Pottsville Teachers Union Opposes Rushed Return to In-Person Instruction
Teachers at Pottsville Area School District are not pleased with the school’s decision Wednesday to transition back to full in-person instruction.
Pottsville’s school board voted 8-1 on Wednesday to send students back to class full-time, five days a week, starting March 1.
Under the plan, the elementary school will be first to get back to 5 days in school instruction, on March 1. The middle school follows on the 8th and then the high school students come back 5 days a week on the 15th.
Right now, Pottsville students attend classes at the school 2 days a week and virtually 3 days. For a time prior to the full return, each school will switch to 4 days in school with Wednesdays as a virtual day.
Pottsville Teachers Union Opposes Rushed Return to Full In-Person Learning
While teachers on Wednesday generally said they believe full in-person instruction is best and that’s what they really want, they think it’s just too soon right now and that several things need to be considered first.
Prior to the school board vote on Wednesday, members of the Pottsville Area School District Education Association – the teachers union – voiced their opposition to a plan they say is rushed and disorganized.
Now, the teachers were reacting to an initial plan that called for an even quicker return to full, 5-day in-person learning at Pottsville Area schools. But even after that plan was amended and then approved, teachers still aren’t happy.
In a Facebook post following Wednesday’s vote, PASDEA President Adrian Portland wrote, “We are very disappointed with the decision that the Board made to move forward with the full in-person return. The lack of planning and preparing concerns us greatly for the sake of our students and their families. We are not opposed to full in-person learning, however, a safe return for our students and staff is our top priority. As we addressed tonight, there are many issues that need to be considered in the full in-person return plan before we are safely back in the classrooms.”
For about 45 minutes on Wednesday night, school board members were peppered with criticism of their decision to push for a return to full, in-person learning.
Tracey Fidler, a 4th grade teacher at John S. Clarke Elementary, said, “A lot of time and energy has been spent to keep our students and staff safe during this pandemic. To many of us, parents and faculty included, the consideration of full in-person instruction is premature, at best. There are so many issues that are unresolved and unanswered.”
Sixth-grade teacher Katelynn Miller said, “I’ve never felt less appreciated than I did (Tuesday) afternoon when I received the email with the updated return to full in-person instruction plan. This plan is so far from what we, as staff members, were made privy to over the past several months. The plan is rushed and has little-to-no data or evidence for its rushing. Why the rush? There are so many missing pieces to the puzzle in that plan that it’s alarming.
Portland, in comments prior to the vote, cited a recent survey apparently circulated prior to this week’s meeting in saying that many parents are opposed to a return to full in-person learning.
“Both staff and families have great concern about returning to full in-person instruction,” he said. “So what does the board decide to do with this information? Let’s bring students back in full in-person learning and give families, students, and staff a week to prepare without any plan. The only thing that’s provided in the plan – and I use that term loosely – is a schedule to when each building will return.”
Rushed with No Plan
Teachers expressing their frustration with the board on Wednesday not only said the decision taken that night was rushed but done so without a plan in place for bringing all students back full-time.
Where’s our carefully coordinated plan for a full in-person reopening? Members of the Pandemic Planning Team have resigned because they refuse to risk the safety of our students and their families,” PASDEA treasurer Maria Larish said to the board.
“The team determined that safety was a top priority when planning and it is clear that it no longer is. You will make a decision that affects the lives of our children, their families, teachers, school administrators, and staff,” she added. “There will be no social distancing as we will have double the number of students in our buildings during a regular school day. Look around you. We are all at least 6 feet apart in a huge auditorium but yet we accept having a crowd of 20 or more students in a room a quarter of this size. What is the plan? A plan was sent to us yesterday that did not address classrooms, cafeterias, buses, hallways or cleaning.”
Portland said he didn’t understand how meetings prior to the school board meeting to address a potential return to full in-person learning became a rushed vote on Wednesday.
