State teachers union calls for virtual start to school year, citing safety concerns
The Delaware State Education Association, the union representing more than 12,500 educators and school support staff in the state, is calling for a virtual start to the school year.
The hardline stance differs from the union’s statements last week after the state released its guidance and three possible scenarios for school reopening.
Previously, the union stated that if districts believed they could fully meet state guidance, then plans could be made to reopen schools safely. If districts had the slightest doubt of being able to reopen safely, the school year should begin with remote learning, president Stephanie Ingram said in a statement last week.
Now, the union fears districts will not be allowed flexibility, and is calling for remote learning for at least the first six weeks of the school year.
“From the beginning, we thought that if the governor said hybrid, districts would still have the chance to be more conservative,” said Shelley Meadowcroft, director of public relations for the education association. “As time has progressed over the past week, there is a lot of uncertainty around that. We’re hearing that districts are being told that when the governor makes the call, they are expected to follow that and stay within those guidelines.”
In a press conference last week, Gov. John Carney said that while the state would like reopening plans to be consistent across the state, he also recognizes “there can be geographic differences and districts will need to respond to that.”
But Wednesday, Jonathan Starkey, spokesman for the governor’s office, said the state hasn’t decided what flexibility school districts will be allowed.
“We’ve heard that question. Can districts err on the side of being more conservative than the governor? The governor hasn’t even gotten there yet,” Starkey said.
Districts can expect a clearer answer in early August, along with the state's decision regarding reopening scenarios, he said.
The governor will not recommend returning to school if it is not safe for children and school staff, Starkey said, adding that it is still too early for the state to make an informed decision.
Until early August, school leaders should continue to plan for three different learning scenarios: fully in-person, hybrid, or fully remote.
But at his weekly COVID-19 press briefing on Tuesday, Gov. John Carney said schools are most likely to reopen under a hybrid scenario, possibly prioritizing getting younger students in the classroom.
For the governor to lean toward a hybrid model before school districts have released any planning made union leaders "very nervous," Meadowcroft said.
“Yesterday, we had many members who tuned into the governor’s press conference hoping to gain more answers and clarity about the upcoming school year,” Ingram said in a statement on Wednesday. “Instead, they left confused, with more questions and heightened concerns about their personal safety and well-being.”
A recent survey of teacher’s union members found that many are concerned for their health and the health of others. Out of 12,544 members, 4,400 responded to a survey about returning to in-person learning in the fall, with the following results:
- 89.5% believe it is important that schools be closed to prevent the spread of disease
- 88.3% have concerns for their own health
- 91.2% have concerns for their family’s health
- 92.7% have concerns for student health
- 93.2% have concerns for students’ families' health
- 93.9% have concerns for their fellow educators’ health
“Our members have made it clear that the only way to protect the health and safety of students, educators and the communities they serve is to begin the school year in a remote learning environment,” Ingram said.
Leaders of the state House Democratic Caucus also voiced support of the teachers union's call for virtual learning.
Schools should aim to provide “the biggest benefit for the most students with the lowest amount of risk,” Carney said Tuesday.
And while school districts are still trying to define what a hybrid model looks like, the governor on Tuesday suggested the possibility of prioritizing in-person learning for younger students.
“It makes sense in weighing the risks and benefits,” Carney said. “The children in kindergarten through fifth grade are least likely to catch the virus. Those who do don’t get seriously ill based on the experiences that we’ve seen. They’re probably the students who need that in-person instruction more than the rest.”
Although research on coronavirus is far from settled, several studies have shown that younger children are less likely to become infected with the virus, and may be even less likely to spread it.
A new study by South Korean researchers, for example, found that children between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread COVID-19 as well as adults do. In the study, children younger than 10 transmitted the virus much less than adults.
Getting children back into schools is also important for working parents, Carney said.
“As parents go back to work, and increasingly more parents will, they’ll need a place for their children to be. School is an important part of that, particularly for younger children.”
Whether and how to reopen schools is “the most difficult and most important decision” the state faces in the COVID-19 pandemic, Carney said last week. And across the country, teachers, parents and officials all have different ideas of what the fall semester looks like.
Questions continue to swirl about issues of health and safety, and whether schools can logistically handle reopening buildings during a pandemic. The state also has not released clear guidance on what happens if a teacher or student tests positive for COVID-19.
The state is still working to define the exact numbers that define the three possible reopening scenarios, Carney said Tuesday.
Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or email@example.com.