Citing concerns about their health and that of their students, Christina School District teachers pleaded with the school board Wednesday night to move all classes online this fall.
“It is not safe to open yet,” said Paula Hutton, a teacher at Brookside Elementary. “It can be made safe, but it's impossible to do that before teachers are scheduled to return in 19 days. I speak for hundreds of teachers who are afraid for their lives, their students’ lives and all of the families.”
The district has not yet decided how instruction will be provided this fall, though the board did delay the start of the school year from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8 in order to give schools and teachers more time to prepare for whatever changes are needed.
Officials have ruled out a fulltime return to classrooms but are deciding between 100 percent online schooling or a hybrid model, in which smaller groups of students trade off coming to school for a couple days a week and doing online learning the rest of the time. Earlier this week, Gov. John Carney authorized schools to use a hybrid model, but the final decision rests with each school district.
Already, Red Clay Consolidated School District has decided it will start the year completely online. Colonial School District has announced that high school students will attend school remotely, while younger students can choose either in-person or remote learning.
Christina superintendent Dan Shelton said the district will announce a decision soon but declined to specify a timetable.
“We would never bring anybody back, whether it was students or staff, unless we know that we're going to be able to meet the guidelines. Safety is our number one priority,” Shelton said. “Now, the medical science and some people's opinions may be different, so we may not make everyone happy. But we will absolutely be following the guidelines.”
During Wednesday’s board meeting, which was conducted online via Zoom, teachers union president Darren Tyson presented a petition signed by 700 teachers, parents and community members asking for a virtual start to the school year.
The petition argues that in-person classes should not resume until there are 14 days with no new coronavirus cases in New Castle County or a vaccine is developed. Following those standards would mean that education would be online for the foreseeable future, as the county is averaging more than 50 new cases each day.
Teacher Tracey Lewis said that due to health issues, she would “surely die” if she contracts COVID-19 and noted she has already talked with her family about her living will.
“Please, Christina, save our lives,” Lewis said.
Elizabeth Mays, who works at the Brennan School, said that bringing students back to the classroom would be a “grave mistake.”
“I'm a mother of a 6-year-old,” Mays said. “He doesn't possess the maturity or self control to attend school in person at this time. The school that he knows and loves is not the school that we would be returning to at this moment, where he can have story time or group work or give hugs or high-fives to teachers.”
Teachers like her, who work with special-needs students, would be at a particular risk because some of their students struggle with personal hygiene and can become aggressive and require teachers to physically intervene, she said.
“It's certainly unsafe to put any staff member in a position during a pandemic where they might be spat on or forced to be within inches of another student's face,” she said. “Additionally, these students may not understand the importance of wearing face masks and will not be able to tell us certain things like if their throat hurts or if their body aches, and they cannot advocate for themselves if a peer or a staff member isn't following the guidelines that are put forth by the CDC and the WHO.”
Lauren Sokolnicki, a behavior analyst for the Delaware Autism Program, is a member of the committee the district established to develop protocols for a possible reopening – something she said is an impossible task.
“We may as well be trying to determine the square root of nine plus three minus November divided by purple. There is no answer,” Sokolnicki said. “Educators are not numbers. Students are not statistics. No amount of human life lost is acceptable. Whatever you decide, people will be angry, but only one option errs on the side of preserving humanity over popularity. The options are poor, but the choice is easy. Please make the choice to prioritize life.”
Lisa Lemon, an elementary school teacher, disputed the notion that teachers wouldn’t be able to connect with younger students through online learning. She compared it to growing up watching “Sesame Street.”
“Five-year-old me had no doubt in my mind that Big Bird loved me and cared about me. He was able to achieve this through an old TV that sat on my floor,” Lemon said. “If Big Bird was able to comfort and cultivate my emotional health in 1980, then I am confident my colleagues and myself can provide that same emotional connection and love while providing guaranteed safety and engaging academics through our live remote lessons in 2020.”