Staff to school board: 'Irresponsible' to return to five days

Phil Keren
Kent Weeklies
Some teachers from DeWitt Elementary School were among the staff members who attended the board of education meeting on Wednesday and criticized school district leaders' decision to have K-5 students return to school full-time, five days per week.

CUYAHOGA FALLS — Multiple teachers on Wednesday night told the board of education it was "irresponsible" for the school district to return to in-person classes five days a week at the elementary buildings.

Students in grades K-5 who signed up for in-person classes returned to classes five days per week on Monday. Students in grades 6-12 will remain in the hybrid format that they've already been doing for the rest of the first semester. Students who are taking online-only classes will continue in that set-up for the remainder of the first semester.

With COVID-19 cases reaching record highs, several teachers said that they and their colleagues are concerned about the health and safety of students and staff, and urged the board to take steps to provide safer conditions in the buildings.

About 40 to 50 people attended the meeting in the high school library, according to dstrict treasurer Kristy Stoicoiu.

Melody Carlisle,a teacher who said she was speaking on behalf of the Cuyahoga Falls Education Association, said it was "a very critical time," and "a very emotional time."

Carlisle said she was not taking a position on who should be allowed to return to school, but she stated she was a "firm believer that the health department should be making these decisions based on what is best for their communities." She added she felt district leaders were put in an "impossible, no-win situation" when tasked with making the return to school decision.

Carlisle noted she worked with the administration throughout the summer to create a safe environment to provide education to students.

"Many of those guidelines created as a team are not being followed today," stated Carlisle. "The board [of education] refused to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding that would ensure safe working conditions for staff and students alike.That decision has created an environment of division and fear."

Jodi Tucker, a music teacher at Richardson Elementary School, said some of her co-workers are "mildly uncomfortable," with full-time, in-person schooling, but emphasized there are "more of us that are extremely scared and fearful." Tucker said she pushes a cart to 13 different classrooms in her school days and noted a few of the rooms "are just not safe."

She noted when there are 22-23 students in a room eating lunch with their masks off and a teacher distributing meals, "distancing is quite impossible."

Tucker said expectations are "sky high" for teachers to keep students safe, in addition to educating young people, but those expectations have a cost. She noted that "mental stress and physical exhaustion are taking a toll on teachers and staff." Tucker added she and many other staff members at Richardson felt the decision to return five days a week was "not wise."

Sarah Suboticki, a fourth-grade teacher at DeWitt Elementary, said she felt the administration did not acknowledge the concerns that teachers raised about safety. She added she felt it was "irresponsible" for the district to go back to school five days per week, and added there are not enough substitute teachers available to cover the classrooms.

"You are setting us us up to have to go back to completely remote [learning]," said Suboticki.

Carrie Fromson, a fourth-grade teacher at DeWitt, said she researched the coronavirus, and learned that having fresh air circulate through rooms was a key component of creating a safe learning environment. She noted that the windows inside DeWitt do not open and the blowers "emit re-circulated air" throughout the school day.

Fromson said the district's plans for returning to the buildings did not address filtration issues and noted she spent $400 of her own money on an air purifier and five air-cleaning plants.

Fromson said the hybrid model was "a huge improvement" over last spring's remote-only approach. However, she said she was "shocked" when the district decided to have K-5 students return to the buildings five days a week and felt more anxious as the start date approached and COVID-19 cases rose.

"I felt like our district was pretending there wasn't a pandemic occurring," said Brunson, who added she felt the decision to return was made "too quickly."

She noted the virus has "infiltrated" buildings and caused some to close. Silver Lake Elementary School was closed Wednesday and the building will again be shut down Thursday and Friday, according to a Tweet from building principal Hillary Freitag-Geiger. 

Fromson said she and other teachers were concerned about some students going to Thanksgiving gatherings and returning to classes following the short break. 

"Why couldn't this decision have waited five weeks?" Fromson asked.

As part of the decision to return to school, Superintendent Dr. Todd Nichols said a survey of parents found that 76% of respondents wanted K-5 students back in school full time.

Jim Lang, a teacher at Roberts Middle School, called that statistic "deeply misleading," noting that when parents were asked to share their preference, the survey asked them to choose between full-time in-person learning and full-time remote learning. A hybrid option was not listed on the survey. Lang said he believed he and his colleagues have shown the hybrid model can be used to safely instruct students.

Lang also noted data on the number of people who have been quarantined at each building was removed from the district's website a few weeks ago.

"By obscuring quarantine numbers and relying on misleading survey data…you have instead just project[ed] a false sense of security and manufactured consensus and pushed us to a recklessly premature reopening," stated Lang.

Lang said he felt the district leaders were "failing" him and other staffers.

During the meeting, board member Anthony Gomez asked Nichols to put the building quarantine data back on the district's dashboard on its website, and include a date and time stamp to show when the dashboard information was updated.

"It would go a long way in building trust," said Gomez.

Nichols said the district removed the quarantine data from the website based on a conversation with Summit County Public Health officials.

"It's never going to be accurate," said Nichols. "It's very, very difficult to keep up with, but we can report the information that we happen to know at the time."

Christine Stewart, a music teacher at DeWitt, said when she makes the rounds to each classroom, there are some locations where she is unable to push her cart to the front of the room.

"Your teachers are in a mental health crisis," Stewart said.

Vickie Davis, a guidance counselor at the high school, criticized the fact that the board did not agree to enter an MOU laying out working conditions, a move which she said did "not show good faith."

Board member Patrice White was the only board member who offered comments after the teachers spoke. White stated that she felt the district should be "all remote in our learning and teaching …I just think it's very dangerous right now. The COVID's going up and up and up."

She urged community members to wear a mask, wash their hands and engage in social distancing.

"I don't want to lose one Fallsite, not one, to this stupid COVID," stated White. "We can beat it if we work together."

Before district staff members spoke, Nichols and the board members offered their thoughts on return to school.

Nichols said he felt the teachers were doing "a really, really good job"  and added he believed additional space could be created in some classrooms by removing extra furniture.

Nichols said that, as of Wednesday, "we have not seen any evidence of dramatic spread within the buildings."

White said she was concerned about the district not having enough substitute teachers if the virus spreads and people get sick.

She added she would not be spending Thanksgiving with members of her extended family.

"It really breaks my heart," stated White, her voice choking up. "It did not have to be this way and that makes me darn mad. I hope and pray, by next summer, this is done."

Board member Kathy Moffet said she was concerned about the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and told the staff members that she knows they're under a lot of stress.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, for all the work that you're doing," said Moffet to the employees. She urged them to keep the lines of communication open. "We want to keep our kids in the classroom for as long as we have, but …the hampering will be our inability to provide coverage [of the classrooms]."

She noted changes may have to occur, but added, "we all know deep in our hearts…the best place for the kids is the classroom."

Moffet told the teachers, "if we hear from you over and over again and see things, decisions will have to be made based on coverage and things like that."

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.