back to school during covid pandemics teacher with face mask

By offering extended in-person hours and a full remote option for reopening Scarsdale schools this fall, parents in the community were getting closer to being satisfied, though many still wanted a clearer roadmap for exactly how things would look and feel online and in-person educationally and as far as health and wellness were concerned.

Some of these attitudes began to change Tuesday, Aug 11, when four Scarsdale teachers led off public comment — speaking for about 28 minutes in total — at the board of education’s Zoom meeting.

What the community learned firsthand from the teachers, who are all key players in the Scarsdale Teachers Association, confirmed a rumor that a majority of high school teachers in particular do not feel comfortable returning to the building this fall. This was a major public blow to the ongoing negotiations between the board of education/school administration and the parents that had taken place this month.

STA president David Wixted, who enters his 30th year teaching English at the middle school, noted the union rarely makes public statements and has lived up to its “social contract” with the board and the community, but that is in danger during the “deadly pandemic.”

“The abrupt shifts in plans to satisfy demands from the community now bring this social contract into doubt,” he said. “I am here now to warn you that this decision-making process has been subverted. I am here now to warn you that the culture that has defined this school district is in danger of being forever damaged. We all reap what we sow and shortsighted decisions made today that unnecessarily place teachers, students and all their families in real danger will have long-lasting effects that may be impossible to undo. This pandemic will eventually pass, but whether this school district’s long history of excellence will remain intact is increasingly in doubt.

“Again and again, plans put forth through the earnest work of committees with broad representation have been subverted by community members who believe these plans do not provide enough. This subversion has been brought about by voices who loudly and repeatedly doubt the commitment, hard work and sacrifice of their children’s teachers.”

Not only is Wixted dismayed at the process and the changes made this month to the initial plans prior to and following their release, but that the safety of the teachers and students is being put below the desire of parents who believe that in-person education in today’s world will be even close to what it was prior to schools closing on March 9 — Wixted calling it “severely diminished educational experiences for students.”

Wixted said some teachers are applying for Americans with Disabilities Act approval to be able to teach remotely, some will have to take leave due to their own child care needs, some could request unpaid leave and some could retire or resign due to their personal situations or feeling about returning.

“Teachers are shocked that the health and safety of students and their families are to be placed at risk by plans that pretend that children are capable of behaving as perfect actors following the protocols of social distancing and mask wearing,” Wixted said. “Teachers are worried that when the inevitable and sudden shift to remote learning occurs, we will be unprepared because the district has squandered all this time, energy, money at providing what will likely be a brief period of in-person instruction.”

Additionally, putting large groups of people in poorly ventilated buildings is a concern for Wixted.

“We are about to conduct an experiment where the test subjects are every child and adult moving through the buildings,” he said. “And any infected individual will then bring this virus home to their families, many of whom may be particularly vulnerable. How can the potential benefits outweigh these risks? Before taking a step further down a road toward an avoidable tragedy, we must stop and reconsider our options and decide upon a plan that truly preserves the health and safety of us all.

“We can provide both greater assurances of health and safety as well as great access to education, but only if we squarely recognize the nature of the danger that confronts us and prepare for remote learning. This is an unpopular choice, but it has the virtue of being the right one.”

Scarsdale High School art teacher of 27 years Dina Hofstetter, the STA chair for rights and responsibilities, said the teachers have been carrying out their responsibilities, but their rights are now being placed in danger. She took offense at the notion community members have suggested they should pay lower taxes if school is not in person five days a week, those who mocked noncore subjects, suggested furloughing teachers, suggested teachers don’t need extra planning time to redo curriculum, have harshly critiqued the emergency e-learning from the spring and not taken into consideration the immunocompromised.

“Instead we have parents forming splinter groups and disseminating manifestos filled with infographics designed to reimagine teachers’ rights and responsibilities,” she said. “They have the right to do so, but I feel it is the responsibility of the community to ask them to please stop and focus on the fact that for some we are confronting issues of life and death. The officers of the STA and our membership find ourselves in an unfamiliar defensive stance. From the beginning of this process we have engaged in good faith with the district as members of restart committees.

