Friday, June 14, 2024

Pender issues lengthy response to teachers’ concerns, doesn’t mention letter from 60 employees

Pender County Schools Superintendent Steven Hill looks on as Chairman Don Hall speaks during a Board of Education meeting earlier this summer. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Pender County Schools Superintendent Steven Hill looks on as Chairman Don Hall speaks during a Board of Education meeting earlier this summer. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

PENDER COUNTY — Pender County Schools issued an eight-page response to a letter sent by a coalition of teachers who previously signaled a refusal to report for in-classroom instruction at the start of the fall semester — but the response did not mention the letter itself.

“In an effort to maintain transparency and provide additional clarity for staff and the public, Pender County Schools would like to address some questions about reopening schools,” the statement begins.

RELATED: After reports of Trask quarantine, 60 Pender teachers refuse in-class instruction

The press release, sent at 8 p.m. on Sunday, explained that a survey was made available to all PCS employees from July 29 to August 2 “to attain staff intentions for the year.” Nearly 700 teachers responded, 87% of whom said they planned to work with no requested accommodations while 7% said they would need to telework away from the school buildings (5.4% requested ‘some accommodations’).

In the letter sent by approximately 60 teachers on Friday afternoon, they stated, “We were offered this survey before the restarting plan was made clear. Many of us would likely change our responses.” In response, the district said the survey “was made available a week after the Board of Education voted to start the year under the Plan B module.”

The district announced on July 21 that it had chosen ‘Option 5’ after a review of surveys sent to staff and parents, falling under Governor Roy Cooper’s Plan B for school reopenings, which staggers student groups attending class for periods of time followed by periods of online learning. But the release only explained the schedule of the different ‘cohorts’ of students; no details were offered on how this schedule would be carried out.

An earlier survey was sent in mid-July to parents and other guardians, 55% of whom said they would send their students back to school the following month if classroom instruction was approved (18% said they would not while 27% were undecided). But the district explained that the governor had not issued school opening plans when the survey was presented.

As of Sunday, 2,618 students had requested to enroll in online-only education for the fall semester, representing 26.9% of the student body, according to the school district.

The Sunday night statement then outlined every question that had been included in a list of concerns attached to the teachers’ letter, copying the question or concern in italics followed by the district’s response (read in full below). It did not mention where these questions and concerns had come from, only that had been “submitted to the Board of Education.”

One concern from the teachers was the possibility of an outbreak when a teacher or student tests positive and then travels to other classes while mingling with students and colleagues in the hallway.

“By the time someone is confirmed, hundreds of contacts and potential exposures have occurred,” the teachers wrote.

According to the district’s response, teachers and students will be required to wear face masks and stay 6 feet apart while walking from class to class, using markers on hallway floors as guidance for spacing requirements. But the district did not address its response to a potential outbreak.

The teachers also said a shipment of thermometers currently quarantined in California means they are underprepared to handle the screening volume with a limited supply. In response, the district said it was “able to to procure enough thermometers from a local vendor to allow for proper and thorough screening when students arrive,” and that those devises have already been distributed to the district’s schools.

The teachers also said there was no protocol for what happens when a student refuses to wear a mask, and they had received no guidance on which students would have certain exceptions.

“We also have serious reservations about being in a classroom with a student who is not wearing a mask … There is no clear discipline policy for noncompliance in wearing a mask,” the letter stated.

The district said all students and staff are required to wear masks, and those not wearing them will be offered them. A first-time offense would result in a dress code infraction or insubordination, “and the student will be given the opportunity to put a mask on,” according to the release. A student claiming an exemption will be required to isolate from the general population while administrators contact the parents to verify the exemption, at which time the student will be required to wear face shields or enroll in online learning.

“Refusal to wear a mask or face shield may result in a required switch to online-only learning,” according to the district.

The teachers’ letter had been composed in response to Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, but its delivery to the Board on Friday afternoon was hastened by reports that there was a considerable number of teachers at Heide Trask High who had been quarantined. The group wrote that “we have collectively concluded that we are not yet prepared to move forward with Plan B” and that they are “unable in good conscience to fulfill our duties as mandated by our country’s safety guidelines as well as our state’s Code of Ethics for Educators.”

They cited that same code of ethics, which states that it is the responsibility of a teacher to “protect students from conditions within the educator’s control that circumvent learning or are detrimental to the health and safety of students.”

In addition, the teachers point to a Board policy that states, “It is the basic safety policy of Pender County Schools that no task is so important that an employee or student must violate a safety rule or risk injury or illness in order to get the job done.”

Various reports of the Heide Trask quarantine contradicted themselves. Although the district acknowledged on Friday a quarantine at the high school, it said 24 employees were “unavailable to teach-in person on Monday” because of unfilled positions, previously requested leave, and recent Covid-19 exposures. Nearly three hours later, after an emergency board meeting, the district stated that “PCS reported 24 exposures and/or symptoms to the Pender Health Department,” but did not clarify if those 24 cases came from Heide Trask itself.

According to Pender Health Director Carolyn Moser, there were approximately 10 Heide Trask employees under quarantine, all resulting from exposures to one employee who had tested positive for Covid-19.

During the Friday night emergency meeting, the Board voted to delay in-classroom instruction at Heide Trask for two weeks, beginning on August 28. Board members also voted to delay in-classroom instruction in schools across the district by only one day, opening school buildings to students and teachers on Tuesday, August 18.

Other responses issued by the district addressing the teachers’ concerns and questions included:

  • Teachers: Students who need or want virtual education are being given over to costly computer programs.
  • District: Students taking part in online learning at the middle or high school level who are enrolled in third-party programs are receiving instruction and assistance from certified educational staff members. These accredited organizations are committed to meeting the educational needs of any PCS student who wishes to take part in online learning.
  • Teachers: Elementary age children have been given no audio or video equipment to facilitate live-streaming, nor do they have an educational platform or facilitator.
  • District: Chromebooks do have built in cameras and microphones that students can use to engage with their teachers and classmates during live learning opportunities. Cameras and microphones to better equip PCS classrooms are being procured, however continuous online streaming is not feasible at this time. PCS encourages all students to engage digitally as much as possible. State protocols indicate that once the district’s internet connection exceeds 60 percent aggregate utilization at the 95th percentile over a rolling four week average, the district’s bandwidth will be eligible for expansion which will make video streaming more likely to occur. In short, the more internet usage by Pender County Schools, the more likely the district’s internet capacity will be expanded.
  • Teachers: What is the plan for socially-distanced dismissal each day? 
  • District: Plans are developed and implemented by school-level officials depending on how their dismissal process works. Students will be asked to meet social distancing guidance when waiting to be picked up or loading onto buses.

Read the district’s full response to the teachers’ letter below:

This article was updated at 11:25 a.m. on Monday, August 17.

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