Teachers Union Leaders Says, "I Don't Want to be Opening in September and Mourning in October"
- Category: Schools
- Published: Wednesday, 12 August 2020 18:16
- Joanne Wallenstein
During a topsy turvy week when three successive plans for the reopening of the Scarsdale Schools were issued, many were wondering what the teachers thought. What was their view of the original plan, the first revision and the hastily announced final plan? Was there buy-in from this key group of stakeholders?
Last week we wrote to David Wixted, President of the Scarsdale Teachers’ Association (STA) to find out where the teachers stood but received no response. This week, four leaders of the STA make a surprise appearance at the August 11 meeting of the Board of Education and spoke at length about their views of the planning process and the safety risks of re-opening.
Sounding a dire warning about the district’s concession to parents demands for additional in-school time, David Wixted said, “I am here to warn you that this decision making process has now been subverted. I am here to warn you that this district is in danger of being forever damaged. We all reap what we sow and short sighted decisions made today that unnecessarily place teachers and their families in real danger will have long lasting effects that will be impossible to undo. This pandemic will eventually pass, but whether the school district’s long lasting tradition of excellence will remain is in doubt.”
From the comments below, it appears that teachers were involved in formulating the first plan as part of the Restart Steering Committee ad Task Forces. It appears that the original plan, which involved no in-school time for ninth through twelfth graders was reached through lengthy discussions with all stakeholders and was endorsed by the teachers.
However, when the district altered these plans in response to parents’ demands, the new schedule called for in school time for high school students and additional hours for younger students. From their comments, it appears that the teachers did not endorse these new plans.
The four teachers who spoke, STA President David Wixted, STA Chair for Rights and Responsibilities Dina Hofstetter, Stephen Mounkhall, STA VP for the high school and Joe Vaughan, Executive VP of the STA, all covered different facets of their issues with the current plan. It was not clear if these views represented elementary school teachers who were not represented at the Board meeting.
Wixted bemoaned the subversion of the planning process and the consequences of these changes. He defended the original decision to leave Wednesdays open for teachers to plan and also discussed the loss of planning time for remote learning now that the district is on track for increased in person school.
He said, “Teachers are shocked that their health should be put at risk by plans that assert that children can be perfect actors and follow social distancing. When the shift to remote learning occurs we will be unprepared because the district has squandered all this time focusing on in person instruction. Instead of focusing on the real needs of students.” Wixted said that many teachers would apply to take leaves of absence, retire or resign.
Hofstetter stressed parents disregard for teacher safety in favor of increased hours in school. She said, “At a time when we needed to pull together as a community and listen to the voices of compassion and caution the district has instead chosen to amplify the voices of privilege and pressure. We are at a loss, because just as community members have stated they did not come here for distance learning, we did not come here to be regarded as interchangeable instructional delivery systems.”
She spoke of a loss of trust between the faculty and the district saying, “The community had one job – to value the lives of its members – all of its members – if not equally, then certainly compassionately. We are at a loss because we mourn for what that might have looked like.”
Speaking for high school teachers, English teacher Stephen Mounkhall discussed what the school experience would be like with masks and distancing, calling it a sterile but not safe environment.
He advocated for the all remote model and questioned the communities decision to prioritize in school vs. virtual learning. He said, “I understand your desire to have your children back in Scarsdale High School. I have children. But if the majority of educational experts in my son’s school told me that they did not feel comfortable in the classrooms, that they would struggle to do their jobs in person because of a slew of state mandates and that they did not feel that their voices were being heard in the reopening process, that would give me pause.”
He relayed statistics from a survey of SHS teachers showing that many do not feel comfortable returning to the building and do not feel that their voices were heard in the restart planning process.
STA Executive VP Joe Vaughn focused on the science of COVID and state mandates seeking to demonstrate why the school would not be a safe environment. He said that PPE was in short supply, the school’s ventilation system was antiquated and called the return to school a “super spreading event.”
The teachers’ comments stunned many parents who believed that they were coming close to a compromise with the district on plans for the reopening. This new information cast doubt on whether there would be enough teachers in the buildings to carry out the agreed upon re-opening plan.
Parents were also surprised to learn about the teacher’s hesitancy to return to school so late in the game. They wondered why this had not been communicated earlier on and said that, given what they heard, they might change their response to a survey that asked them to select in school or remote learning for their children.
Though they were sympathetic to the teachers’ fears, others wondered why teachers in neighboring districts were returning to school when Scarsdale teachers said it was unsafe. They were also equally as concerned about their children’s mental health.
Assistant Superintendent Andrew Patrick confirmed that staffing would be challenging though not insurmountable.
He said, “I am not trying to communicate that the sky is falling – just that it is complex. The STA represents 472 faculty and staff members. Even if one in 10 has a concern, we’re talking about 50 people. I can’t discuss private health information but the number is higher than 10%. I am optimistic that we will be able to fill the roles, but it will be challenging.”
He added, “We have a higher number than normal of resignations among teacher aids. That will continue to be an ongoing challenge. There is also a tight market for substitute teachers and expect shortages there as well. Since they would be going to multiple districts there could be problems with COVID.”
Here are their remarks:
Scarsdale Teachers Association Public Statements
August 11th, 2020
My name is David Wixted, and I serve as president of the Scarsdale Teachers Association. September begins my 30th year in this district, and my main work has been that of an English teacher at the Middle School.
As I begin, I would note that the STA officers do not typically make public statements to the Board and community, but the circumstances of this time compel us to do so now.
A few years ago, the STA advanced a statement on our shared educational culture. At the core of this statement were the following truths--
We, the educators of this district, are essential and responsible partners with considerable expertise central to the work of the district;
As such, we have an obligation to participate in district dialogues in a spirit of civility, reason, and openness, all grounded by what is in the best interests of students and their teachers;
That through our stewardship of this school district, our partners on the Board and in district offices share our obligation to create conditions that provide students with meaningful and fulfilling educational experiences;
That we must continue to live up to our part of this social contract, and our expectation is that the Board, administration, and the community will do so as well.
We continue to uphold our side of this social contract, committed to our professionalism and expertise in education while addressing hugely complex problems during a deadly pandemic that threatens us all.
But the abrupt shifts in plans to satisfy demands from the community now bring this social contract into doubt.
I am here, now, to warn you that this decision-making process has been subverted. I am here, now, to warn you that the culture that has defined this school district is in danger of being forever damaged. We all reap what we sow, and short-sighted decisions made today that unnecessarily place teachers, students, and all their families in real danger will have long lasting effects that may be impossible to undo. This pandemic will eventually pass but whether this school district’s long history of excellence will remain intact is increasingly in doubt.
Again and again, plans put forth through the earnest work of committees with broad representation have been subverted by community members who believe these plans do not provide enough. This subversion has been brought about by voices who loudly and repeatedly doubt the commitment, hard work, and sacrifice of their children’s teachers.
Teachers are discouraged by shifts in plans that narrowly define how they will provide instruction to their students, plans that assert we are no longer in charge of our classrooms, plans that require teachers be placed in conditions of risk.
Teachers are dismayed that their lives and those of their families seem to be of such little concern and must be risked to provide severely diminished educational experiences for students.
Teachers are shocked that the health and safety of our students and their families are to be placed at risk through plans that pretend that children are capable of behaving as perfect actors following the protocols of social distancing and mask wearing.
Teachers are worried that when the inevitable and sudden shift to remote learning occurs, we will be unprepared because the district has squandered all this time, energy, and money at providing what will likely be a brief period of in-person instruction.
Instead of focusing on the real needs of our students, especially those at the earliest grades, those deprived of social-emotional supports, those with learning challenges, we will be unable to meet fully the challenges of remote learning because while we saw them coming, we were not allowed to prepare adequately for them. This planning has been the purpose of the Wednesday planning days found in the AB model, an absolutely essential time for teachers to concentrate on preparing the needed variety of eLearning opportunities for students and thereby ensure students remain aligned in the work they encounter. The opportunity for a few summer planning days has not been enough to sustain a year of lessons, and teachers now wonder where they will find the time to do the collaborative work necessary for students learning remotely while also preparing for the in-person learning organized through state and district mandates.
The district needs teachers to open a school. The dismaying disconnect between the district and teachers puts that need in doubt. Some teachers will pursue federally mandated ADA accommodations. Some teachers will apply for federally apportioned Coronavirus childcare leave. Some teachers are considering whether they should retire or resign. Some teachers are considering whether they can take an unpaid leave. All of these realities in and of themselves could bring these plans crashing to the ground.
I do not question the hard work and good intentions of many of the district administrators and Board members straining to address so many conflicting concerns. But I do question the wisdom of changing plans that increase risk for every member of the school community. As a colleague stated at a recent meeting, the ground keeps shifting under our feet, and every time it does, the danger for everyone becomes greater. If schools reopen, hundreds of people will be brought together in confined and often poorly ventilated spaces for hours at a time. Some number of them will have the virus-- if you doubt this, ask again the doctor sitting on the restart steering committee. We are about to conduct an experiment where the test subjects are every child and adult moving through our buildings, and any infected individual will then bring this virus home to their families, many of whom may be particularly vulnerable. How can the potential benefits outweigh these risks?
Before taking a step further down a road toward an avoidable tragedy, we must stop and reconsider our options and decide upon the plan that truly preserves the health and safety of us all. We can provide both greater assurances of health and safety as well as genuine access to education, but only if we squarely recognize the nature of the danger that confronts us and prepare for remote learning. This is an unpopular choice, but it has the virtue of being the right one.
My name is Dina Hofstetter.
For 27 years I have been an art teacher at Scarsdale High School, a place I have considered my second home, working with students and colleagues whom I view as my second family.
Tonight I speak as the STA chair for rights and responsibilities. Prior to this summer, Scarsdale teachers have been able to focus on our responsibilities because our rights have been, overwhelmingly, respected and protected by the district. Most of us have been so secure in our rights that we have voluntarily and enthusiastically acceded to expanding our responsibilities. When your children come to us with ideas for new clubs we do not check our contract to see if we should agree to advise them - we check our calendars and secure child care for after school on Tuesdays or Fridays because we believe that it is important for kids to get together and share their love for photography or business or robotics. When your children ask for that letter of recommendation we do not say “no” because we have already said yes to 23 other students. We say “yes” because we know that we have an important anecdote to share - one that will surely elevate that student’s application to the top of the pile. That child and all of the children of this community benefit from securing the rights of its employees so that we may focus our attention on our responsibilities.
Unfortunately, the conversation this summer has been dominated by members of the community who do not recognize that the strength of our district has always been in this inextricable relationship of rights and responsibilities. We have listened to community members suggest that they should not have to pay their taxes if their children do not have five day a week in person instruction - during a pandemic. We have listened to community members mock the work of teachers of non-core subjects, such as myself, and suggest that we be furloughed - during a pandemic. We have listened to community members suggest that teachers do not need extra planning time to completely overhaul their curricula and adapt to every possible model of teaching that has emerged over the past few months. We have listened to demands for the Fall and harsh critiques over the Spring semester, a time when most of us were working non-stop to transform ourselves into online teachers and support our students - even as we had to deal with our own lives falling apart at the hands of a pandemic.
We understand that Scarsdale families have suffered illness and loss and fear, as well, but we cannot understand why the dominant community voice at the moment seems to be advocating for an assertion of “rights” that seem strangely uncoupled from the realities of this pandemic. Where is the outcry for protecting the rights of immunocompromised children and family members? I know they exist and I know how frightened they were each time someone coughed in class at the end of February and during that first week of March. Instead, we have parents forming splinter groups and disseminating manifestos filled with infographics designed to reimagine teachers’ rights and responsibilities. They have the right to do so, but I feel it is the responsibility of the community to ask them to please stop and focus on the fact that for some, we are confronting issues of life and death.
The officers of the STA and our membership find ourselves in an unfamiliar, defensive stance. From the beginning of this process we have engaged in good faith with the district as members of restart committees. We have brought expertise, compassion for a wide range of viewpoints, and a deep commitment to creating a restart plan that best serves the needs of our students and staff. Those of us who are parents joined these committees with a clear understanding of how much our own children yearn for a return to normalcy. As adults, we accepted the responsibility of acknowledging that “normal” would not be in our planbooks for the semester, and that our primary objective was to keep our children and colleagues safe. We are proud of the strong advocacy that we brought to the table.
We are at a loss at this moment because the hours of thoughtful engagement that we brought to the process were discarded as a reaction to parent outcry. We understand that people move to Scarsdale for the schools. We take great pride in the work we do to make each school an exemplary learning community. We do not take our responsibilities lightly. Every last one of us is dedicated to being and nurturing lifelong learners, and we come away from this process with a sense of loss over what we have learned. The loss we feel is for the district we thought we worked in versus the one that this crisis has so harshly illuminated. At a time when we needed to pull together as a community and listen to the voices of compassion and caution, the district has instead chosen to amplify the voices of privilege and pressure. We are at a loss because just like the community members who have stated that they did not come here for distance learning, we did not come here to be regarded as interchangeable instructional delivery systems. In the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis, the community had one job - to value the lives of its members - all of its members - if not equally, then certainly compassionately. We are at a loss because we mourn for what that might have looked like.
We fear that this loss may forever turn the Scarsdale teacher’s focus from carrying out her responsibilities to protecting her rights.
I hope that I am wrong, and that we might all take some responsibility for resetting this process and planning for a responsible return to school that values the lives and the rights of us all.
Hello. My name is Stephen Mounkhall. I have taught English at Scarsdale High School for 23 years. I am the STA vice-president for the high school, and I speak on behalf of a majority of the high school faculty. The elementary and middle school vice presidents will send their letters to the BOE and share those letters with their faculty.
People who are not teachers often ask me what I do during the summer. Normally, I try to unwind, so I am ready for September emotionally. Normally, I spend some of my weeks planning, so I am ready for September pedagogically. And, normally, I write dozens of college recommendations before I have to learn the next 100 students’ names in September. This summer has not been normal because Fall reopening will not be normal.
In our dialogue of how to open schools, we use the terms “virtual learning” and “in-person learning” as if we agree on their meaning.
I have heard our spring virtual teaching criticized by parents. That is difficult for me to hear, as I took 29 years of teaching experience and adapted it to a new modality with almost no warning. When we refer to “virtual learning,” are we referring to what our teachers scrambled to do in an emergency? What if those same teachers were given a few weeks at the end of the summer to build off their students’ honest feedback? We wanted to make our September virtual better than our June virtual, which was already better than our March virtual, but, instead, we have been told by the parents in this community that only “in-person” will do.
Parent after parent, in board meeting listening sessions, extols the virtues of in-person learning as being good for their kids. On this general point, teachers and parents can align. We became teachers because we believe in the virtues of in-person learning. But what do we mean by “in-person?” Is it the in-person learning that was available to us before the pandemic struck, or the in-person learning that will be mandated by the state? Is it in-person February 2020 or in-person September 2020?
88 Scarsdale High School teachers report being “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” coming into the SHS building this fall. I understand what these 88 teachers are saying. I am one of them. While we appreciate the enhanced cleaning of surfaces, we know the virus travels through the air. While we appreciate that the district has instituted six feet social distance and masks, we do not see how open windows can circulate enough clean air to keep us safe from the virus. What does it feel like to teach while feeling unsafe? How could that be good for kids?
83 Scarsdale High School teachers report that their ability to do their jobs this fall will be “limited” or “extremely limited” in this in-person model. I understand what these 83 teachers are saying. I am one of them. How do I teach three periods in a row, 160 minutes, in a mask? How do I project my voice through a mask to the back of the room? How do I hear students in a class discussion if they are masked? State mandates force me to keep the students in rows all facing the same direction. State mandates forbid me from huddling students together into groups. State mandates forbid the sharing of materials. State mandates forbid me from walking around the classroom, while students work. State mandates forbid me checking in with a student, over their shoulder, as they write a thesis statement. State mandates forbid me from meeting with students individually in my office. State mandates remind every person every minute of the physical risk we are taking by being together in person. How could that be good for kids?
83 Scarsdale High School teachers believe that their influence on the district reopening decisions has been limited or extremely limited. I understand these 83 teachers. I am one of them. We have expressed our opinions on restart committees, but our expert pedagogical advice, on the district level, has been overwhelmed by parent feedback. Are the parents sure they are more qualified to make these decisions than the teachers?
I understand your desire to have your children back in Scarsdale High School. I have children. I want them back in their schools. But if the majority of educational experts in my sons’ schools told me that they did not feel comfortable in those classrooms; that they would struggle to do their job in-person because of a slew of state mandates; and that they did not feel as if their voices were being emphasized in the reopening process, that would give me pause. How could that be good for kids?
Are you sure that your inclination to privilege “in-person” learning is the right one? Are you using a definition of “in-person” learning that can actually be achieved in this moment? If your desire for in-person education causes a member of our community to get severely sick, how would that be good for kids?
A majority of Scarsdale High School’s teachers are telling you that “in-person” learning, in this moment, makes us feel uncomfortable; makes us feel as if we will be limited in how we do our job; and makes us feel as if our voice has not been respected. Why not listen to the people you have trusted to take care of your children? Wouldn’t that be good for kids?
My name is Joe Vaughan. This coming school year will be my 23rd in Scarsdale as a physics teacher and the speech and debate coach at Scarsdale High School. I am also the STA Executive Vice President.
The STA’s position during this restart process boils down to a few essential guiding principles:
First, we need to confront the reality that the global pandemic still rages onward.
Second, the health and safety of all members of our community must be our primary and communal responsibility.
Third, we need to support the emotional, social, and educational needs of the students of Scarsdale within that context.
Therefore, this requires that we ground ourselves in reality, reject magical thinking, and embrace scientific thinking.
The truth of the matter is there are still so many things unknown about this virus, but we seem to be learning more each day.
We know more about the disease as an aerosol disease.
We see now that children, even young children, although they get sick at a lower rate can carry high viral loads and be effective vectors of transmission.
We know that many people are infectious before they present symptoms, making temperature checks hygiene theater at best.
We see schools around the country and the world reopening and quickly closing.
Let’s frankly acknowledge though that the infection rate in our local area is quite low at the present. That is to be applauded. Yet, as Dr Deborah Birx admitted a few days ago “It's not super spreading individuals, it's super spreading events and we need to stop those. We definitely need to take more precautions.” Super spreading events are high density events with concentrated and sustained contact time. That’s precisely what schools will be.
During this pandemic, and let’s not forget that it is indeed a pandemic, you may have been scrupulous with your contacts, refraining from widespread social engagement. You may have formed pods of friends and families to mitigate your risk to your own comfort level. Not all families have done this. The fatal flaw with these plans is that in each cohort, the person or family with the most tolerance for risk now has the power to impose their standard of risk on your family. It doesn’t matter if you have been careful if someone assigned to your cohort has not been. To understand a crucial piece of information, Scarsdale families have the absolute right to opt out of in person instruction. Teachers do not. That critical distinction heightens the importance of a safe school reopening for teachers.
I think that, locally, people look at what is going on around the country and see a distinction between what occurred in those places from what they would perceive would occur here but I think there are things we would agree upon for a safe opening of school. In critiques of the district plan, there have been several points that have been raised:
We agree with many in the community that it is irresponsible to plan for an opening when there is no required and robust testing regime in place. Conceding that Cuomo has only recently released information about requirements, it is disconcerting to not know the logistics of this plan. It is also disconcerting to know that there will apparently not be a complete testing regime.
Many have suggested exploring outdoor spaces. The district has been excoriated for not ‘being creative’ or ‘thinking outside of the box’ when it came to this demand. The problem is that these demands are magical thinking. You CANNOT plan to open a school if you cannot absolutely rely on that space every day as part of your social distancing plan. To do so would be irresponsible in the extreme. To those that have not done the research, every space designated as an educational setting, including outdoor space, must be approved by NYSED. In a good year, getting NYSED approval for construction takes months. There are literally hundreds of pages of guidelines on compliance that must be followed. You cannot think outside of the box when NYSED has rigorously defined not only the dimensions of that box, but also the requirements for the contents of that box. If you’ve ever dealt with bureaucracy, you will know that those structures aren’t ones you can effectively creatively think within.
Right now every school district in America is looking for the same set of supplies - masks, face shields, plexiglass shields between desks, cleaning supplies, etc. Backorders are common and lengthy. It is well to say ‘we should have those things if we are to return safely’ and the STA agrees. But, if there is any lack of certainty as to availability of these resources, never mind the funding for these resources, it is irresponsible to plan as if these exist locally. In the spring, there was a major push by several loud voices in the community to scale back fund balances in critical areas of the school budget. Such calls now seem regrettable as the district has fewer resources to mobilize in these pandemic times.
Most of our buildings are old. The ventilation is therefore also old. There are parts of our building where, due to the patchwork nature of the HVAC, it is not possible to put in the types of filters, HEPA or MERV - 13 or better, that have been shown to filter out this virus. Not all spaces have the sort of fresh air flow that has been shown to reduce virus density in the air. Oddly, the state has higher standards for ventilation for malls than it does schools. Lastly, ventilation projects, especially in our old buildings, take both time and state approval. The thought that our buildings could be retrofitted effectively with the financial resources the district has available in the time span we have left is exactly the magical thinking we ought to avoid.
I state all of this to give you a sense of why the teachers presently do not have confidence that the school buildings can be opened safely in a way that protects students and staff effectively, which needs to be our primary goal.
I want nothing more than to be in my classroom teaching as if this virus never upended our lives. I have always found teaching to be a soul-nourishing experience. Working with young people on their academic and self-development journeys has been the joy of my life. My issue is that I believe there is additional magical thinking occurring not just about how safe it will be for us to be together in the buildings, but what that ‘together’ looks like during a pandemic. And remember, we are still in a pandemic. Everything I am imagining - social distancing, masks, shields and barriers - renders the experience of being in school to be educationally sterile, but unfortunately not physically so. It is assuming physical risk with the assumption of some illusive gain. I am reminded of the story of Tantalus from Greek mythology who was consigned to Hades and afflicted with burning thirst and placed in a pool of water. Every time he bends to drink the water, it recedes from him. So close, but so far. That’s what I imagine kids being together, but rigorously kept apart to be like. Worse for me in this metaphor is that I am consigned to the role villain.
I am all for the reopening of the Scarsdale schools, but only when the science tells us that it is demonstrably safe. I do not want to be opening in September, and then mourning in October, which is the existential dread that I have been carrying with me for months.