Teachers voice COVID concerns

A photo taken in Toledo Elementary School Monday shows kindergarteners back in the class for the first time under new COVID-prevention protocols, including reduced class sizes, more space between desks and the requirement to wear a mask or face shield. A photo taken in Toledo Elementary School Monday shows kindergarteners back in the class for the first time under new COVID-prevention protocols, including reduced class sizes, more space between desks and the requirement to wear a mask or face shield.

LINCOLN COUNTY — During Tuesday’s meeting of the Lincoln County School District Board of Directors, the first since the initial resumption of some in-person instruction, teachers voiced concerns about a rise in local COVID-19 infections, safety protocols in school buildings, positive cases among colleagues and difficulties with online instruction.

LCSD kindergartners started in-person classes on Monday, split into two groups to facilitate smaller class sizes. Half enter buildings for school on Mondays and Thursdays, and the other half attend on Tuesday and Friday, with online learning held on students’ at-home days. Some career and technical education (CTE) students also started classes two hours a day at all four of the district’s high schools. The district brought kids back under an exception for kindergarten through third grade, as well as special education like CTE, which allows in-person instruction when a county has fewer than 10 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents for the preceding three weeks. Lincoln County has met that threshold since Sept. 13, and the district plans to begin in-person first-grade classes Oct. 26, and potentially add second and third grade on Nov. 9.

After the end of the second day of in-person instruction, the board of directors regular meeting held via Zoom was joined by 80 online participants, a handful of whom were administrators and board members. Dozens of teachers logged on, and eight of the 10 audience members given a chance to speak for two minutes during the allotted time for public input were teachers expressing concerns about safety and issues with the online model still being used by most students.

Kristina Pico, an English teacher at Taft 7-12, was the first to speak. “I’m looking at a list of school after school after school that opened for in-person instruction and, within weeks, had multiple positive cases and were sending everyone back to distance learning,” she said. “Additionally, our county is seeing the spikes we anticipated as a result of the fires and resulting evacuations, and now, we’re hearing about teachers in our district testing positive, one of whom I know personally, which raises even more concerns for me.” Pico said if her husband had his way, she’d be offering her resignation instead of making a statement. She was not prepared to do so, she said, but a sticking point for her was the requirement that all students wear a mask when in school.

Pico’s students are not back in classrooms yet, but the district has said it hopes to implement hybrid learning for all grades by the end of the year. Other Taft teachers addressed what they saw as a lack of communication from the district on issues ranging from internet connectivity problems to plans for transitioning to hybrid.

Shannon Sutherland, a teacher at Newport High, said she spoke for a large number of other teachers at the school who were concerned the district was rushing into in-person instruction.

Ollie Richardson, another Newport High teacher, said he was worried about the amount of time students were spending in front of screens, noting that he himself was burned out from the experience.

Newport Middle School teacher Daniel Zimmerman, new to the district after retiring from the U.S. Army, said he felt defeated by his experience with distance learning. “I stare every day at 20-plus blank screens, listen to 20-plus muted microphones, and I wait for 20 replies in the chatroom that won’t come to literally every question that I ask,” he said. Near tears, Zimmerman said he made up responses for students in chat “just to keep some semblance of dialog.” Zimmerman said. “I endure students posting obscene and violent pictures in my classroom. I endure students blaring explicit music in the background, and I watch them then leave the classroom just to reenter under a different name and do it again. And then I get a five-minute break, just to do it all over again six times a day.”

Zimmerman said his own children began school at 4:30 p.m. using the Edmentum platform because he didn’t have the resources to provide them with supervision while he teaches class. He said requiring teachers to simultaneously teach students online while providing in-person instruction under a hybrid model, as kindergartner teachers are now doing, was “making an impossible situation even worse.”

Teachers at the meeting uniformly expressed an eagerness to be back in classrooms with their students, tempered by a fear that the move was being made without enough preparation. Peter Lohonyay, president of the Lincoln County Education Association, which represents most certified teachers in the district, addressed the board on behalf of the union. As a CTE teacher at Toledo High School, Lohonyay has taught students in person this week. “It is difficult,” Lohonyay told the school board. “I have high school students I have missed tremendously. It is nice to have them back. They are following the rules, but I am constantly reminding them to do so.”

He told the News-Times on Wednesday, “We understand the absolute need to get students back in schools. That need cannot exceed common sense or the safety of everyone involved. If it does, there will be serious long-term consequences for all of our community. Yeah, we want kids back, but you have to follow safety protocols or suffer the consequences, and you’re not going to be able to kick that can down the road and blame it on teachers.”

Superintendent Karen Gray addressed teachers’ concerns during her report to the board Tuesday. She said the district had implemented rigorous anti-infection protocols outlined in its blueprints, which are posted on school websites for all to review, and that they were regularly discussing their plans with the teachers union and in emailed updates to the school community. “We are communicating, it just isn’t what some people want to hear,” Gray said.

She said the district did have a positive COVID case, “and we dealt with it.” In response to the News-Times request for details about that case, the district said via email, “Since March 13, LCSD has had some employees test positive for the COVID-19 virus. As we work with the Lincoln County Public Health (LCPH) department, none of these positive results have a connection to their work as an LCSD employee. LCPH has found that these positive cases were due to connections outside of the workplace. LCPH is reporting no concerns with workplace protocols and has no concerns for staff or students to continue being in schools at this time.”

The Oregon Health Authority’s Oct. 14 weekly report, which lists all reported cases in employees or students at schools with in-person instruction, does not include the Lincoln County School District.

Gray noted that the recent increase in cases was relative to low numbers in previous weeks. The county had 11 confirmed cases the week ending Oct. 4, Gray said, and in the prior five weeks there’d been four, nine, three, two, and four cases, respectively. 

“I do want the board to know that I am under incredible pressure from the community to open our schools full time,“ Gray said. Despite that pressure, she said, the district was taking a cautious approach, bringing in students one grade at a time while already qualifying to bring back kindergarten through third grade. “Regardless of the parents who might want to protest and say, ‘why are my children not in school,’ and people who say it that it isn’t safe to be in schools, my job and the job of my staff is to make sure that whatever we do, we do it to the highest definition of safety that we can, and it’s the right thing for kids. We are being careful as a school district.”

She said students not wearing masks would first be used as a teaching moment to impress upon their importance, and if they still refused to wear them, they would not be allowed back into the classroom and instead have to use the distance learning model.

She did not blame anyone for being afraid, she said, but felt that fear was based on incomplete information, and blamed herself for failure to effectively communicate.

Regarding Zimmerman’s concerns, Gray said, “Very touching testimony, no doubt. No one that I have ever met is running around saying (comprehensive distance learning) is what they want. This is not what people want, and it is very hard on teachers. It’s hard on classified (staff) who have been working in buildings since March 13 … it’s hard on the administrators, and it’s hard on us.

“So, we’re going to stay open. People gave their heartfelt testimony tonight, well done, and we’re going to continue to move forward,” she said.

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