One day after students began returning to classrooms, dozens of Christina School District teachers staged a drive-in protest outside Gauger-Cobbs Middle School on Tuesday evening.

Honking their horns and displaying protest signs on their cars, the teachers called for the district to go back to virtual learning until the coronavirus pandemic is under control.

“We speak at every meeting, but we’re ignored,” said Lauren Sokolnicki, a behavior analyst at the Brennan School and the organizer of the protest. “We’re in the trenches. We know what’s going on.”

School employees are concerned for their health, she said, and more than 1,700 teachers, staff and community members signed a petition calling for a return to virtual learning until New Castle County is averaging fewer than 100 new COVID-19 cases per day. The county hasn’t been at that level since the beginning of November and is currently at 435 per day.

The teachers planned the protest for Tuesday night at Gauger as a way to demonstrate their concerns to the school board, which was slated to hold its monthly meeting there.

However, the board caught wind of the protest and never showed up, choosing instead to participate in the meeting via videoconferencing software from their homes.

Since the pandemic began, school board meetings have been held through Zoom, but in recent months, several board members met in person at Gauger, while other members and the public tuned in online. On Tuesday, though, all seven members participated virtually.

Two board members criticized the teachers for protesting and compared the peaceful gathering of teachers to the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week.

“While I absolutely support everyone’s opportunity to speak their mind, I really felt like organizing a rally in the wake of what happened in D.C. less than a week ago, it made me feel unsafe to attend the school board meeting tonight,” board member Claire O’Neal said.

She suggested the teachers instead focus their energy on lobbying state legislators to maintain the same level of education funding. Decreased enrollment due to the pandemic this year could mean the district will see less state funding next year, she said.

“I have had to vote to let teachers go,” O’Neal said. “I don’t want to do that literally ever again. I want all our teachers to feel supported, so I would hope that we could move forward together in redirecting our energy in that way.”

Board President Keeley Powell said the protest “had a potential to cause a disruption” to the meeting.

She added later that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol caused her to lose sleep and feel “triggered.”

“I am someone who’s been in a collective bargaining unit previously and I’ve actually been on strike before and I’ve participated in demonstrations that were both political and job-related,” Powell said. “This was a day that I didn’t want to walk through one after witnessing the traumas I saw in Washington, D.C., last week.”

At least two state troopers kept watch over the protesting teachers as they converged in the Gauger parking lot.

Superintendent Dan Shelton also made a thinly veiled reference to the incident at the Capitol.

“If nothing else, I hope many of us have learned over the events in our nation in the last few weeks, that people can have very strong opinions,” Shelton said. “They can validate those opinions using resources from the internet, and large groups of people can all agree that they have the answers and they have the data to draw those conclusions from. But I hope we also can recognize that just because a large group of people feel that they are right and preach it on social media, it does not mean necessarily that they are right.”

He said all his decisions about reopening schools have been guided by state health officials.

“I’ve chosen not to rely on social media but the experts in our state that give us their valuable time on a weekly basis to help us understand the recommendations they are making,” Shelton said.

He added that failure rates among students are “unacceptably high,” especially among minority and low-income students.

State says few cases originate in schools

Christina started the year virtually and began phasing in hybrid learning in late October. The district went back to all virtual around Thanksgiving due to staffing shortages and resumed hybrid this week.

Students are divided into two “cohorts.” Cohort A attends in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays, and Cohort B attends Thursdays and Fridays. When not in class, students continue with virtual learning. All students are virtual on Wednesdays to allow teachers to provide enrichment and intervention support.

Approximately one-third of Christina students chose to stay completely virtual.

Earlier this month, Delaware Division of Public Health Director Dr. Karyl Rattay said it does not appear schools are a major cause of coronavirus transmission.

“Data from our epidemiologists shows that the vast majority of cases affecting students and staff originated outside of the school building,” Rattay said. “The few cases thought to result from in-school spread are frequently observed to be in settings where mask wearing was not consistently practiced.”

According to data from the state, 579 students and 546 staff members have tested positive statewide. Those numbers include anyone who tested positive or developed symptoms within 48 hours of being in a school building, and officials noted the cases cannot necessarily be attributed to the schools.

In Christina, 17 students and 42 staff members have tested positive.

The district offers weekly testing events at Kirk Middle School and later this month will begin offering in-school rapid tests. The tests require parental permission and are not mandatory.

‘I feel vulnerable,’ teachers say

Many of the teachers who addressed the board Tuesday night said they feel unsafe teaching in person and implored district officials to reconsider.

“It’s a difficult decision, I understand that,” Newark High teacher Scott Parsons said, calling into the meeting from the parking lot of Gauger, where a cacophony of horns beeping could be heard in the background. “However, you’re making the wrong one.”

He noted that on the first day back at NHS, a fight broke out, including at least one student not wearing a mask, meaning the students and employees who broke up the fracas risked exposure.

“I have countless times had to remind students to pull up their masks because they were below their noses or even their chin,” he added. “Students struggled to maintain social distancing in the halls as well as in the classroom, with me having to remind my students not to hug or fist bump or go over to each other’s desks. Things are not operating in this theoretical perfect world you’ve been talking about, but in the actual real messy world of schools.”

Karen Gray, a special education teacher, concurred.

“I feel vulnerable,” Gray said. “Vulnerable because we work with children who struggle to keep their masks over their precious little faces. Vulnerable because I can’t stay six feet from them and do my job effectively. Vulnerable because we learn something new about COVID every single day.”

Teacher Katie Wisniewski noted that teachers will be eligible for vaccination in less than a month.

“Trust me, I want to see my students in person, but I would rather see them on Zoom right now than see them in a hospital bed or worse,” Wisniewski said. “Let’s not make the past 10 months of remote learning be for nothing by returning too soon during the height of the pandemic and when educators are so close to receiving a vaccine.”

Downes Elementary teacher Lisa Lemmon said the stress is affecting teachers’ mental health.

“Our schools must be places that bring out the best in us,” Lemmon said. “Forcing us back during a surge, forcing us to petition, forcing us to protest to have our voices heard and our lives valued, that is not bringing out the best in us. It is damaging our souls.”

Darren Tyson, president of the teachers union, urged the district to err on the side of caution.

“We will never know if we did too much, but we will know if we did too little,” Tyson said.

While most of the speakers called for a return to virtual learning, a couple parents spoke out in favor of students returning to schools.

“As a health care worker that has worked all during the pandemic, it is so disheartening to hear teacher after teacher refusing to go back to school,” parent Heather Bowersox said.

Susan Welsh, whose child attends Thurgood Marshall Elementary, noted that the YMCA is running a childcare program at Marshall, where employees of the organization assist students with their virtual learning.

“Why are these guys able to do this, but the teachers aren’t?” Welsh asked.

After more than an hour of public comment, the school board – which in November ceded decision-making authority on reopening to Shelton – took no further action.

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