Is it time to move to all virtual?
In the Pickerington schools, more and more students and staff have been placed in quarantine after having come into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Running short on substitutes, many high school students arrive at their classrooms to find a note taped to the door redirecting them to the auditorium or gymnasium for a study hall. There just are not enough substitutes to cover all the classes.
“In the past three weeks, we have seen educational staff absences continue to increase, we have also seen a lack of available subs resulting in classes being uncovered,” said Heather Tinsley, president of the Pickerington Education Association (PEA).
The PEA is the union representing the 685 certified employees of the school district including teachers, nurses and guidance counselors. On December 7, Tinsley addressed the Pickerington Local School Board on their behalf.
“When teachers’ classrooms are uncovered, administrators have to get creative with deciding where to safely place students in the building. At the high school, students may be sent to the performing arts/theater, cafeteria or lecture hall. Support staff are then taken away from their normal duties to cover due to the lack of substitutes.”
“At the elementaries, middle schools and junior high levels, teachers cover for each other by opening walls to combine classrooms or by using their structured professional time,” Tinsley said.
“Building principals, support staff and district office administrators have had to cover teacher classrooms at various buildings. This piecemeal approach for coverage on in-person learning days has been increasing over the last four weeks and it’s taking a toll on the quality of education our students are receiving.”
Tinsley’s remarks echo those of Joie Moore, the union representative for the non-certified staff (office workers, aides, food service and security personnel, etc.), who addressed the board at the November 30 meeting with similar concerns.
“Today at my building we had 31 positions of staff out. We had unfilled teaching positions – not only in our school but schools throughout the district so we had (non-certified staff) taking on all that extra work. When teachers cover a class during their planning period they get paid extra – not the (staff). We are told to cover without complaint which we do most of the time now along with doing contact tracing and making difficult calls to families,” Moore said.
According to the Pickerington Local Schools COVID Dashboard, 10.49 percent of staff were absent during the first week of December. While many of those absences may have been COVID-related, the number reflects all absences regardless of reason. The school with the highest staff absence rate was Pickerington Central with 15.81 percent, while the lowest absence rate was Sycamore Creek Elementary School with 3.86 percent.
“We can provide data if anyone believes what I’m about to say is not true,” said Ryan Jenkins, district treasurer. “If you look over absences from August to November there were more absences from August to November last year than there were this year. I’ll be blunt, absences are not significantly worse than at this time last year. What’s harder is that the substitutes aren’t as prevalent.”
“For most of our absences, if you look at the sub pool available to take that job, a full 50 percent chose not to take it. It’s not that we don’t have people out there. The pool is there – just people aren’t taking the jobs. That’s about the harshest thing this year as opposed to last year. We’ve always had unfills, the difference this year is instead of half a dozen unfills on a Friday it’s a couple dozen.”
School Board President Lori Sanders said that last Friday she randomly researched how many classes were not being covered at one of the high schools. She found that of the uncovered teachers only four were “content” instructors – two English and two science.
“To me that is not significant,” Sanders said. “My confidence is actually higher by looking at some of those numbers. I think everybody here is trying to do the right thing educationally. We just keep trying to do the best we can under not great circumstances and hope the vaccine comes along soon.”
Board member Cathy Olshefski said that she believes the administration’s numbers are correct but that it is difficult for the community to reconcile those statistics with what they are experiencing first-hand.
“On a daily basis, the community receives information at the secondary level that someone has tested positive,” Olshefski said. “Coupled with information that their student will be in PAC or lunch room or the field house or the lecture hall, the community is frustrated. They can provide these tangible examples of where their kid is either missing a class because of a lack of an instructor or constant letters recognizing COVID or contact tracing.”
“I get the numbers, but we are also abundantly aware of schools that are making the decision to go virtual for the remainder of 2020 because of lack of staff and/or subs. Canal just announced it today. It is difficult for the community to process this – it is difficult for all of us to process this. This issue of lack of staff is tough.”
Jenkins said that although students may miss a few classes due to uncovered classes, on face-to-face days they still get the benefit of time with the teachers who are present.
At the beginning of the year, about 20 percent of Pickerington families enrolled their students in the district’s virtual academy, but limited class offerings made the academy not a viable option for every family. Most families chose the district’s hybrid model which involved two days in-person classes and three days online.
Teachers would meet with half of their students face-to-face on Monday and Tuesday, attend administrative meetings and office hours on Wednesday then meet with the remainder of their class on Thursday and Friday. In addition to their in-person lesson plans, they would prepare materials for the virtual days including weblinks, calendars, slideshows and instructional videos.
Ebonique Turner, who is a parent with children at Lakeview Junior High and Violet Elementary, has been pleased with the district’s hybrid model and appreciates greatly the effort the teachers have put forth.
“Until we get this under control, I like this option versus sending all the kids all the time,” Turner said. “I’d rather the kids be in school where it is safer for their mental health, socializing and academics. The teachers have done a phenomenal job. I feel like the schools are trying their very best with the hybrid classes but if circumstances warranted a change, then I would be fine with it.”
“Whenever I have a question I shoot the teacher a message and they are super responsive getting me the answers. I am grateful to the teachers for all their effort to make this quality learning. I know it can’t be easy.”
As the pandemic increases, the teachers and staff are now being asked to take on even more additional responsibilities.
“Teachers, administrators and health professionals are receiving emails daily from students who are quarantined or have a family member or themselves tested positive for COVID,” Tinsley said. “This poses many challenges as teachers must continue to teach in a hybrid manner but must also support students in quarantine in a virtual setting.”
Staff have been given the extra responsibility of policing any COVID exposure.
Whenever a student or employee tests positive for COVID, a pair of staff members armed with measuring tape retrace the infected person’s steps. Staff members phone families of anyone found to have sat within six feet of the infected person with instructions to quarantine.
Students on quarantine are expected to email their teachers for missed work. Teachers and staff on quarantine receive compensation through the federal government’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) for up to ten days. After that, they use their sick days. Teachers accumulate 1.5 sick days per month and non-certified staff receive 15 days per year.
“Some of the (staff) are now being quarantined for the second time,” Moore said. “Because we are going to work, doing our jobs and serving our students, we have to use our own sick time when safety protocols put in place by this administration fail. It’s just getting crazier.”
On Dec. 3, the Ohio Education Association (OEA) recommended that districts suspend all in-person instruction until Jan. 11 due to the spike in COVID cases and potential holiday exposure.
Pickerington Schools has a color-coded “Flexible Learning 2.0 Plan” which details whether or not the schools should meet in person or virtually based on several factors including absence rates and unfilled teaching positions. Currently, the district status is “Yellow”, which means all buildings in the district are on the hybrid model of two days in person instruction and three days virtual instruction. If the districts move to “Orange”, then some buildings would remain hybrid while others would switch to completely virtual.
Tinsley believes it is time for the district to move to at least the “Orange” level or skip to the “Red” level which would switch all the classes in the district to virtual learning.
“In these times, we look to our leaders to help guide us and keep us safe,” Tinsley told the board. “This moment demands all of us to make difficult choices that allow our staff, students and community to stay healthy.”
“Please heed the advice of the OEAs and follow the example of so many other districts in our area. Let’s take a step back and make sure we can educate our students safely.”
Superintendent Dr. Chris Biggs indicated that while the administrators continue to monitor the situation, there is no plan at this time to deviate from the current hybrid system. The board will reconvene in the new year.
“I still feel that having students in front of teachers face-to-face is without a doubt the best instruction module that we can provide those students,” Biggs said.