared retaliation for speaking publicly.
During the Oct. 13 School Board meeting, the district announced it would delay its reopening until next year, citing an uptick in cases.
In a September survey sent to 10,000 stakeholders consisting of teachers, staff, parents, and upper-grade students, 62 percent of teachers polled said they want to continue virtual learning for the foreseeable future. Only 5 percent said the district should switch to hybrid in the coming weeks “if virus levels remain at current levels or below.”
A lot has happened since that survey.
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Teachers and staff were due to return to classrooms on Oct. 12. That has been pushed to Oct. 19. CSD Superintendent Dr. Dave Dude said teachers concerned about returning were instructed to apply for accommodations, a means by which concerns could be reviewed and addressed.
“Teachers (and other employees) may request accommodations based on their needs, such as additional PPE, safety measures, virtual work settings, etc. Supervisors are working with employees to determine what accommodations we can put in place,” Dude wrote in an email to Decaturish.
If a school is unable to accommodate the request, Dude said, “CSD teachers and staff that qualify may be granted paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). If an employee is not eligible for FFCRA leaves (Emergency Paid Sick Leave [EPSL] and Expanded Family and Medical Leave Act [EFMLA]), all other leaves that are available may be requested in accordance with the leave policy. Leave provisions have not changed and are still available for employees to request and use.”
But teachers worried the request for accommodations will be denied, and hesitate to resign because of a clause in their contract: Leave your job mid-year, and risk losing your teaching certificate and pay an $800 fine.
The clause states:
“The Employee without the written consent of the Employer shall not terminate this contract. In the event that the Employee does terminate this contract, whether by formal notice or by willful failure or refusal to continue duties without such written consent, Employee shall pay to the Employer Eight Hundred Dollars ($800.00) to compensate Employer for injury by reason of such breach, it being impossible to ascertain or estimate the exact cost, damage, or injury that Employer will sustain by reason of such breach. In addition to exercising any legal or equitable remedies available to it, the Employer may recommend to the agency designated by state law to investigate complaints of ethics violations by educators that action be taken against the Employee’s certificate or application for certification.”
One veteran CSD teacher was denied a request to continue teaching from home in order to care for her ailing mother. Another teacher resigned last week, and more are contemplating resignation or early retirement.
Teachers who cannot afford to risk their health also cannot afford to lose their paycheck.
“The fact that I have to choose between a paycheck and my safety is hard,” said one elementary school teacher who described the pandemic as very challenging. Living with Type 1 Diabetes, she has been wearing a mask, socially distancing, and using hand sanitizer daily. She has not seen many friends or family, and she has not been inside a grocery store or restaurant since March.
Other school districts in Georgia have experimented with reopening during the pandemic.
In Paulding County, 228 positive cases of COVID-19 were reported the first month of school. A lawsuit filed by the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) filed last week claims Paulding County officials were reckless in opening school buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
President of GAE Lisa Morgan, also a Kindergarten teacher, said, “Georgia’s 1.8 million public school students deserve to be safe and healthy in all school settings. They should be in spaces that do not risk their health and by extension, the health of their family and friends.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, students and teachers are at a high level of risk when they engage in in-person learning, mix minimally between classes, and share objects while practicing social distancing, mask wearing, and frequent hand washing.
CSD teachers are worried about small classrooms, aging HVAC systems, and overcrowded spaces like cafeterias, hallways, and stairwells.
“My classroom is the size of a closet,” said one teacher, who said the CDC’s recommendation to stay six feet apart will be impossible when students return.
Carrying signs with slogans like, “I [heart] my students. I want them safe. We need a plan for lunch,” CSD teachers, parents, and students protested on Oct. 9.
It was the second of three protests held about the reopening plans.
Sharon Shahaf, mom of two CSD students, attended the protest. She said teachers are afraid of retribution, angry, and confused.
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The protest was held the same afternoon CSD updated a manual for schools “to effectively mitigate the spread of COVID-19 once students and staff return to our buildings for in-person, face to face instruction.” The manual is anything but effective, according to parents and teachers.
The manual has too much room for interpretation, they say. One section states that face masks are to be worn at all times in addition to “maintaining appropriate physical distance” and also says “schools will provide 6 feet of physical separation between individuals to the extent possible,” but the responsibility to make that happen lies on the shoulders of principals.
When asked about how the district’s plan will be implemented, a teacher said her principal replied, “I don’t know the answers to your questions. We are in this together.”
“Teachers want people to understand this is risky,” said one elementary school teacher. “We are being told, ‘It’s back to school with all the kids or nothing.’ For some of us, there’s a chance of dying. We are being asked to choose between our health and our careers. Teachers should have a voice and a right. Our fate does not get to be in the hands of one person.”
The manual is authored by Dude and 11 staff members, and was reviewed by community members in public health, epidemiology, and health care.
Will Ratcliff, Georgia Tech professor of biological sciences and dad of two CSD students, provided feedback on the manual. Ratcliff describes himself as overly cautious. “I’m the guy in grocery store wearing chemical lab goggles and a mask.”
He is “absolutely not sending [his] kids back to school.”
“Dr. Dude called me and we had an extensive discussion,” he said. “Rather than making excuses, he is trying to do the right thing. One thing [Dude] said, ‘We are not just trying to open because parents need to go to work. We are trying to give the least worst option.’”
But Dude has not responded to all stakeholders equally, teachers and parents say. Critics of Dude say the countroversy surrounding the reopening plans should be a wake-up call. They say the superintendent was improvisational and dismissive during the Sept. 30 town hall meeting with teachers about the plan.
A letter written by Jeff Staton and Tom Clark voicing concerns about the reopening plan was sent to Dude and the school board on Sept. 28. School board members Jana Johnson-Davis and James Herndon replied, but Staton said neither central office nor Dude has responded.
In an email, Staton told Decaturish, “… while I very much appreciated receiving the note from Jana Johnson-Davis on Sep. 30 acknowledging receipt and looking forward to a comment from David Dude, I believe it is quite fair to say that the questions raised in the letters have been ignored by the Superintendent and his staff. I don’t know how else to describe not receiving a response.”
Herndon, who joined the school board in January, said he has received scores of letters about this topic.
“The thing I want to respond to these emails with is, ‘I hear you. I’m bringing it up in conversation.’ The board is a collective, though, and emails and feedback sent to the group should be addressed by the group and not individuals,” he said. “We read and listen to everything people send us and say to us. I respond to as many as I can that are sent to me. Many times, I call the individuals that reached out. School board members are listening, bringing it up in conversations, pushing towards change, constantly negotiating. We don’t have the day to day oversight over the school system’s operations and reopening plan.”
School board members have power over the final budget and the superintendent’s contract, and they function as a final judicial body for student and staff conduct.
“I know the school board appreciates the feedback from the staff and the community. We have adjusted the [Oct. 13] Board meeting structure to allow more time for us to hear and address public comments and feedback,” he said.
In a meeting at Fifth Avenue Upper Elementary School last week, teachers in a breakout group were asked to make a list of measures to keep everyone safe, according to a teacher who attended the meeting. The teacher said everyone sat in silence.
“One teacher stood up and said, ‘Look, I am not putting my name on this document because I don’t want it traced back to me. It seems like an acceptance of what’s going on, and I don’t believe in going back and I don’t want to do it,’” reported a teacher who left DeKalb County School District for CSD because she thought she would feel heard here. “Another teacher said it was like a lamb leading himself to his own slaughter.”
The elementary school teacher added, “We have been working 10- and 12-hour days since July [in planning meetings, trainings and creating lesson plans]. Isn’t that that the job of central office to figure this out? I’m working. You need to figure this out. My job right now is to engage my students. Shouldn’t you guys be working out the plan?”
After this article was published, F.AVE Principal Karen Newton-Scott disputed the description of this meeting in a comment posted on Facebook. She said the teachers were not asked to brainstorm safety measures at tha tmeeting.
“They were asked to review a document that detailed processes and procedures that the F.AVE leadership team drafted for specifics around our school and provide feedback, ask questions and offer other considerations,” Newton-Scott said.
The teacher who attended the meeting stood by their account of what happened after Decaturish shared Newton-Scott’s comments.
When asked what action Decatur residents can take to help teachers, Shahaf said, “I feel helpless. I feel we don’t really have options. I have lost trust in the decision-making process.”
“We were not going to send our kids in anyway because I need the numbers need to be way lower than what Superintendent Dude talked about. We are Israeli, and we have seen what happened in Israel where they had it under control well beneath what we are seeing in Georgia. They sent kids back to school and now they’re in a second, worse shelter-in-place order,” Shahaf said.
Melissa Kacalanos, mom of one homeschooled and two CSD students, signed up to speak against the reopening plan at the Oct. 13 school board meeting.
“I don’t want to be part of this death machine,” she said.
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