A new chapter in education, teachers share their thoughts ahead of school

Published: Aug. 24, 2020 at 9:27 PM CDT
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STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAW) - They are parents, caregivers, employees, and the people who will be heading back to school (whether in person, virtually, or a combination) with the children of Wisconsin. As teachers look ahead to the next school year, the impact of spring comes rushing back.

“It’s a nerve-wracking endeavor.”

To understand how 7th-grade social studies teacher, Alicia Skarsten is feeling about this fall, we go back to March when schools abruptly closed while she was on a trip to Washington D.C. with students.

“It felt like Chernobyl,” she said. “Everything was, as the sub had left it; papers on desks, pencils here, something written on the board. It just looked like people were evaporated out of there.”

From there, like nearly every other teacher in Wisconsin, the PJ Jacobs Junior High teacher pivoted to teaching remotely.

“I’m not great in technology, a little bit more traditional old school teacher so figuring that learning curve out was, was hard for me,” she admitted. “My students were really patient, my coworker, that I teamed with, he was really supportive and helpful and patient; our tech person she heard from me all the time.”

Teachers, including Skarsten, told 7 Investigates they regularly worked 14 hour days during the spring to create new lesson plans, learn new technology, figure out how to grade on the platform, get students who could not get online physical materials, check-in on students’ wellbeing, and of course, teach.

“It was all day long,” Skarsten said. “I think the hardest part for me are the kids who never ever showed up. I had a large handful of kids who never got on their computer once never responded to my emails or parents never responded to me, and I worried about those kids. And nothing, academics are important but, at seventh grade, are they OK?”

Those concerns still exist for many teachers in addition to new concerns depending on how districts are handling the next school year.

Implementing the plans

For Stevens Point Area Public School District, there is a little bit of everything depending on the grade level and individual families’ needs. Wednesdays are teacher workdays for all grades. Sixth grade and below will come back face-to-face the rest of the week and upper grades will be blended: half the of the students will be in person for half of the week and the other half will be online, and vice versa for the other half of the week. Some students will be fully online if the family chose that option. Masks will be required.

So, for secondary level teachers, like Skarsten, while she is teaching in-person to half of her students, she will also have to have lessons for the other half of her students who are online, as well as content for students who are fully online.

“A blended environment at the secondary level is going to be a big change for teachers, they’re going to be looking at lesson plans from a week-long perspective and what can students do online, and what can I do with my students face to face,” Connie Negaard, the director of secondary education for the district said.

She continued that they are beginning to do a lot of professional development meetings to help give teachers training to prepare all types of lessons. They are also doing a gradual start to the school year to give teachers a little more preparation time and they are creating teacher collaboration teams so teachers in the same subject and grade can share the load.

However, the leaders of the teachers’ union, Stevens Point Area Education Association, are skeptical the work will be able to be done within their normal hours even with the extra workday given how arduous the spring was.

“I know classroom teachers are very concerned about even prep time within the school day because normally the kids would come to music or they go to art or library or phy-ed and the teachers would have 45 minutes of uninterrupted prep time that they could work on lessons and things,” SPAEA vice president, Schuyler Pietz said. “And now we’re not sure about how any of that will work. We think they’re probably going to have to be in the room while we’re teaching, just because there won’t be another place for them to go.”

“I think many of us are really good at adapting what we do,” Keith Olson, SPAEA President said. “What we have to be careful we’re asking teachers to do is to do two jobs for the one that they’re paid for, you know. If you have to teach online and face to face the workload is not, I guess it’s not even just twice as much it’s probably more than that because now you’re also learning, as a teacher, you’re learning ‘how do I get to these kids that are at home while I’m teaching?‘”

The surveys

Stevens Point’s plan came from conversations with the health department, recommendations from the state and CDC, and a survey asking questions from teachers and parents about various concerns for the school year back in June.

The survey got 384 responses from staff, a majority of whom were teachers; there are about 500 teachers in the district. The blended model was the most preferred for older students and in-person was flagged as important for younger grades. Staff was fairly evenly divided about whether e-learning should continue full-time, with slightly more staff not in favor of that route. Few employees were comfortable with having no additional safety measures in place.

Various safety measures were also ranked as to how necessary they were in order to re-open. Negaard said requiring masks to be worn by staff and students as well as limiting visitors were some of the more universal measures staff wanted.

