Teachers at Beecher Road School in a letter to the administration expressed concern for their health and that of their families and suggested that remote teaching was the better method for teaching during the pandemic, rather than the full in-person plan, which is scheduled to start on September 8. “If we open under the current plan, our school and greater community will be put at heightened risk,” the Woodbridge Education Association (WEA) wrote, citing inadequate staffing and resources, as well as the watering down of CDC distance guidelines when it comes to schools. Fifty-nine teachers signed the letter.
The letter suggested that remote teaching and learning, though not ideal, “will allow a more optimal method of engaging with students that does not negatively impact the health and safety of students and teachers. Three teachers asked for a leave of absence, which the Board of Education granted in a special meeting on August 26. Since the time the letter was published, the WEA and the school administration have worked collaboratively to streamline protocols and make sure the school provides all necessary PPE.
The WEA had conducted a survey of teachers in mid-August, which generated a 96% response rate. Eighty-three percent of respondents said they did not feel safe to return to the classroom, even though 57% said they would, because their livelihood depends on it.
The concerns focus on safety protocols, also less than six feet distancing of desks in some classrooms and the “empty promise” of cohorting. A big concern of the Teachers Union is administering of lunch, which, according to the plan, students will be eating in their classroom with their masks off. One of the questions that had been unsolved as of August 17 was who is going to watch the children while they eat and, if it is not the classroom teacher, how that would compromise the “bubble.”
Students will be sitting at their desks for six hours a day, unable to move about the classroom, except for a 20-minute recess, the letter says. Desk barriers do not replace the need to maintain six feet of separation, the letter states, citing a study from the University of Washington.
At the August 17 Board of Education meeting, Interim School Supt. Christine Syriac responded by saying that she would be meeting with the union’s executive board, feeling confident that the school could meet at least some of their concerns. “I think there are areas where we can work together to try and find some comfort,” she said.
During the online meeting some parents spoke out in support of the teachers. Every hair salon can only run on 50% occupancy, said one parent. But at the school, they will accept 1,000 people into the building for long periods of time. “None of this makes sense,” she said.
Another parent expressed concern about delaying the re-opening of school, especially for special education students. She said her child was scheduled for a placement meeting, which never happened in the spring. When the governor ordered schools closed, the state allowed schools to postpone the IEPs (Individualized Education Program). “Ten more weeks could be catastrophic,” she said.
Board of Education Chairman Lynn Piascyk said the number of students who were “in” or “out” was fluctuating, and she expected it to stay that way. As of August 28, when the teachers held their annual convocation, it was in the 70/30 range – with about 70% of students attending class, and 30% choosing remote learning from home.
The plan is to have nine teachers teach remotely from home – one for each grade level, plus a specialist and a special education teacher. The district was working with the WEA to work out a Memorandum of Understanding regarding privacy protection for teachers and students during live streaming. The district also is working to limit online class sizes, as some had grown to 34, 35 students, and that number is likely to increase, especially if families need to quarantine. Parents can switch from one modality to the other, however, the school needs a week’s notice to fit the student into a classroom, so that “when the student arrives, they feel safe and welcome,” Piascyk said.
School reopening: Beecher Road School students are slated to return to school for the first time in close to six months come Tuesday, September 8., at least for those whose last name starts with a letter from L to Z. The other half of the alphabet, A to K, will start a day later, on Wednesday, September 9. The rest of the week the school will open to the whole student body, minus those who chose remote learning. The first week of school will be minimum days.
The delay in the opening of school, which was originally planned for August 31 became necessary after Tropical Storm Isaias cut off electricity and Internet, not only to the school itself, but to many of the administrators’ homes as well. “This storm has put our efforts back by a few days, said outgoing School Supt. Robert Gilbert at the August 17 Board of Education meeting. The building was still closed several days after the storm. “We can do a lot remotely if we can get in touch with each other,” he said.
The reason the district starts with the second half of the alphabet on the first day of school, a Tuesday, is to coordinate with Amity. That way the students from one family will go to school on the same day. The Amity District is starting the school year in the hybrid learning mode, with A-K attending class on Mondays and Thursday, and L-Z attending class on Tuesday and Friday.
Of those Beecher families who signed up to attend school in person, 67% will be driven to school, rather than taking the bus. The hours are the normal school hours, 8:35 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent