Updated July 18, 2020 - 7:20 am
The possibility of in-person classes resuming in the Clark County School District has some teachers writing wills and others pleading with district leaders to reconsider — raising questions for a handful of whether they’ll return to their classrooms on Aug. 24.
With less than a month remaining before teachers are expected to report to work and COVID-19 cases in Nevada on the rise, many teachers say CCSD should follow the example of big public school districts in California and adopt an online-only start to the year — an option that remains open under the approved reopening plan set to be discussed again by the School Board on Tuesday.
“Online is not ideal,” said elementary teacher Jeanette Kocian. “The majority of us would prefer to be in front of our kids if it were safe, but it’s just not.”
Kocian said one of her primary concerns is for her third-graders, who will need constant reminders to maintain a safe distance from their friends and refrain from sharing school supplies. In her portable classroom, they won’t have easy access to a sink to wash their hands, she said.
On a personal level, Kocian said she’s fearing for her life for the first time in her 27-year teaching career.
“It’s still scary to sit there thinking about writing a will and writing goodbye letters to my family,” said Kocian, whose nearest relatives live out of state. “If I get sick, I will be there by myself.”
Instead of the district’s blended in-person, distance learning approach, which would require her to both teach her students in person and prepare lessons for and supervise her students at home, Kocian said she hopes the district just chooses one full-time option or the other — an opinion also echoed in a statement by the teachers union.
Under the blended learning model, students would attend school only on either Mondays and Tuesday or Thursday and Fridays, in order to cut class sizes in half and make social distancing possible.
The Clark County Education Association said that without additional federal funding for COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment, it could not endorse the current plan to reopen schools and would “support every educator and parent who chooses not to participate in the reopening of CCSD.”
The question everyone is asking
In a survey conducted by the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, Nevada Action for School Options and Nevada Succeeds, approximately 52 percent of almost 7,000 CCSD employees polled said they felt uncomfortable returning to schools given the current policies.
But does that mean they wouldn’t return? Kenneth Retzl, director of Education Policy, says that’s the question everyone is asking.
While many teachers are concerned, the pandemic has also suppressed the number of teachers leaving in the spring semester, Retzl said, referencing a presentation by the district HR department.
CCSD representatives said the district has approximately 96 percent of teaching positions filled, with 751 vacancies. An employee survey sent Wednesday does not ask about plans to return.
Retzl said he believes there are three possibilities for teachers unhappy with the situation: to leave altogether, to take their accrued sick time, or to grin and bear it and leave when economic conditions improve.
Respondents to the Guinn Center survey also overwhelmingly supported most mitigation measures proposed by the survey, including additional cleaning and better communication with the community. If those additional precautions were taken, 59 percent said they would feel comfortable returning.
Elementary coding teacher Claire Cummings said the format classes take this fall will have an impact on her decision on whether to return or not. Specialist teachers like herself are expected to rotate through classes under the proposed schedule, in part to offer general education teachers a chance to take a duty-free lunch.
Cummings said she’d strongly prefer to teach online, which she says wouldn’t change her curriculum plans much: to teach young kids coding, she begins with basic concepts like sequences and loops taught through such techniques as secret handshakes and dance routines.
If specialists teach online, they could also take on the burden of offering virtual office hours or making contacts with students at home, she added. But if they must return, Cummings suggests that they’re assigned to one or two general education teachers each.
“I’m concerned about my personal exposure, but also the spread,” Cummings said. “If I get sick, I could potentially expose the whole school in a week.”
Child care a big issue
Of all the questions teachers have raised about the reopening plan, the one about how they are expected to find child care for their own children remains a sore point.
The district has said it is working with community partners like municipalities to find options, and an employee survey sent Wednesday was aimed exclusively at determining who needed child care and on what days. An idea to offer child care to staff either on-site at schools or at a central hub was not further fleshed out as of July 13.
Dana Matthews, a kindergarten teacher at Jo Mackey Elementary, said one perk to a teaching career was the opportunity to essentially bring her kids to work. Now, she says she finds herself in an impossible situation.
Leaving her kids with her parents could expose the couple in their 70s to COVID-19. Quitting her job or asking her husband to quit his teaching job would mean a significant pay cut and the end to one of their 15-plus-year careers. Paying for day care will run the family at least $1,300 a month, Matthews estimates, and trying to find a spot is difficult to do weeks before school starts, especially for children who have diverse needs.
“They’re not capable of, ‘just get on the computer and do the work by yourself,’” Matthews said. “Will they get help in day care, or will they fall even further behind?”
Matthews said that barring a miracle, the most likely scenario is that she’ll burn through her saved sick days, taking a few each week on the days her children aren’t in school and hoping that she and her family don’t actually get sick.
“My struggle is that I won’t ever see Cohort B,” Matthews said. “Will there be enough substitutes? Is it fair that a majority of those kids’ kindergarten will be spent with someone else?”
Substitutes will be especially important under a proposed school schedule that would have all teachers take a prep period at the end of the day, leaving none to cover classes for absent colleagues.
But a poll taken among substitutes who have actively been fighting for better wages and working conditions this year indicates that over half are unsure whether they’ll return to the district in the fall.
Their concerns echo those of teachers, ranging from getting sick to not having the professional development incentives to manage a blended learning classroom effectively, but they’re compounded by the lack of health insurance for subs.
“What happens if we get sick?” said Lisa Roe, a retired teacher who has worked as a substitute the last two years and now says she worries about the hospital bill. “What do I do about that making $12.50 an hour?”
Tara Shiroff said that prior to the COVID-19 outbreak she regularly accepted jobs at six or seven schools, but would discontinue that practice if she returns to the district. She said she would likely accept only previously arranged jobs for teachers who are on vacation, and only on days that her son is in school.
“If it was a last minute job, you would have no way of knowing if it was because the teacher got sick,” she said.
Wills, decisions being made
A high school counselor who asked to remain unnamed for fear of retribution said she expects that counselors and other staffers will be asked to cover classes in the event of substitute shortages. Even if that doesn’t happen, she worries that there aren’t enough protocols in place to keep her safe should a student come to her office and refuse to wear a mask.
She also worries the district may not recognize her disability, or that asking for special protections will put an additional burden on the rest of her team.
Overall, despite her concerns, she describes feeling a sense of duty to the at-risk students most impacted by full-time distance learning. “As much as I would prefer things to be online, nobody has seen what’s happening to the kids at home,” she said.
With all her family living out-of-state, she says she’s asked a friend to come to her house and take care of her dog should she get sick or end up hospitalized.
But having a will shouldn’t be a prerequisite to a teaching job, wrote Jenn Ice, a special education teacher at Foothill High School, in an open letter to Superintendent Jesus Jara and the Board of Trustees.
In the letter, Ice pleaded with district leaders not to ask teachers to return to the classroom without measures in place to protect them and their students.
“I do not want to die from being forced into a situation that is preventable,” she wrote. “I have quarantined since March, I have worn my mask, I have used hand sanitizer, and I have canceled multiple plans to see my family in other states so that I can protect myself. Will all of my proactive measures be for nothing?”