Teachers remain concerned about return to school

Teachers remain concerned about return to school

CUMBERLAND – While teachers say they’ll be happy to see more students in person again, many remain fearful about Cumberland’s plan to return to in-person learning from the current hybrid model.

On Feb. 5, in an announcement that created some waves locally after it took School Committee members, teachers and families by surprise, Supt. Bob Mitchell announced a planned return to a four-day school week starting Feb. 22.

That plan was subsequently revised to the following schedule:

• Grades k-2 will return March 2.
• Grades 3-5 will return March 9
• Grades 6-8 will return March 16
• Grade 12 will return March 9
• Grade 9 will return March 16
• And grades 10-11 will remain hybrid until all of the above has occurred and high school administration can further study and implement safe traffic and spacing within the high school.

Mitchell, at the Feb. 11 school board meeting, apologized for the way the initial announcement was handled, explaining that he “wanted to give parents and staff opportunity to prepare.” He said he wouldn’t have an issue putting the plan before the committee for a vote.

“I should not have done that,” he said, answering concerns from member Denis Collins about why such an important matter wouldn’t go to the committee for a vote, and that it could set a precedent for other important votes that impact people, including perhaps future redistricting.

Chairwoman Karen Freedman then put the item on the school board agenda under reports from Mitchell. She said the committee was put in a bit of a tough spot with the announcement, and she does expect more of a discussion before such an announcement. Technically, however, the plan doesn’t legally have to go to the committee for a vote, she said.

Kerry Carlson, a middle school educator and president of the Cumberland Teachers Association, said teachers want to welcome back as many students as possible in a safe way, but 68 percent of union members are not in favor of this plan due to safety concerns.

Many will make the case that a return to school is safe, Carlson said, but teachers are having a problem with the conflict between what they’re being told in their lives outside of school, including that they need layers of precautions to stay safe, such six feet of distancing plus masking, handwashing, and staying away from people outside of one’s household, and what’s being said in school. There might be more than 20 students in a room, some without their masks on, with a maximum of three feet of space between them, she said.

Teachers are not trying to be difficult, and want to do what’s best for students, she said, but they’re scared. Many have risk factors or family members with risk factors, she added, and school officials need to balance the risks involved with the reward of bringing students back.

Committee members Collins and Amy Rogalski expressed concern about teachers, mentioning that educators need to be consulted and given answers on how they’ll be protected. Rogalski said some teachers who go between schools will be doubling their exposure, and many are afraid.

Mitchell said officials are trying to be sensitive to the feelings of teachers, but said he thinks it’s important to focus on science in the equation, noting the studies that have shown how safe the school setting is, with less than 1 percent of students testing positive for COVID-19. The virus has not been shown to be spreading within educational settings, and Cumberland has done extensive upgrades to air quality, he said.

“I understand their concern,” said Mitchell, adding that the district wants to be sensitive and support teachers who are nervous, providing every possible mitigation strategy to keep them and students safe. He said it’s also important to mention that other districts, including Lincoln, have been doing in-person learning for a while, and he believes Cumberland has a responsibility to bring students back.

Reading specialist Jessica Macedo said achieving three feet of space in classrooms is already a challenge, and she sees it being nearly impossible with more students in class. She said she worries that extensive procedures in place won’t be enough, particularly if students come back so soon after winter break. Macedo said she misses seeing more of her students face to face, but if officials don’t want to wait until all teachers are vaccinated, they should at least wait 14 days after February vacation ends for a return.

Teacher Danielle Beauchene said no one sought their input before the announcement was put out. She described a scenario of 25 students being in a room, all eating breakfast, lunch and snack, times when they’re allowed to pull down their masks, with only cardboard dividers between them. She said she measured desk distance and found only 2.5 feet between them. Beauchene said she too would like to see teacher vaccinations given priority.

Francesca Beaudoin, a parent of three children and a physician and scientist, congratulated Mitchell on his “incredible diligent” work to the point where he himself has become a scientist. She described how she pulled her students out of Cumberland schools before the start of the school year out of concerns over remote learning, but spoke of the widening educational gaps for those who don’t have the privilege and means to take that step toward private education.

Beaudoin said science supports that in-person learning can happen safely, noting the many other negative impacts to children from not being in school, including food insecurity and unreported child abuse.

“You are prepared, you are equipped, it is safe,” she said, adding that the rate in schools has proven in many cases to be lower than in the community and that schools are not a vector for transmission.

Teacher Andrea Friedland said she would “love to be back with all my kiddos,” but wants safeguards in place. She said she would love to see Plexiglas dividers replace cardboard, as have been installed in Lincoln, so her students don’t have to peak over the top to see what’s happening. Friedland said she’s hoping to avoid her third stint in quarantine.

Teacher Jodi Magill thanked Collins and Rogalski for mentioning teacher safety in their comments. She said it would be easier to have all 25 students back in the classroom, and she and many others want to get there, but going back now would be counter to the steps teachers are taking every day to protect themselves and keep safe for when they’re around other family members. All of a sudden, she said, those health precautions “don’t really apply anymore” when it comes to getting classrooms reopened. Magill also said she’d like to see a push to get teachers vaccinated.

Comments

Since the school system increased the distances of those who would now be required to either walk or provide their own transportation to school this year, will they now go back to how it was done the previous years? I am all in favor of in person learning but it’s been tough enough to arrange drop off and pickup two days a week, now I’m going to have to do it four days a week when my kids had a bus every other year they’ve been in school. I haven’t seen a decrease in taxes, I shouldn’t see a decrease in services.

PlaneDriverCJ - the only change they made recently was increasing Kindergarten walking distances from .25 miles to .75 miles.

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