SPAEA also put out a survey in July with some similar questions and the opportunity to write out concerns and offer suggestions. The survey went out to members and non-members who they could find personal email accounts for. Olson said they understood that they could not use district emails to conduct any union business. Sarah O’Donnell, the district’s communications director told 7 Investigates that is a misunderstanding and the union could use those emails.

In any case, SPAEA received 162 responses. The majority of teachers (57.8%) wanted to return through e-learning, about a quarter were comfortable with a hybrid approach, and 17.4% wanted to go back face-to-face. Most (71.2%) said they would be more comfortable returning to school if a mandatory mask or PPE policy was implemented and enforced. A majority (66%) said they had concerns about returning to school because of their own or a family member’s health or age. Slightly more than half said they considered retiring or resigning if the district opened face-to-face in the fall.

The SPAEA’s survey results came back just after the district announced its plans for the fall.

Ahead of the following school board meeting Aug. 10, SPAEA organized a rally with around 50 teachers in attendance. SPAEA claims the district did not involve teachers in the decision-making process.

“Our district motto is, ‘prepare every student to be successful’ and so we want to make that happen but also make sure that their safety is our number one priority,” Pietz said. “You know, we can make up learning, that’s been missed, but we can’t bring back a life that is lost. So that’s something that has to be strongly considered.”

“I don’t think it is a fair statement that teachers haven’t been asked about ideas for the next school year,” said superintendent Craig Gerlach. “We know this is a heavy lift and will require all to bring their best work to the table. Teachers have been involved in multiple collaborative discussions beginning in June. The work thus far has been systematic, intentional, and deliberate. We know there are concerns, we have and will continue to respond to the concerns of staff while prioritizing the educational and social-emotional needs of our students.”

In regards to teachers who have concerns about physically coming to school, Gerlach said, “Staff have been asked, beginning in June, to inform the District of intent not to return due to a personal or family health situation. Accommodations have been made where we have been able to and are required to within ADA, FMLA, and FFCRA regulations. Specific staff members who have voiced concerns have been accommodated with additional PPE or work locations within what is reasonable and doable given the limited resources that schools deal with on a daily basis.”

It “...is good to remember that they have been working really, really hard,” Skarsten said. “Whether we all like the plan or not, I think most people are doing what’s in the best interest of kids.”

Thoughts and concerns

The thoughts and concerns from teachers are numerous and can be internally conflicting as many weigh the risks of health and safety with the need for a well-rounded education and enriching experience for students.

“It’s important we go back,” Skarsten said. “I know, jobs and childcare issues are often solved by the school. Whether that’s our role or not, our society has kind of put it as our, our role.”

“We have kids come to school when they’ve had a fever of 104 or they’ve been coughing all night,” she continued, talking about a typical school year. “Those kids are sent to school, no matter what. I imagine if a child has, you know, maybe been exposed, or is having some symptoms, I’m guessing some of those kids are going to walk through our doors.”

“It’s hard for me and a couple other co workers because we have aging parents, and the idea that you know, that my kids and myself may be cut off from my parents is kind of scary because, you know, I’m walking into this arena with 130 kids plus that I will be teaching who have come in contact with how many other people,” Skarsten went on.

“I think the school is going to do their best in terms of, you know, we’re requiring the masks hand sanitizing, cleaning as best they can, but the reality is this horrible virus is able to morph and change and affect people,” she said.

“A lot of us have survived through cancer other illnesses,” Skarsten explained. “Not that we have, you know, we’re not immunosuppressed or compromised, but, you know, we’re not all 25 in the peak of our health anymore.”

“Another big question was subs,” said Pietz. “We already have a subbing shortage in our district, and a lot of staff are concerned about what’s going to happen with that, how are we going to find subs to cover when staff are sick with the virus, or if staff have to do mandatory quarantine for 14 days because they’ve been exposed to someone with the virus? How is all of that going to work? How are sub plans going to work? Will staff have to always have two weeks of sub plans ready? Will we be able to teach online from home if we’re doing mandatory quarantine and not have to count towards our sick days?”

“What happens if we run out of sick days because of having to do mandatory quarantine,” Pietz continued. “Will they be paid absences? What happens with the teacher, like, Keith or myself where we teach hundreds of students? Are we going to have to quarantine every time one of those kids gets sick, in which case will we ever be in the building?”

Pietz and Olson are music teachers in the district. Pietz teaches K-6 general music at Madison Elementary School and Olson teaches band throughout the secondary schools in the district.

