Shooting at a moving target. Doing maintenance and repairs on a moving vehicle. Playing a game of whack-a-mole. These are the analogies of Cache County School District’s administrators planning for school reopenings next month.
On Thursday, as CCSD’s Board of Education voted to move forward with a plan to resume school on Aug. 20, board member Chris Corcoran added a new one: a war zone and sending teachers into battle without the necessary tools for confidence or success.
“A lot of people know about Normandy, but not a lot of people know about Dieppe, the ill-fated invasion in 1942,” Corcoran said. “They didn’t have the right equipment; they didn’t have the right strategy. With all due respect to the people at the district, I think this plan is more like Dieppe than Normandy.”
Prior to the 6-1 vote approving the proposed plan for reopening with added safety and hygiene principles such as the governor-mandated mask requirements and enhanced hygiene and cleaning protocols, Corcoran raised concern the district had not received enough input from “the soldiers, that is, the teacher and staff.”
“We could say ‘Just go do it,’” he said, “but we need to make sure they have right tools in place to make sure they succeed and they’re victorious.”
Ilene Davies, a teacher at South Cache, said she’s concerned about the short amount of time to train teachers and staff on all the new guidelines before students arrive in the classroom.
“We are to take a plan where teachers have not had much input, very little, and we are asked to implement it,” she said.
Superintendent Steve Norton agreed there had been little input, though he said teachers will have an opportunity to shape how each classroom proceeds once the plan is “ turned over to principals” and districtwide training starts on Monday.
“There is nothing in the plan that wasn’t dictated to us by a manual that came to us from the State Board of Education,” he said. “It wouldn’t have mattered if teachers had input up to this point. The plan is based on the guidelines we were handed.”
Roger Pulsipher — the only other board member to comment on the plan before the vote — said in his 33 years of experience as an educator in Cache County, there is no plan that will keep everyone happy.
“But I know with my experience, the district and the schools have always taken care of their teachers, staff and custodians,” Pulsipher said. “Yeah, they only have two weeks to get prepared. But that’s their job, and they’ll do it.”
However, several teachers raised concerns about the safety of entering the classroom so soon and implementing the district’s plan of shortening class times by 45 minutes.
The reduction is meant give teachers time to tend to students who are temporarily at home, in quarantine due to the virus or other illness, but how that will play out in the classroom is uncertain.
“Taking away those 45 minutes doesn’t seem like enough time to learn how to help those sick kiddos,” said Melissa Giddings, who teaches at Wellsville Elementary. “And taking away those 45 minutes, what does that mean my instruction time will look like?”
A high school teacher in the district had emailed concerns to the board, which Corcoran read portions of during the meeting. The teacher stated they were “very, very scared.”
“I cannot protect my students,” the teacher wrote. “For the first time in my life, I’m dreading going back to school.”
Corcoran said he has heard this fear echoed in multiple teachers who are feeling unheard at this time. These fears are compounded by the newest guidelines stating a student who has been exposed to COVID-19 may return to school and does not have to quarantine unless they experience symptoms.
Norton himself said there was no way to guarantee safety for students or staff once classes resume.
“We can’t control what people do when they leave our building,” he said. “They are going to go out and mix with people.”
This plan is further complicated by the number of people — parents and students — who question the need for masks and other precautions in schools, such as Chris Booth, who questioned how much of teachers’ time would be spent dictating proper mask usage and hygiene rather than instruction.
“What are the repercussions for choosing to not wear a mask?” he said. “Because I can tell you, my children will not wear a mask to school.”
Booth was initially the only person among the 40 teachers, parents, staff and students in attendance at the meeting not wearing a mask. But after his comments, several others removed their masks.
“Fear is ruling so much of this, and the children feel it. Children need to get back to school without fear,” one mother said. “Fear is causing more (harm) than the disease. … Studies have shown not a single child has spread disease to an adult, a teacher.”
However, a study in the scientific, peer-reviewed journal JAMA Pediatrics said “Early reports did not find strong evidence of children as major contributors to SARS-CoV-2 spread, but school closures early in pandemic responses thwarted larger-scale investigations of schools as a source of community transmission.”
The study, released Thursday, showed older children carried the virus similar to adults, and the nasopharyngeal swabs in children younger than 5 showed even greater concentration, “Thus, young children can potentially be important drivers of SARS-CoV-2 spread in the general population.”
Theresa Stanton, another CCSD elementary teacher, questioned whether the reasons for lower rates of illness in children is due to the fact they haven’t been together in a classroom since March.
“My daughter was sick all the time in kindergarten, but she hasn’t been sick once since March,” she said. “But she also hasn’t seen anyone else since I’m high risk.”
If parents or students don’t want to follow the guidelines such as wearing a mask, the alternative is to keep students at home through online or other homeschool options.
“I understand the risk, and I understand COVID is real,” Booth said. “The disease is real, but I’m choosing to take that risk. … If we understand risks and are willing to take risks, well, that is my right to do that.”
But wearing masks is also about the teachers and others, Norton said.
“I’ve got 171 teachers and staff over 65, and I don’t know how many more have medical issues,” he said. “I know I’ve got to protect them, but I can’t do that if I know I’m going to be in a war with parents over face masks.”
Everyone in attendance expressed a desire to avoid the chaos that going online caused in March through June. Norton said following the guidelines and wearing masks will be critical in avoiding that situation.
“We can’t do everything,” he said. “If I don’t have your support and if I don’t have teachers’ support, this is all going to crash and it’s going to all end up back online.”
Now that the plan has been approved by the board, it will be sent to the state board for approval by Saturday to verify it meets the new guidelines released by the governor’s office on Thursday.