Back to school

Ashley Cilmi, a sixth-grader at Shue-Medill Middle School, participates in remote learning on Sept. 8, the first day of school.

More than 30 parents, teachers and staff members expressed frustration, concern and anger with the Christina School District’s reopening plan at a board meeting Wednesday, which was attended virtually by about 750 members of the public.

Hours before the meeting, the district published the latest details of its hybrid schedule, which will have students returning to school buildings for face-to-face instruction two days a week, with a blend of live remote and asynchronous learning the other three days. Currently, students across the district have live virtual lessons five days a week.

John Woodruff, a science teacher at Newark High School, said that his total contact time with students would be reduced from nearly 27 hours a week to just over nine hours a week.

“Parents want teacher contact time,” he said. “They wanted kids to go back to school so they could be with their teachers. They won’t be with their teachers if we go hybrid. They will be left on their own three days a week.”

Another Newark High School science teacher, Charles Hamilton, said he would be able to cover four units during a year of remote learning, but would be lucky to get through two or three under the hybrid schedule.

Downes Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Lisa Lemmon said that students will fall behind if they are expected to monitor their own learning three days a week.

“As a teacher, I say it is not best practice,” she said. “But as a parent, I call asynchronous the devil in disguise. It is a fancy word that sounds good, but it is horrible and traumatizing.”

For administrators, the hybrid reopening is intended to be a temporary bridge that gets the district closer to a full reopening. Superintendent Dan Shelton stressed that this is step one.

“The hope is that we will have more and more face time, whether it is for students with disabilities to come in more days, or whether we’re able to increase the number of students that we can have in based on the conditions on the ground,” Shelton said. “We hope that we will continue to increase that number, but we have to take step one before we can return.”

In addition to outlining a cohort model, in which alternating groups of students attend in-person classes on either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday, the hybrid schedule includes a gradual weekly phasing in of students.

Currently, the district plans to bring the first students back on Oct. 26, starting with preschoolers and students with special needs. In the week of Nov. 2, students in kindergarten as well as grades five, six, nine and 12 will return. Beginning Nov. 16, the district will add grades one, two, seven and eight, and the district will bring back grades three, four, 10 and 11 the following week.

By Nov. 30, students in all grades will be in school two days a week.

In school buildings, face masks and six feet of social distancing will be required. Maintenance staff will sanitize high-touch surfaces like stair rails and doorknobs regularly. Lunch will be delivered to students in classrooms. Teachers will be tested at least monthly, and the district has strongly encouraged — though not mandated — students to get tested before returning.

While Shelton acknowledged that the hybrid plan might lead to less time for interaction between teachers and students, he said that about 10 percent of students are not interacting at all. The hybrid reopening is an effort to make sure all students have direct access to teachers.

According to Chief Financial Officer Chuck Longfellow, the district has several thousand computers still on backorder. Longfellow appeared to state that the district had received an additional 1,200 devices since his last public update three weeks earlier, before acknowledging that 700 of those had yet to be delivered.

Board member Fred Polaski shared concerns about access to learning, but he identified this as a deficiency of the district’s hybrid plan.

“Who’s going to make sure that elementary students on Thursday and Friday are really doing their work?” Polaski said. “If we could get it so that they were actually receiving instruction remotely at the same time students in the classrooms were, my gut tells me that would help keep the students engaged five days a week.”

Shelton said that while they had considered hybrid reopening models that allowed for more live virtual instruction on remote learning days, it was an issue of staffing.

For Scott Parsons, a Newark High School English teacher, the new schedule will cut his time with each student from about 190 minutes a week to just 80. The dramatic change to the learning model also comes amid concerns about the safety of bringing teachers, students and staff together in schools amid Newark’s rising rate of COVID-19 transmission.

“If we open, there’s going to be at least one case at each school in the district,” Parsons said. “If you can’t look yourself in the mirror and say that we are prepared for that certainty, that we’re prepared to prevent an outbreak and that people are going to be safe, we shouldn’t reopen.”

Broadly, teachers oppose returning to in-person learning.

The Christina Teachers Association surveyed over 900 district educators in late September and found that 90 percent of teachers did not feel confident in the district’s readiness to reopen safely, and 81.5 percent did not feel comfortable returning to in-person instruction.

Many teachers expressed concerns about having to return to an all-virtual schedule if cases begin to increase sharply. Some research suggests that cold weather conditions and more time indoors could lead to another wave of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mike Kempski, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Shue-Medill Middle School, worries that a slow rollout of hybrid could be abruptly curbed by a return to remote learning, interrupting students as they get used to the changes.

“My colleagues worked hard to get students in a routine for remote learning. I have colleagues that are concerned about losing that routine with the transition to hybrid,” he said. “Going back to the buildings during the yellow phase means we may have to return to all remote. That’s potentially several major disruptions to student routine.”

In addition to concerns about the shift to hybrid, many teachers and parents expressed frustration with the rollout of the Virtual Academy, which gives students the option to learn remotely for a full year.

Senior Director of Teaching & Learning Dean Ivory said that over 2,200 students — 16 percent of the CSD population — had enrolled in the Virtual Academy.

“The first and foremost goal was to build a model that provided an option for those students and families who didn't feel comfortable returning to face-to-face instruction,” Ivory said.

Deanna Xavier, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Leasure Elementary School, said she considered enrolling her daughter in the Virtual Academy. However, she didn’t feel prepared to commit to a full year of virtual instruction by mid-September, hoping the conditions for a safe reopening would allow her daughter to get back in school sooner.

With the state’s worsening health metrics, though, she asked the district to delay reopening.

“I’m definitely not comfortable with sending my daughter into the school building. In my opinion, we are not ready to send our kids back,” she said. “My child is not a guinea pig for this experiment, nor are the teachers and staff that you employ.”

Many parents indicated that they didn’t have enough information to make a fully-informed commitment to a year of virtual learning, while others expressed concerns that staffing the Virtual Academy will mean re-formulating classes and taking teachers away from the students they’ve gotten to know since the school year began.

Brookside Elementary School teacher Julia Dooley spoke for two minutes and listed over a dozen questions for administrators. Her central concern was a lack of information from the district, but she also worried about how the Virtual Academy will impact her classes.

“What do I tell my students who will be moving to the Virtual Academy when they ask me will I be with them the rest of the school year?” she said. “Right now, I get to see them every day. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that.”

Speaking to the teachers in attendance, Chief Academic Officer Deirdra Aikens stressed that the district is trying to reach a solution that will accommodate the needs of students and staff.

“Know that we hear you, we understand and we are here for you,” she said. “We want to do this with you.”

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