Karen Garland, a kindergarten teacher at Mountain View Elementary, didn’t expect to have to decide a few months into her 40th year of teaching if she would retire.
But if she doesn’t get approved to teach virtually for the second quarter, that’s the decision before her. As the division readies to offer in-person classes as part of Stage Three of its reopening plan, some teachers will be required to return to classrooms. Educators have been expressing concerns about their health and safety if they must work in the classroom with students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If they say I have to come in, then I have to decide if that’s what I’m going to do or am I going to retire unexpectedly?” Garland said Friday, adding that she is high-risk and thus doen’t want to take the risk of teaching in-person.
Holding signs and wearing stickers reading “Only When It’s Safe,” Garland and other Albemarle County teachers and parents stopped by both Albemarle County office buildings on Friday to highlight their concerns with Stage Three.
The School Board voted last Thursday to start the second quarter in Stage Three, which means that about 5,000 students will be eligible for in-person classes or access to the buildings.
Under Stage Three, preschoolers through third-graders will go to school twice a week with independent learning on the other three days of the week. In-person access for online classes will extend to more students in special education as well as those who haven’t been engaging with virtual learning.
About 67% of teachers said in a division survey that virtual learning would be best for the second quarter compared with 40% of parents.
The rally, organized by the Albemarle Education Association, came a day after the deadline for employees to request accommodations to continue teaching virtually. Whether those requests are granted depends on the number of families who opt for in-person learning. Friday was the final day for families to submit a binding intent form about their plans for the second quarter, and families who don’t respond will automatically stay all-online.
“To ask people to just ignore alarm bells that are going on in their heads, and say we’ll try to accommodate you, but then in the same breath saying that we may not be able to and if we can’t, then you’re gonna have to take leave or resign, that’s a bitter pill,” said Cheryl Knight, a special education teacher at Virginia L. Murray Elementary.
Other teachers are facing a similar dilemma as Garland. If their requests are not granted, the division has said their options are to take a leave of absence, resign or retire. One teacher at Friday’s rally said her retirement papers were already in the works.
Division didn’t have a final count on how many employees have requested accommodations through Human Resources to continue teaching remotely.
Those seeking a reasonable accommodation based on the Americans with Disabilities Act will have priority consideration, the division said in a staff presentation. Additionally, the division said it will also hear requests for accommodations for those considered high-risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “as opportunities allow.”
Meanwhile, Garland said virtual learning for her kindergartners has gone well.
“We got it down to a good rhythm and routine,” she said. “Of course, it’s still not that in-person love and connection the way that we would’ve liked it. … Parents have been wonderful and supportive. We’re making the best of the situation.”
Friday’s rally ended at the Fifth Street County Office Building where those registered to vote in the county cast their ballots in the 2020 election.
“We wanted to come to the polling place because we want people to know that this is where decisions are made,” said Amy Gaertner, president of AEA and a teacher at Broadus-Wood Elementary. “Right now, that seems to be the only voice we have, and we will be voting next November.”
Gaertner said that since Thursday’s board meeting, she’s heard from teachers who are hurt and angry about the decision and what they see as the dismissal of concerns of students changing teachers in the second quarter. Students aren’t guaranteed that their teacher will stay the same.
“To tell us that the relationships we built with students don’t matter truly gutted people,” she said. “… Relationships do matter, and it’s what we do best. So it’s like, well, the board’s not listening. Matt’s not listening. We need to take it to the public because they do listen to the public because the public votes for the School Board. They don’t really care about our relationships or our safety.”
AEA, which represents county teachers, has proposed health benchmarks for each stage based on information from Harvard’s Global Health Institute, federal guidance and other analysis. Current conditions don’t meet the association’s standard for Stage Three, which includes a percent positivity rate of below 3% and district-provided testing.
“If people don’t feel safe, then it’s not going to be a good environment for anybody,” Knight said.
Officials with the Thomas Jefferson Health District have said they think it’s critical for younger students to get back into a classroom setting, and that with the proper mitigation strategies, schools can lower the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the school setting.
“I think that when we look at the risk-benefit ratio, having these kids back in the class in the fashion that has been designed by Albemarle county schools and really tested out by some of our neighboring school districts, makes it an activity that the benefits fall on the side of having the kids return back,” TJHD executive director Dr. Denise Bonds said at last week’s board meeting.
Nearly 70% of employees said in the survey that they felt the current health and safety protocols were adequate to keep them safe. That question was not posed to parents or students.
One teacher at the rally handed out safety glasses, referencing Dr. Anthony Fauci’s comments regarding school reopenings. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in July that teachers should wear a mask and something to protect their eyes such as glasses or face shields.
Students and employees are required to wear a mask or cloth face covering when on school grounds and school buses.
Parents and teachers have asked for more specifics about how hybrid learning with work alongside the all-virtual option. The division has said principals will provide that information.
Since the board’s vote last Thursday to move to Stage Three, educators have changed their profile pictures to yellow canaries on social media and on Zoom for staff members.
Canaries were used in coal mines to detect carbon monoxide and other toxic gases before they hurt humans.
“We’re the canaries thrown into the coal mine as Pre-K through third-grade teachers to find out ‘Can we do it safely?’ Gaertner said. “If we come out OK, they’re gonna bring in more people.”
As of Friday, nine employees and one contractor working in schools have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the school year began, according to the division’s dashboard that’s tracking cases. Earlier this week, the total was eight employees and contractors.
Officials said there’s no evidence any of those affected caught the virus while on school property.
Ahead of the rally and deadline for families, schools Superintendent Matt Haas released a nine-minute video statement on social media in which he reiterated many of his points brought at last week’s meeting and addressed the decision to move to Stage Three.
“When I made my recommendation, my goal is to balance the health and safety of our students, families, and employees with the social and emotional development and learning needs of our youngest learners,” he said. We are planning to do that by providing a broader range of choices to our parents and employees, and I thank all of you for the role you are playing to make this happen.”
He said he was grateful for teachers for their thoughtfulness in conversations about what they see as the right next steps for themselves.
“We will do all we can do to support the same choice for our employees whether to continue to work from home or to come into school to work with students,” he said.