UPDATED: Pickerington teachers union officials voice concerns about district fulfilling pandemic safety pledges

NATE ELLIS
nellis@thisweeknews.com
ThisWeek group

As Pickerington Schools officials plan to reopen buildings to students under a hybrid model Monday, Aug. 31, the union that represents the district’s teachers and support staff says COVID-19 health-and-safety measures have noy been prioritized.

The Pickerington Education Association -- which represents 685 Pickerington Schools teachers, nurses, guidance counselors, media specialists and special services providers -- says less than a week before the start of school, the district’s reopening model fails to guarantee acceptable social distancing.

PEA President Heather Tinsley also said safety supplies district officials pledged to provide to teachers and staff, such as facial coverings and hand sanitizer and disinfecting spray for classrooms, have not yet been supplied.

“Teachers want students to return to their classrooms with them more than anybody, but safety must be the top priority,” Tinsley said.

“Pickerington’s reopening plans call for in-person classes in the hybrid model at no more than 50% capacity, but the reality is many cohorts are larger than that. In those circumstances, adequate social distancing isn’t possible,” she said.

“While the district promised teachers masks, hand sanitizer and disinfecting spray for their classrooms, those supplies have yet to be delivered to some school buildings and there is no guarantee they will be available before students arrive. This is unacceptable.”

Tinsley raised concerns about the district’s plan to reopen buildings to students for the start of the 2020-21 school year during the public comment portion of the Aug. 24 Pickerington school board meeting.

Currently, the district plans to start the year under a hybrid model that would see teachers, staff and students wearing facial coverings while in buildings.

It also calls for 50% of students to attend in-building classes on a rotating “cohort” schedule.

A cohort is a group of students who will attend in-school classes on specific scheduled days. Students would remain in the same cohort for the duration of the hybrid model implementation.

Students who did not opt to take all of their classes online this year would go to their school buildings twice a week and complete their lessons via online instruction the other three days.

Pickerington Schools Public Relations Director Crystal Davis the district tried to split hybrid enrollment in half between two cohorts, but “in some cases, by grade level and specific class enrollment, that was not possible.”

“Also, we worked hard to balance the sections while keeping siblings in the same cohort,” Davis said. “The Ohio K-12 guidance document recommends that within schools, a 6-foot distance is maintained between individuals wherever possible, and we will follow that guidance to the highest degree possible.”

Still, Tinsley said the PEA is concerned about the “substantial risk of exposure for our members,” including educators who are in “the highest-risk groups for coronavirus complications or are deeply worried about bringing the deadly virus home to elderly parents or medically at-risk family members.”

Davis responded by saying the district initially delayed the start of school from Aug. 24 to Aug. 31 to “prepare for the challenges of the upcoming school year” and has exhausted nearly all of the $705,000 in federal CARES Act funding it was provided to purchase “massive quantities” of coronavirus-mitigation supplies and materials.

“These challenges have included supply-chain issues and interruptions, and the time it takes to receive, properly account for and then deliver these items to our buildings,” she said. “At this point in time, we have delivered much of the supplies and materials to buildings, but many more items are still arriving at the District Office and are being delivered to buildings as fast as possible.”

Thus far, Davis said, the effort has included installing 650 hand-sanitizing dispensers in classrooms and other building areas and providing a total of 1,000 face masks for teachers and staff. Each staff member also has been given at least two reusable face shields, and plexiglass barriers have been installed or are being installed throughout various areas of district buildings, including clinics and offices, she said.

Additionally, Davis said, 56,000 disposable medical masks are being shipped to the district in increments of 8,000 per month, from September through March, high-school science rooms are receiving alcohol wipes to sanitize equipment and goggles.

Davis said additional supplies would be delivered to buildings this week, and the district recently was provided a $546,000 in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds “that will be used throughout the 2020-21 school year to address ongoing COVID-19 issues.”

As for the delivery of education this year, Tinsley said PEA members support the district’s plan for a Virtual Learning Academy program that allows students to opt to take all classes online for the entire school year. However, she said, teachers at all building levels with significant coronavirus health-and-safety concerns were denied the opportunity to teach from home, leaving them with “the tough decision of determining how to keep themselves and their” families safe.

She said “the logistics of the VLA for the teachers who were accepted are unrealistic at best” because they’re being required to teach both in-person and VLA classes during the same period at the high school.

“Many students” have more than one course scheduled during the same virtual period, Tinsley said.

“PEA members are anxious to receive answers from district leaders to adequately ensure the students and staff will not face unacceptable safety risks this fall,” she said.

“Those risks have been further exacerbated by the board approving the administration’s decision to cut the hours of the district’s support and certified staff members, including clinic aides.

“Without the vital services of Pickerington's support and certified staff at their full capacity, teachers will be left without essential supports for their students, classrooms, and school buildings.

“We will not be able to fully and effectively serve our students who are counting on us now more than ever to meet their academic, emotional, and physical health needs.”

Davis countered by saying 25 teachers were recently approved to teach in the VLA because of medical concerns, or to free up additional classroom space to maximize social distancing with the buildings for hybrid staff and students.

Seventy-four full-time VLA teachers will deliver instruction 100% to students that are in the VLA, and there are 10 teachers that will split assignments between VLA and hybrid instruction, Davis said.

She said in grades K-4, only one regular education, or non-special education, teacher that applied to teach in the VLA was denied because of not enough sections being needed at that employee’s grade level. In an email response about the VLA teaching applications she did not provide the number of K-12 teachers who were denied the opportunity to teach in the VLA.

As for teachers who teach both virtually and via the hybrid model, Davis said they won’t teach two courses at once.

“In very rare instances, and through administer-teacher collaboration, a teacher may teach multiple courses because staff worked creatively together to be able to offer a specific course when there weren’t enough students enrolled in it to offer it on its own.

“This effort maximized our course offerings. Due to the nature of the instructional model for high school, teachers are able to provide online instruction to students with flexibility.”

Davis said high school students are able to “work through courses more independently, so the teacher can offer office hours and check-ins that accommodate the teacher and student’s availability.”

Check ThisWeekNews.com/Pickerington for updates on this evolving story.

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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