It’s not every day that journalists are invited to listen in on internal school district meetings. Usually, the meatiest material we get served up are school board meetings with policy-speak and occasional food fights. Seldom are reporters allowed to see the sausage as it’s being made inside administration offices.
One public education official in Delaware County declined to even get on the phone with me to discuss the challenges of reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. To quote the text message I received from a handler: “Due to the political nature of the situation, she prefers not to comment.”
So when a Bucks County superintendent not only replied to my request for a conversation Thursday but then pulled me into an in-progress video meeting with district insiders, I nearly had a stroke.
Moments after accepting a Google Hangout invite from Superintendent Bill Harner, my face landed in a box on a computer screen. About a dozen Quakertown Community School District officials were talking through a head-spinning litany of proposals and contingencies. I caught the second half of the two-hour meeting.
“We are trying to encourage shields as a potential option,” special education supervisor Carrie Staffieri was saying when I joined. “We have put in a sneeze guard order ... to have some of those plexiglass dividers.” She said of teachers in more specialized programs: “We are giving those staff gloves, gowns, face shields.”
Facilities chief Rob Christine showed off a “spit guard,” directing his computer camera to a shiny piece of plastic glass.
Harner interrupted and so did I. We made sure everyone knew I was observing the meeting on the record.
For weeks, I’d been hearing that school administrators across the region were pulling their hair out. Teachers in Philadelphia made known their fierce opposition and concerns about in-class teaching without proper safeguards in the perpetually underfunded district. It forced the district to cancel plans to open schools.
Parents have been wondering if the looming schools disaster will leave them and their children without child care and learning as districts resort only to untested fully online instruction with limited details regarding its execution.
This is why, when Quakertown fifth-grade teacher and union president Ryan Wieand asked questions the other day, I paid close attention.
Teachers will make or break what happens this fall.
Wieand wanted to know how substitutes would be used and whether the district was, as he had heard, planning to make elementary school librarians deliver their specialties in a general class setting, which is of concern to his members.
“It minimizes their jobs by just saying they’re going to be absorbed by another teacher,” Wieand said.
Assistant Superintendent Lisa Hoffman’s response: This was an essential, if still unofficial, modification that would not be under consideration in normal times.
“We can’t have kids going in and checking out books,” Hoffman said. “We are not saying we don’t need elementary librarians and they’re not going to have a job next year. They may not have the kids for a 30-minute block of time like they normally would.”
Wieand continued to press the issue: “It’s not always about losing a job. It also comes around to forcing them into jobs that they never were inspired to do before.”
One of the largest concerns from teachers, he later said, was “a lack of details for what it takes to instruct virtually and what it takes to instruct live.”
Officials said such details would be coming out in the next few days.
Quakertown’s board is pushing a return-to-school plan that offers a choice of all-virtual, partial-in-school, or Monday-through-Friday classes in buildings for all grades.
Easier said than done.
Districts like Philadelphia and some of its suburbs have announced all-online school reopenings in part due to teacher concerns about coronavirus transmission rates inside buildings.
I asked Wieand if his colleagues were equally on guard about that. In a survey he conducted of the union’s 353 members, he said 55.7% “don’t feel safe returning to school, 32.3% said that they feel somewhat safe returning to school, and 12% said they feel safe returning to school.”
He said teachers may consider requesting partially paid leaves of absence. If their own kids are stranded at home this fall because they live in districts that have gone all virtual, or if they have coronavirus-related health concerns, these are options for them.
In a recent call of Bucks County superintendents, Harner said two colleagues reported that a combined 100 teachers had requested paid leave for this fall. You can’t open with those numbers.
“As of today,” he said of his own district, “I had only two requests for family leaves.” Of course, that could change.
“We’re all going to be struggling,” Harner said. “It’s a domino because of what’s going on next door.”
As of Thursday, about 60% of the Quakertown student body had registered for in-class instruction. Harner said he was still waiting to hear from an additional 1,000 students and their families.
Curiously, Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday apparently sought to quell rumors that districts were all waiting for him and his public health advisers to wave a wand that would force all schools to open virtually.
“I want to be clear: I am not closing school buildings or cancelling classes,” Wolf tweeted.
Hours earlier, the U.S. Senate went on vacation rather than approve pandemic aid for public schools.