“We have brought expertise, compassion for a wide range of viewpoints and a deep commitment to creating a restart plan that best serves the needs of our students and staff … We’re at a loss at this moment because the hours of thoughtful engagement that we brought to the process were discarded as a reaction to parent outcry.”

STA vice president at the high school, and an English teacher for 23 years in Scarsdale, Stephen Mounkhall, spoke specifically on behalf of high school teachers, noting that 88 of them feel “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” returning to the building, himself included. Eighty-three of them believe their ability to do their job will be “limited” or “extremely limited” under the current model, with everyone being masked and 6 feet away from each other.

“How do I teach three periods in a row, 160 minutes in a mask?” Mounkhall said. “How do I project my voice through a mask to the back of the room? How do I hear students in a class discussion if they are masked? State mandates forbid me from huddling students together in groups. State mandates force me to keep students in rows all facing the same direction. State mandates forbid the sharing of materials and forbid me from walking around the classroom while students work and forbid me from checking over their shoulder while they are writing a thesis statement. State mandates forbid me from meeting with students individually in my office. State mandates remind every person every minute of the physical risk we are taking by being together in person. How could that be good for kids?”

Under the original model where high school would have been completely virtual for the opening, the teachers believe they could have put forth an educational system that would have best benefited everyone.

“We wanted to make our September virtual better than our June virtual, which was already better than our March virtual, but instead, we were told by the parents in this community that only in-person will do,” Mounkhall said, adding, “We became teachers because we believe in the virtues of in-person learning. What do we mean by in-person? Is it the in-person learning that was available to us before the pandemic struck? Or the in-person learning that will be mandated by the state? Is it the in-person February 2020 or in-person September 2020?”

Joe Vaughan, a high school physics teacher, the speech and debate coach and STA executive vice president, said that as the pandemic is still a reality despite the low numbers within the area, “health and safety of all members of our community must be primary and that is our communal responsibility.”

He said there are too many unknowns still with the virus and he has watched other schools open and close quickly. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been careful if someone assigned to your cohort has not been,” Vaughan said.

Also, he said that while families are permitted to opt out of the in-person education, teachers are not. “I don’t want to be opening in September and then mourning in October, which is the existential dread that I have been carrying with me every day for months,” Vaughan said.

Earlier in the meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Business Stuart Mattey reminded the board that 9.5 cleaners still need to be hired in order to go with the AM/PM model at the elementary schools and Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Eric Rauschenbach said additional staff would be needed to serve special education students, but it was Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Leadership Development Drew Patrick who raised some alarming issues that call into question whether or not the district will be fully staffed by the time school opens in early September.

Patrick relayed the same information Wixted did about the potential reasons staff might not return or might not be able to return this school year in an in-person setting. Later in the meeting Patrick said STA represents 472 teachers, nurses, psychologists, deans, guidance counselors and “related service providers.” He said more than 10 percent have asked for some type of accommodation. Though the teachers were surveyed in early July, they were not asked to commit to returning, and still have not been, as the final plans have not been set.

“Fundamentally the STA and our secretaries and our custodians and so forth are employees of the board of education under contract and frankly those employees are expected to come to work and that’s what we’re planning on,” Patrick said. “They have contracts that provide, as Dina Hofstetter said, both rights and responsibilities and we’re working in daily dialogue with not just the STA, but all of our unions to discuss issues of safety, planning, accommodation, access to things they are entitled to in terms of leave. This has not come out of the blue. This is not a surprise. This is part of my daily work and our daily work in the district … I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to fill the roles that we need to fill, but it’s going to be challenging and it might not happen on a perfect timeline.”

There are also 242 teacher aide positions in the district and Patrick said there have been a higher number of resignations among aides than usual.

“Teacher aides are critical partners in the classroom with teachers and certainly will be asked to carry out some significantly different responsibilities to ensure the safety measures we’re putting in place are able to be met,” Patrick said.

