FCFT Reflections on November and Our Path Forward Regarding Reopening Schools
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Statement of the FCFT Executive Board December 4, 2020
November was a busy month for the FCPS reopening plan, as we saw concurrent instruction unilaterally pushed through by the Leadership Team with no feedback from the School Board, limited engagement of stakeholders, and no proof of concept from the pilot programs (which was promised at the November 12th work session). We also saw community transmission metrics skyrocket, returning some, but not all, in-person cohorts back to virtual instruction. The FCFT Executive Board wishes to address three concerns related to changes to the reopening plan over the month of November, and advocate for what we believe is the best course of action moving forward: 1) return everyone to distance learning until our positive test rate is below 5% for 14 consecutive days, and 2) eliminate concurrent instruction as the primary model of instruction.
We are very troubled by the changed metrics for dialing in and dialing back student cohorts. The World Health Organization recommends 14 consecutive days of 5% or lower positive test rate before considering reopening. Keeping cohorts in school buildings until the positive test rate reaches 8%, 10%, or more is irresponsible and does not align with recommendations by health experts. We are also very concerned that there is no threshold at which cohorts 1 and 2 will dial back to virtual instruction. FCPS made the right call in pausing the return of cohort 5 and dialing cohort 4 back to virtual instruction. We urge the return of cohorts 1-3 to virtual learning, as we have stayed above 200 new cases per 100,000 since November 16th and our positive test rate has exceeded 8% since November 18th.
Cohorts 1-3 include our most vulnerable students and the greatest number of students who are unable to follow key mitigation strategies, including consistent and correct use of masks, social distancing, hand hygiene, and respiratory etiquette. We recognize the importance of in-person education for these students, but the health of our most vulnerable students and the staff who serve them must come first. It is important to note that many of the staff members working with these students are in the ADA Tier 1 category based on their personal health needs, but were denied their requested telework accommodations by their administrators. It is time to return all in-person cohorts to distance learning. We must identify one threshold that applies to all cohorts and protects all students and staff during times of sustained elevated community transmission.
We are also concerned that recommendations from the safety teams in favor of in-person instruction will take precedence over community transmission metrics. COVID does not stop at school doors. Students and staff are a part of the community, and when community metrics are high, students and staff will bring increased risk into our schools. Adherence to the five key mitigation strategies can support the decision to return cohorts to in-person instruction, but it cannot be the primary consideration. All decisions about when cohorts are safe to move into schools and when they must return to distance learning must hinge on this threshold: a positive test rate below 5% for 14 consecutive days and under 200 new cases per 100,000. We also caution FCPS leadership against compressing the timeline for returning cohorts when the metrics improve. We need to maintain at least 2 weeks between each group as a part of the “slow and measured” approach. It can take up to 2 weeks for an increase in cases to reflect in the data, due to the time it takes for symptoms to emerge. We must not allow the reopening to outpace our ability to gauge the impact of an increase in students and staff in buildings.
Concurrent Instruction and Workload
We were alarmed to find out that, instead of the School Board participating in the decision to use concurrent instruction, the Leadership Team unilaterally decided to implement this model, and did so before receiving even preliminary results from the pilot programs. We have shared our concerns about this model since October 6th. We maintain that it provides lower-quality instruction than the virtual model and creates an impossible workload for teachers.
During the November 12th work session, teachers from the concurrent instruction pilot schools shared their first-hand experiences with the unmanageable workload it required. While several School Board members expressed concern when one teacher reported that she was working70-75 hours per week to implement concurrent instruction, the Leadership Team appeared unfazed that this teacher was working roughly double the number of hours she is paid to do.
As we have been reporting to FCPS leadership since the beginning of the school year, teacher workload reached unprecedented levels as staff adjusted to virtual instruction. That workload increased even more for those now using concurrent instruction. If even the most eager and technologically-savvy teachers who volunteered to participate in the pilot programs are struggling and working double their contracted hours to make it work, we can expect the workload of concurrent instruction to be totally unmanageable for most staff members.
It becomes even harder to justify the use of concurrent instruction knowing that all the expense for extra equipment and increase in workload amount to less instructional time and less attention from their teacher than students receive with full virtual instruction. We believe that for the majority of our students, virtual instruction provides the best quality of instruction available at this time and also provides much-needed consistency. In-person instruction should be reserved for the students determined by both the school and family to be struggling the most with the virtual format, ideally in small enough numbers to support attending 4 days in person while their peers receive 4 days of virtual instruction with a dedicated virtual teacher.
Hero Narrative and Respect for Educators
We are concerned about the manner in which Principal Mukai and Dr. Brabrand spoke about staff as “heroes” at the November 12th work session. The narrative of calling school staff heroes undermines our staff members as professionals with valid concerns about their safety and unmanageable workload. FCPS staff have always been known to go above and beyond what’s expected, often sacrificing their own well-being for students. This sense of self-sacrifice in order to serve students is so ingrained in school culture that school leadership and the community have come to expect that all staff will dedicate significant off-contract time and personal resources to the job because “we are doing it for the kids”. Our district leaders should not take advantage of compassionate staff members and expect staff to take on increasingly more responsibilities and risks that go beyond the duties of the job. Staff are currently writing the safety protocols after students have already returned to school buildings, dealing with shortages of PPE, and trying to keep themselves and students safe without sufficient training. Calling them a hero does nothing to improve their untenable work environment. If FCPS wants to attract and retain a premier workforce and actually convey respect for staff members, leadership must work to change the culture. This starts with truly respecting our educators as professionals by involving non-administrative school-based staff in decisions, providing safe working conditions, listening when staff report discrepancies in adherence to the mitigation strategies, and providing adequate unencumbered time for planning and collaboration.
The FCFT Executive Board:
Tina Williams - FCFT President