“We’re looking at how can we still teach and meet our music standards, but in a way that’s going to be safe for everyone,” Pietz said. “So, we’re gonna have to be creative this year but that’s what we do, and we’ll find ways to make it work. I think it’s important more now than ever that we have the arts for our kids for that social emotional need that it meets.”

“The kids are going to come back to school with a lot of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety from what’s happened already and what may happen in the next couple months, and the arts, I think, will help provide that outlet for them to express some of that those feelings that they’re going through. So, I really appreciate that our district is finding ways to make it work,” she continued.

Skarsten is a mother of two Stevens Point district students.

“I’m not really worried about their health,” she said. “I’m more worried about... their social emotional health in terms of hanging out with friends and my son’s in a cohort that a lot of his friends are not in, and he’s like, ‘Ah,’ you know, that kind of thing.”

“But we do have kids in our building have a lot of health issues and, you know, kids are coming from everywhere,” she said. “You know, we, they go for dinner they go to, you know, camping and they’re in a large group with people you know there’s just a lot of potential exposure.”

“Staff are feeling really anxious and stressed already, where there’s just a lot of feelings that are happening right now,” Pietz said. “There’s that uncertainty of ‘what’s my curriculum going to look like in the fall? Am I going to be able to do what I normally do, or is it going to be something completely different? And when am I going to have the time to make that happen?”

“A lot of teachers are putting in work time already,” Pietz continued. “We’ve been working all summer to kind of have plan A, B, C, D, and how many others we need in place so that we don’t come back, completely unprepared. And I think there’s that fear of, you know, am I going to catch the virus? Am I going to spread it to my family? Could I spread it to my students or my co-workers, or what’s going to happen with that?”

“We’re going to have students with a lot of different emotions that they’re going through also schools not going to look the way that it has in the past there isn’t going to be that normal that they’re expecting when they come back in the fall,” Pietz added. “Or they won’t be able to interact with their peers or their teachers in the same way that they usually could. And so how do we help kids to navigate that?”

In regards to the learning curve with the new semester, Skarsten said unlike in spring where they already had relationships with students, these students will be completely new to the grade, and in her case, completely new to her building.

“I’ve never met those kids. So, for them to believe me when I say, ‘I’m not gonna fail you for this but we’re trying it let’s see what happens,’ they don’t know me yet they don’t know how to trust me,” she said. “Where in the spring like, ‘OK guys, I’m trying this, it might fail. We’ll make it right.’ And we try it and it failed and they would know, we would make it right.”

She said it will be strange and an adjustment to teach in a mask and not to be able to show facial expressions or see her students’ faces. She added it will take more effort to learn names when all you can see is their eyes as well.

“We’re going to try really hard to do what’s best for the kids,” Skarsten urged. “It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be different, and we’re losing patience with each other really quickly during this pandemic: wearing masks/not wearing masks, whatever. Just, we need to be patient. You know when a parent’s contacting me and they’re concerned about something, I need to remind myself why they’re concerned or if a parent has a concern about why I’m teaching something the way I am or why I haven’t graded something, I need them to also remember, I’m probably doing my best that I can. And just, we’re all walking in different shoes. We don’t know each other’s experiences. We don’t know why one family’s opted to stay online and one has opted not to, just to be kind and courteous and respectful of each other. There isn’t a playbook for this. There’s no, you know, Dr. Spock manual on how to raise your child during a pandemic. And I think we’re all trying our best.”

“This isn’t just a Stevens Point problem, or it Wisconsin problem, or even a United States problem, you know, this is happening everywhere and so everyone’s going to have these academic gaps that need to be filled in,” Pietz said. “That’s OK and we’ll just, you know, we’re teachers, we find ways to, to make things work and to help meet these students’ needs. And so it may be that our curriculum adjusts a little bit to try to fill in some of those gaps over the next few years. But I think that those inconveniences or those changes are worth it to make sure that we’re keeping staff and students safe throughout all of this.”

“It’ll be a journey and I don’t think we can look very far into the future,” Skarsten stated. “You know, planning wise, if they’re going to, you know, we’re going to wind up more online than in person, that can happen, you know, at a drop of a hat so being prepared for all those things at least the back of my head of all these scenarios I could pan out. We love teaching. I love teaching. I love my students. I want to see their faces. I want us to get back to normal, but we’re just not there yet.”

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