“Over the last 2 weeks,” he said, “I was part of a small group of educators that had the opportunity to meet with some board members to discuss our apprehensions and concerns about full in-person return and to provide solutions to some of those issues. I want to thank those board members for taking the time to listen to our concerns. However, not one of those items that we discussed in our almost 4 hours of conversation was mentioned in the phased return to full in-person plan.”
No Return Without a Vaccine
Several teachers said it’s not responsible to get back to full in-person learning without teachers and staff having had a chance to get a COVID vaccine.
Fourth-grade teacher Tara Tranquillo-Hess said, “I have yet, in my 14 years, have had one of you step foot in my classroom. I am not afraid of COVID. I am not looking to keep my students out of my classroom. My intention is to keep students learning in an environment, however unconventional, that they have grown accustomed to until myself and my colleagues can be vaccinated. Until then, I personally feel that we are setting our students up for disappointment.”
Miller added, “There are no pending vaccination plans for teachers and staff. There is no mention what it would mean for teachers to be quarantined due to exposure from a student. I do not have enough sick days to make it through multiple quarantines. To require me or any other staff member to take unpaid days due to exposure outside of your control is, frankly, inhumane.”
A major concern among the teachers on Wednesday was the eventual quarantines that happen when a positive case has been identified. The school says it’s kept them to a minimum during this school term, mostly due to its limited in-person schedule.
But they fear the fallout from what they call a rushed return to full, in-person learning.
“Rushing into this without a well-thought-out plan may very well lead to not only spikes of the district’s COVID cases but the quarantine shutdown of entire classes, entire grade levels and even schools,” Fidler said. “How will that be handled not only by the schools but by the families of those students who will also need to quarantine. How will family members work when they have to be home daily for weeks at a time with their child or their children. How will the school handle multiple teachers taking leaves of absences when we usually can’t find substitutes on a good day?”
Tranquillo-Hess said, “I fear that we will bring them fully back and in a short time, have to send them home when a classroom can not socially distance 28 (students). You wouldn’t know that because you haven’t been here to see my students sitting behind their shields being reminded all day long to pull up their masks and spread out in the hallway and not touch each other at recess.”
“Now that social distancing will not exist, what will occur when a positive case is identified in a classroom? The whole class will now be quarantined,” Larish said. “How about with a positive case on a bus? How about in a cafeteria where masks aren’t even worn? These quarantines will cause significant disruptions in our students’ education. What is the plan?”
PASDEA Treasurer Greg Schuettler said that numerous quarantines will cause an unnecessary disruption to the end of the school year. He said it’d be better if Pottsville just finished the 2020-21 school year as it started, on the hybrid learning schedule.
“Let us finish the year as we have started, hybrid and consistent, so we can begin planning the seemingly insurmountable task ahead of us, catching our students up to where they need to be,” he said. “We have come this far together. We created and approved the hybrid model of instruction together. I have long believed the best solution is in the middle. The hybrid model is that middle ground. It’s not the best or worst solution for anyone involved but it’s the best we can do together.”
Cleanliness, Social Distancing Concerns
In addition to the scheduling nightmare they foresee, the teachers also expressed concern with how the school could be properly sanitized with a return to full in-person learning. They also wondered why the meeting Wednesday, which was opened to a limited number of people in the DHH Lengel auditorium, was socially distanced but classes wouldn’t be under this new plan.
Fidler said, “How will social distancing occur with 20-30 people in a classroom for 6-plus hours a day, let alone in the cafeteria and on the buses? If this is being deemed safe to go back, then why does this very meeting have a limit on the number of persons that can attend, even though it is a large auditorium, when there is no limit on the number of people in much smaller classrooms? If it is being deemed safe to go back, then why after invited, have you not come to visit our classrooms? Listen to the stakeholders and leave your own agendas out of this.”
Miller said the school’s custodial staff is already strained.
“There is no mention of how the custodial staff, which you also cut to the bare bones last year, can appropriately disinfect the building that is constantly occupied,” she said. “Why not, at the very least, leave Wednesdays for deep cleaning for at least a period of time? What I will not accept is being thrown to the wolves without any planning, preparation, or consideration.”
You can watch the full February meeting of the Pottsville Area school board here: