UNION COUNTY — Organizers and some participants from the Motor March on Monday went to the Board of Education (BOE) meeting the next day to voice their concerns on how the school district plans to reopen schools in two weeks, and to express their frustration that those plans did not include input from teachers.
On Monday (Aug. 3), a motor march was held in front of Union County Public School’s administrative building on Church Street in downtown Monroe. Families and teachers drove their vehicles — decorated with signs — by the building and through downtown protesting the district’s decision to follow Governor Roy Cooper’s plan to reopen schools (also known as Plan B). Cooper’s plan requires four days of remote learning and one assigned day per week of in person instruction. The motor march was organized by leaders of EduAdvocates, a new group that was formed to bring awareness to the opinions and/or feelings teachers in Union County have about doing their jobs amidst a pandemic.
EduAdvocates was established by Sophia Stephenson and Brittany Gendron to give teachers an outlet to express their views on school reopening as well as to highlight data about the spread of COVID in North Carolina. Stephenson is a high school math teacher and Gendron is a middle school teacher. Both work in Monroe. Stephenson has been teaching for 22 years and this is her second year in Union County.
Stephenson said local teachers would like “a seat at the table” and asked more often for their input so they may feel more included in the district’s decision making process.
“If teachers and adults got to choose or got to have an opinion and a seat at the table to make the decision for themselves not with a doctor’s statement, but for your mental health and emotional health then we would have been able to work out solutions to touch kids that are at disadvantages and other ways. Because now, that teacher that wants to go to work that is okay with Plan B can be there. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, but the discussion was never allowed to be had,” she said.
Teachers, Stephenson said, should have a “seat at the table” because they are in the classroom “putting their lives on the line.”
“The superintendent and the BOE — God bless and what they do. We are not saying we don’t value, appreciate and respect what they do. What we’re saying is, we don’t feel valued, appreciated and respected,” Stephenson said.
Barbara McKinney, a seventh grade language arts teacher at Monroe Health Science Academy said she doesn’t believe the BOE “expects perfection,” but teaching during a pandemic “is daunting” to her.
Stephenson believes students returning to school, even for one day a week, will not work because the school district has already conducted “an experiment” and it failed. Meaning, though health and safety precautions were put in place when outdoor traditional high school graduations were held last month there was still an outbreak in the Marvin Ridge cluster causing 16 people to be diagnosed with COVID-19.
“We know COVID is coming through the door day one,” Stephenson said.
County-wide remote learning is the best option in Stephenson’s opinion. When asked how UCPS could provide an equitable education by meeting student’s technological needs, she said the money that is being spent to fund Plan B could be better used to pay for technology students would need.
She said it is “impossible to ensure equity across the board” — using Monroe High School and Marvin Ridge High School as an illustration. However, she said if county-wide remote learning was implemented instead, solutions to inequality could be created.
UCPS gave families one week to decide if they wanted to apply to a virtual academy, or in other words, remote learning for the fall semester. Stephenson said the academy is “a long way from perfect.”
Stephenson recognizes there is no perfect plan for an unprecedented situation like a global pandemic and that “everything will be a work in progress;” however, she highlighted that no matter if a student participates in Plan B or the virtual academy, they are still doing online learning. Also, teachers are writing lesson plans for virtual education.
How effective is online learning? Teachers Amy Cloer and Becky Craig gave insight into how it went this spring. Cloer teaches high school English, and Craig teaches high school social studies.
Cloer said “there was no accountability.” She explained that students who had passing grades at the beginning of the first six weeks of the second semester could keep their grade if they wanted to, but “any assignments they did after that would be only in effect to increase their grade.”
The only way a student could fail, Cloer said, was if they were failing during the first six weeks. Students were given an opportunity to improve their grade, she clarified.
When describing how she modified her teaching style for virtual education, Cloer laughing said, “very quickly.”
Moving to virtual education was a challenge for Cloer, because of her age she did not grow up with technology like her students.
“We did the best with what we were faced with and it was like ‘here do this and try to get [students] to do it,’ ” Craig said.
Cloer said she had about five students (juniors) who regularly kept up with their schoolwork and communicated often with her. “If that could happen for an entire classroom, it would be perfect. If grades had mattered, it would have made a difference,” Cloer said.
When talking about seniors, Cloer said students with passing grades and upper level students who had A’s in her class did not login to complete schoolwork. “
Cloer said she was instructed to give students either 100’s or 0’s for their work. Students would be given 100’s for just completing the assignment.
“The seniors checked out, and I totally understand why,” Cloer said.
When asked how she felt about students were given the option to learn at home, but teachers were not given the option to work from home.
“What you’ll hear is that we did have a choice teaching virtually which some of us did, but of course you can’t accommodate everybody so you’re in a position there. Well, whose medical situation or whose family situation is more dire than the others,” Cloer said.
Craig said administrative teams are left with the decision as to “what teachers are going to be offered the chance to teach virtually.”
“When you have maybe a quarter of your population that might be virtual you’re not going to need all the teachers that signed up so what do you do then? The principal is going to have to make that decision,” Craig said.
In addition to their concerns about reopening schools, some teachers were annoyed that an employee survey was sent out after the district chose to follow the governor’s plan. Cloer said the subject line of the email was misleading and the link to the survey on reopening schools was toward the bottom of the email. The subject line was “UCPS Employee Childcare and Feedback Survey.” line The wording led Cloer to initially think the email was about childcare and did not pertain to her.
Both Cloer and Craig said the survey did not ask teachers if they felt comfortable coming back to school, but instead asked if the teacher taking the survey would like to either retire, resign or apply for FLMA (Family and Medical Leave). The survey was sent out on Thursday, July 23. The Board made the decision to go with Plan B on Tuesday, July 14.
The Union County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators sent a survey to teachers on return to work comfort level. A Facebook post published by the chapter on Monday, Aug. 3 stated, “First we wanted every staff employee to be given the opportunity to share their comfort level in returning to school. For those employees who did not feel safe we wanted them to be given the chance to work virtually or be assigned a duty where they were not interacting with people.Second for staff who will be returning to the school buildings we wanted personal protective equipment supplied. In our on going discussions with UCPS it is our understanding that the survey results indicated that a solid majority of UCPS staff 94% selected to return to the building. We will continue to advocate that those staff members who are not comfortable be given the option to work virtually...UCAE will continue to speak daily with UCPS leadership as we all work to move forward in a safe manner.”
Cloer said teachers who are in opposition to Plan B, their “hero status” they earned in the spring has been reduced because they are protesting. Cloer and Craig said they did not feel like heroes, because they were simply doing their jobs.
Cloer and Craig want everyone to know they want to go back to school and see their students, but they want to do it when it is safe.
“We want to be as safe as possible so we can go back as soon as possible,” Cloer said.
Tuesday night’s regular BOE meeting, started with Rev. Jimmy Bention Sr., being sworn in as an interim member of the board thus taking former member Travis Kiker’s place.
The board did not make any changes to their plans to reopen schools this academic year.