Teachers and employees returned to school today for a week and a half of training and preparation ahead of the Aug. 24 reopening with students–the first time students will step into schools since March 12, when they left for spring break and never returned.
The return had nothing of the happy occasion of previous years and portends plenty of uncertainty, much of which the district hopes to dispel for teachers and employees in training days ahead. But some of the uncertainty is out of the district’s control. And some of it is paradoxically the district’s doing as it attempts to address innumerable and at times competing concerns in abbreviated time spans, with somewhat diminished ranks (there’s been retirements), and with almost no additional resources in money or capital to reinvent what at times may look like the impossible. It’s going to be a difficult year.
At Flagler Palm Coast High School this morning, the traditional “welcome back” to teachers featured Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt in a two to three minute “Go Bulldogs” sort of motivational greeting, followed by a contrasting, emotional welcome from Principal Tom Russell, who empathized with all those contending with the difficulties of the pandemic. He cried as he described his recent attempts just to hug his mother in a nursing home: covid restrictions don’t allow it. She’d be uncomprehending and confused as to why he wouldn’t step into the room–she has Alzheimer’s–and he’d despair at not being able to care for her as he had before, until a nurse looked the other way for a couple of minutes, enabling some contact.
“That was definitely very touching and emotional,” an FPC staffer who asked not to be identified said, describing how Russell spoke of his own at-risk status, due to a pulmonary issue. “I could tell from the stuff he said, he’s very concerned.” Russell, whose authenticity was never in doubt, “showed us a side most of us had never seen before.” He spoke of his own very limited contact with the community during the emergency and sought to reassure employees about precautions taken at the school, a message echoed across the district as its nine traditional schools began reopening in most un-traditional ways.
There was nothing traditional at FPC’s welcome back: normally held in the auditorium with the entire district’s faculty there, it was limited to FPC employees, with some in the auditorium but perhaps half of them in their classrooms, some of them puzzled by what followed Russell’s presentation: more emotional statements from an assistant principal and a counselor wrapped in motivational speeches and capped with a showing of a new “We’re never alone” Nike commercial.
“It was very weird,” the staffer said, “they were trying to get us motivated and pepped up. Most teachers don;t need that. They need to feel safe.”
And many teachers aren’t feeling safe. The discordance between the “family” message of the big welcome at FPC became apparent this very morning when the same employees got an email from the district’s plant services division, ordering them not to open classroom windows, presumably to save energy, even though proper ventilation has been proven to be one of the ways to control the spread of the coronavirus. Some employees were in disbelief at the email, as they would be later in the day at revelations that certain class offerings were cancelled outright.
Teachers are returning to a changed landscape, to many unanswered questions about their own safety, about what sort of outbreak would cause a school to close, about the fluidity of students moving in and out of the remote-learning model, and in some cases about their own employment status, should they decide to absent themselves from work over concerns about the coronavirus.
Today’s reopening was preceded by two separate developments the day before that illustrate the depth of uncertainty teachers are contending with even as students for the most part have been accommodated through three learning options–attending school in person, attending school at home but through a live computer connection to their classroom, or attending school virtually through iFlagler, a Florida Virtual School-like approach. Upwards of 37 percent of students have chosen off-campus options.
One of those developments was an opinion column by FPC teacher Tracy Hicks Business Insider, the national online publication, ran, with this paragraph-length headline: “I’m a teacher in Florida and a caregiver to my 84-year-old father. My school district is making me choose between going back to work during the pandemic or losing my livelihood.”
Hicks cited the 1,100 cumulative cases of covid-19 in Flagler, Florida’s more than half-million cases (more than Italy’s and France’s combined), and its exploding death count. She summarized the three learning options. “And none of these options consider me, the teacher, who still must come to work every day, at risk of catching the virus, to instruct the students who are doing in-person learning,” Hicks wrote. “Parents with money and means can pull their students out; teachers with other options can leave the profession. But I’m a Black woman, part of a population already disproportionately impacted by the virus, and my healthcare depends on the job that I have now.”
Hicks’s concerns were mild compared to Tuesday’s second development: a bargaining session between the teachers and service employees’ unions and the school district–a session that followed a closed-door session by the school board, where board members signed off on many of the issues in contention at the bargaining session.
The bargaining between Katie Hansen, president of the Flagler County Education Association (the local teachers union) and Jewell Johnson, the district human resources director, illustrated the depth of discontent among faculty ranks, the constraints the district was expected to work within–it is under state orders to operate in-person schools five days a week–and the seemingly ad hoc approach that, by necessity, continues to define many parameters of schooling in a pandemic.
“With no disrespect to you Jewell, truly,” Hansen said, “I find it really insulting that we are providing our parents so much flexibility. These children can come in in and out, in and out, in and out, but not any type of consideration for our teachers. I think that’s wrong. I think as an employer, one of your job responsibilities is to take care of your employees, and I think Flagler has missed the mark big time on this. There’s been ongoing communication to parents, things posted, things shared with them. Oftentimes teachers are hearing about things through FlaglerLive or from my emails but no consistent direction and no real safety precautions in place for our teachers. I think that’s just incredibly wrong.”
“And I can’t honestly sit here and–I mean, for any of us to hear that, it makes us cringe, you know,” Johnson said. “We are about–we are Flagler school family. Yes, we’re all here for students and for our children, but it is about our employees as well.”
“We feel like the red-headed stepchild right now,” Hansen said.
“If that’s the sentiment, be it because of poor communication or lack of communication, or even lack of options, or lack of an option that would be considered viable–” Johnsonl said, before Hansen stopped her.
“Even the governor said teachers should have an opportunity in every district to work from home,” Hansen said. “I mean, when he’s championing our cause more than our own district, that’s a bad place to be in.”
“He said that without any guidelines about–and how do you do it?” Johnson said, underscoring what has been Gov. Ron DeSantis’s preferred approach: ordering a reopening while punting all responsibilities of that reopening to local districts. The state’s teachers and service employees’ unions have sued the governor over that order, calling for remote-only education as an alternative as long as Florida’s covid numbers remain high. Hansen in bargaining again and again pressed the point for broadening remote options, such as allowing iFlagler teachers to teach from home rather than to report to campus. But the school board was opposed, according to Johnson.
“We did have an executive session with our board,” she said, referring to the 10 a.m. closed-door session of the board that preceded bargaining Tuesday. Johnson and several other top district administrators who are also on the district’s management side of bargaining were part of the closed-door session (Earl Johnson, the director of leadership development, Patty Wormeck, director of finance, Diane Dyer, director of curriculum, and Jerry Copeland, the district’s chief negotiator, who did not attend the subsequent bargaining session.) The session was held, Jewell Johnson said, “to go through all of our instructional models, what this will look like, to consider all of our employees, to be fair across the board with all of our employees. And we felt that what the board advised us that the model was solid, so long as we had other safety precautions and all of our ducks in a row with those things.”
School boards are allowed under Florida law to hold secret, or closed-door, sessions for very few reasons: to discuss strictly defined security issues, to hold student disciplinary meetings, to discuss pending litigation, and to discuss strategy regarding bargaining with unions. The discussion of instructional models could legally fall under the shade of an executive session because it intersects in parts with some details worked out with the teachers unions. Nevertheless, despite the extent to which the models affect students and parents, the models were not discussed openly until they were adopted. And until Johnson shared the details of how those models were discussed by the board, the board had not let on that it had a hand in redefining the three teaching models for the fall semester. But by keeping the decision to a closed-door session, the public and employees were, in effect, denied a chance to address and debate the options openly, before they were adopted finally.
Presented with that accomplished and seemingly immovable fact at the bargaining session–the denial of teachers’ option to work from home–Hansen was not pleased.
“With all due respect,” Hansen said, “I think it’s doable within the plan that we have, and I think it’s incredibly disappointed that the board did not support that today in executive session. And I will be remembering that when I vote.”
Johnson said the sentiment the board shared was that “we had to be able to serve our students to keep them safe.” The board was concerned about quarantines and who would be affected by such things as outbreaks. “There are some similar concerns that were shared even though you don’t see them as you’re looking through the lens for our three models,” Johnson said.
The session revealed a further surprise: Johnson said there were to be no “truly” remote-only classes–classes where the teacher would be teaching exclusively to students at home. That, again, drew an objection from Hansen, who challenged district officials about the feasibility of expecting a teacher to handle a set of students in the classroom, another set at home, and the unexpected breakdowns in technology along the way, all the while with the expectation of providing equal and seamless instruction to all the students. At the elementary and middle school level at least, “I don’t understand why we’re not making that at least the goal,” Hansen said.
Johnson said it would be a “scheduling nightmare.”
“So again, we’re putting that difficulty of scheduling as again more important than the needs of our teachers,” Hansen said.
“It is not, we’re all master-schedule 5.0 at this point,” Johnson said, with administrators working on schedules all summer as the schedules have evolved. “I’ve heard teachers say you know what, I’m going to pre-record my warm-up and I’m going to play it so my computer students see it, and I’m going to play it and project it so my live students see it as well, and they’re both getting the same instruction.” She said the training the district is providing will make the challenge more palatable.
Hansen wasn’t convinced, using her experience to describe how teachers would have to devise two separate plans for their remote and in-person groups. “I don’t understand the resistance of the district to create just truly remote learning classes at the elementary and middle school level,” Hansen said. “Under this blended plan, all of our children are going to suffer.”
Johnson described it as a Catch-22. “If you fix one thing it disrupts or upsets something else,” Johnson said, speaking of the district’s own frustrations with coming up with options that would address as many concerns as possible. “But how do you have a job and then you don;t feel comfortable going to the job?” she said.
“And no massive steps being taken to protect you,” Hansen said, with the same protective opportunities afforded teachers as they are for students. “Our parents are concerned, they don’t want to send their kids to school, they’ve got lots of options to not send their kids to school. A teacher at advanced risk for covid, at advanced age, caring for an elderly parent, whatever their case may be, they have no option other than–OK, fine, don’t work. I mean, we’re putting these people in a really bad situation, and throwing our hands up in the air and saying, well, we tried.”
Johnson moved on to another segment in the contract language.
Earlier in the session, Hansen revealed that several teachers at risk for covid had been denied such options as becoming iFlagler teachers and given reams of false information by their own principal.
“I completely understand that the assignment of employees is a management right,” Hansen said. “However, I think that during this time that we find ourselves in, when we have employees who are looking at iFlagler as an option to limit their exposure to students, in my opinion the district ought to be placing them in iFlagler. It should not be under the purview of an administrator to say, No, I’m sorry, I’m not taking you, even though you have a medical condition, you care for an elderly parent, whatever–with no sympathy to that employee and their needs at all. I think that’s just wrong to do the employees.” She said teachers have contacted her saying they were certified to teach a discipline, had experience teaching virtually, yet were turned down. Two had a medical condition, one was caring for an elderly parent, a fourth employee was more advanced in age. “I think that’s the wrong message we’re sending to our employees,” Hansen said.
Further, Hansen said the teachers were told in their interviews with the principal that they would lose their position in their home school–the school where they were teaching before the pandemic–which was not the district’s intent, and that the remote-live version was the least contact with students. The administrator was discouraging them from teaching through iFlagler. “That’s a lot of misinformation being given to somebody in an interview,” Hansen said.
“That is,” Johnson agreed.
“The perception of these people is that that administrator just didn’t want them as part of their school,” Hansen said. She did not specify the school.
Johnson said it was not the district’s intention to “strip schools” of their teachers, Johnson said. Rather, the district would track the teachers the way it tracks students. “So where the student’s need is for the learning, basically if it’s remote or if it’s complete virtual, then therefore there go the teachers, to follow those students.” It would also apply in reverse: when it was time for the student to return to his or her traditional classroom, “then the teacher, too, would follow,” Johnson said. “So if we’re not on message with that, then the district has problems with that as well if that’s not been the message that’s been communicated, therefore the confusion that continues to ensue one day before the start we planned.”
The district is also leaving it to the students who are in the remote-live option to attend class in their school and their classroom–with prior approval from their school. The flexibility is “not necessarily babysitting,” Johnson said. “That wasn’t the purpose of that,” but to allow for extra attention for the student, should the student need it. There is no threshold set as to when the student would have to switch back to the live classroom, if that student continues to fitfully attend in person. That faithfulness is not allowed in iFlagler: once enrolled there, the student must do it for at least that segment.
“But we’re not holding them to any type of expectation for the remote live version. They could basically fluidly move in and out of those two,” Hansen said.
“That is the beauty of that,” Johnson said.
“I don’t know about the beauty,” another member of Hansen’s bargaining team said.