Per diem substitute teachers will also be an issue, as many also teach in other districts, which would throw a major wrench in the cohorting model.

Patrick said the district currently has 12 full-time interns from the K-8 level, calling them “a big help to us.”

Board of ed president Pam Fuehrer called the staffing report “concerning.”

As of the meeting, 3,682 of roughly 4,700 responses were received of the parent survey in which one of the key questions was students choosing hybrid or fully remote learning, according to Patrick. He said 158 elementary families elected for fully remote, with 84 each in the middle school and high school opting for the same. Many families have been waiting to hear what full remote will look like and those numbers could rise significantly with the final set of responses. Patrick did confirm there will be enough elementary students per grade, at this point, with no need for any combined grade classes.

Patrick also discussed changing the school calendar, proposing the Nov. 3 and March 3 superintendent’s conference days be moved to the first two days of school and that school instead begin Thursday, Sept. 10. This would allow for extra training and preparation, especially for the TAs, who don’t return until the first day of school.

Board member Ron Schulhoff suggested making the first two days of school half days in order to give faculty, staff and administration a chance to go through protocols and make changes based on what works and what doesn’t. Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction & Assessment Edgar McIntosh, Patrick and Fuehrer all supported the idea.

Rauschenbach noted an “intensive to-do list for September opening,” while McIntosh said, “I want to make it clear we are not going into this year unaware or unprepared for a pivot to or a full start in e-learning.”

Selected community reaction

Ada Carlucci was a registered nurse and hospital administrator for 12 years before becoming a health care attorney.

“I was very surprised at hearing the teacher representatives’ comments tonight as were probably a lot of parents, and I realized that as a transactional attorney we don’t have a deal here,” she said. “We have an important stakeholder who is not on board — we do not have a deal.”

Carlucci said she wants to know how the community can get the teachers to the “finish line.”

The question everyone should consider at this point, she said, is “what it is [teachers] would like to see to help them get back into the classrooms, and not just teach, but happily teach, happily be in this marriage, for our kids, for our kids’ happiness, I really think that’s an important question.”

Valerie Phillips said she had made her own assumptions about how the faculty was feeling, which gave her “pause,” but to see her theory become a reality gives her “extreme pause now.”

“Both out of my own personal desire to maximize public health and safety and also as a nod to the staffing challenges it sounds like we’re already beginning to face and will likely face in greater number if we implement the plans currently in place, it’s worth reconsidering the path we have in place,” she said.

David Krembs wanted to hear the staffing numbers broken down by school. “Is this a huge problem, medium problem, small problem?” he said. “I think the community deserves to know that. I’m glad that these four teachers and STA representatives stepped forward tonight, but I’d like to know the scope of the issue.”

Swagata Roy said the virtual option isn’t detailed and is confusing. “I wonder if more time was given to the teachers and in general if virtual learning was made front and center of the focus early on then teachers and administrators would have been able to come up with a state-of-the-art remote plan that Scarsdale would be proud of, and would even answer some of the concerns that the parents are raising today and they have been raising,” she said.

John Soler said the amount of “time and money” spent for the hybrid model with school a month away and the question of whether there will be enough teachers to open was a great concern.

“If the district is facing such a staffing crisis that it’s possible that the building may not even open and will deny students the opportunity for equitable learning across all schools and grades, then perhaps there should be consideration given to switching everything to fully remote learning,” he said.

Diane Gurden, who leads the community-based Scarsdale Restart Plan Review Group, which released a 16-page report on Aug. 6 and sent a letter to the board of ed on Aug. 8 signed by 21 residents, said, “We look at the other school districts and what they’re putting out there and we’re jealous. We want that. And we’re hearing from the teachers and they’re saying they’re scared. Part of the feedback that I was involved with said that safety is No. 1 and we didn’t just say student safety, we said teacher safety and admin safety and staff, everybody. We want everybody to be safe.”

Gurden said student mental health is also high on the list of safety concerns, but hearing from the teachers for the first time and knowing “obviously we’re far apart,” she said a compromise needs to be reached.

“This is the future,” she said. “I’m not sure corona[virus] is gonna go away any time soon and we’re going to have to kind of learn to live with it and learn what education is going to look like going forward and how we’re going to position ourselves for the future.”

James Rogan said choosing the full remote option for his family is a “heartbreak.” He called this an “opportunity for Scarsdale to demonstrate leadership in remote learning” and to get it “strengthened and robust” as it will likely come into play not just in this school year, but in years to come.

Rogan hopes to see that teachers better equipped for remote learning are chosen for those roles and that the teacher aides are also utilized.

“Teacher aides are crucial and they are crucial to accompany the teacher in remote learning,” he said. “I’d like to see that in synchronous learning activities there are options for breakout rooms of smaller subgroups or subcohorts … where teacher aides will play a role.”

Jingqing Chai signed her kids up for the hybrid option because she “thought the risk is tolerable and the mitigations are likely to be effective.” After hearing the teachers speak she is going to “reassess.”

“We have kind of spent a lot of time on ‘do we do in person’ or ‘do we do remote,’ but what we ultimately need in all scenarios is a good remote learning strategy,” she said. “I said it last time and I think tonight, with the passion appeal from the teachers, we really need to focus on this issue.”

2020 graduate Harry Parks said his “Scarsdale experience” was “defined” by his teachers. “The district must protect its teachers and that can only be accomplished through online learning presently,” he said. “They are the primary stakeholders in conjunction with the students — not the parents and not the board. Their physical health and emotional well-being is paramount. The continuity of education is paramount. And these two can only be achieved together through online learning. I am in agreement with the teachers’ union and the concerns of the teachers.”

Dr. Kim Liebowitz said she has not returned her survey yet because she doesn’t know what to do. She has a seventh grader and a freshman and called middle school lunch an “unnecessary high risk.” She is concerned families will go away to quarantine states at the end of the summer and that the district will have “inadequate” screening, testing and barrier protection for students and teachers.

“Part of the problem is I think the district’s safety is not good and I think with a better safety plan in place our teachers would be more comfortable coming back to the school,” she said. “Maybe they wouldn’t, but I think if we can keep them safer we would go a long way toward overcoming some of their concerns.”

Peter Stahl said he and his wife — both physicians — have still not decided if they are sending their kids to school.

Stephen Farquhar said his family was leaning toward hybrid, but after listening to the teachers, which he called “the chief constituent,” that will have to be rethought.

Suzanne Forster’s son has leukemia and even though he is used to wearing a mask when he’s in the hospital for treatments, there’s always an adult next to him to remind him — as there are with the other children — not to play with the mask and to keep it on. With one teacher and “maybe an aide” in the classroom, Forster wonders how that will go. She wants “more attention” placed on virtual learning.

Patricia Schwartz is a psychiatrist who worked throughout the pandemic in a large public hospital in the city. At first she didn’t feel safe, so she understands how the teachers feel. She was also on the special education restart committee. She believes “the changing plans that have happened since the restart plan was initially unveiled to the community doesn’t necessarily equate to a decline in safety in the plans that are being released.”

Schwartz supports more time in the classroom: “I just wanted to say to [the teachers] that I as a parent am advocating for the increased amount of school hours now not because I am valuing my child’s life and education above the lives of their teachers, but because I think there is a reasonable way forward toward making this happen safely with appropriate PPE, leveraging all the knowledge that we have now as compared to what we had six months ago.”

Scarsdale Superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman knows that the community is split on what it wants the district to focus on.

“To be clear there are still many concerns about the viability of a safe September opening on the part of parents, staff members and area superintendents,” Hagerman said early in the meeting. “I speak with my Westchester colleagues on almost a daily basis and there are ubiquitous concerns about mitigation efforts, willingness and ability of staff members to return to work and the actual implementation of learning plans. In Scarsdale we share these concerns. Personally I share these concerns.”

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