Teachers feel ignored in school reopening decision-making

K-12 teachers and Michigan Caucus Of Rank-and-File Educators members rallying at the Capitol calling on Gov. Whitmer to suspend in-person instruction, Aug. 6, 2020 | Allison Donahue

Amy Watkins, a high school English teacher at Van Buren Public Schools in Belleville, stood on the Capitol steps Thursday with a list of reasons why schools shouldn’t reopen for in-person learning this fall. 

The points she made weren’t new to the other teachers in the crowd at the Michigan Caucus Of Rank-and-File Educators (MI CORE) protest, but they were issues that weren’t being discussed during Senate and House education committee meetings. 

“As educators, I guess it’s falling on us to educate people who aren’t teachers about the reality of what education is,” Watkins said. “The arguments people are launching to justify sending us back to the classroom, despite all the risks, just don’t hold water.”

The Republicans’ “Return to Learn” legislation, which was approved by the House July 22, would require in-person learning for all students in kindergarten through the fifth grade and sets regulations around e-learning days, virtual courses, attendance, standardized testing and school funding.

Support for the four-bill education package, which was referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness, is largely split along party lines, and one of the arguments against the bills is about the lack of teacher input while creating the legislation.

It is unlikely Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will sign the bill package introduced by House Republicans if it is approved by the Senate.

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Whitmer released her own “Return to School Roadmap” in June, which included a range of reopening options, from completely virtual to all in-person instruction, but is leaving much of the decision-making up to local districts.

There have been a number of House, Senate and joint committee meetings since the bills were introduced on June 24, but it wasn’t until July 28 that any teachers were invited to testify in front of lawmakers about the bills. 

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However, the issues raised by teachers on a daily basis, mostly to their local administrations, have very little to do with the issues addressed through the legislation.

Kyle Zawacki, a high school teacher at Huron Schools in Wayne County, says the way legislators have excluded teachers from the conversations “is a joke.”

“The fact that teachers are routinely being kept on the sidelines about our own profession is hurtful on a personal level,” Zawacki said. “It’s every negative emotion you can think of. It’s angering, frustrating, depressing, demoralizing, sad, devaluing, it’s everything. It hurts because we are the ones who can stick up for kids … Conversations where this can go negative in the eyes of how people view teachers is unfair because we’re advocating for the health and safety of our students first and foremost.”

Because teachers have been left out of the state level conversations about whether or not schools should reopen in the fall, it’s creating tension between teachers and their administrators. 

Zawacki is a high school building representative for the local school union, the Huron Education Association, which has put him in the position of communicating concerns of teachers back to the superintendent and school administration. 

This has created a point of contention between him and his school leaders, who are working on their own hybrid “return to learn” plan. 

“What is extremely frustrating in that return to learn plan for the in-person option is that specific details of what the class, or what the day will look like for students, has not been explained or described to parents to help them make their decision,” Zawacki said. 

The district is going to implement a block schedule where students will be in one classroom for two and a half hours. He said he hasn’t had any instruction on how to keep students motivated for that long. He is concerned about lunch periods and has no definite instruction on where students will eat. He isn’t confident in the HVAC system of the old high school building and isn’t sure that the airflow will be sufficient during an airborne pandemic.

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Jason Rich, a high school teacher at Lincoln Park High School, says he is concerned about not only the spread of the disease, but also how masks are going to affect instruction with his students. 

“I think that districts believe that in-person with masks will be the same as in-person was before, but it isn’t. It is hard to read students’ faces, hard to understand who is speaking and often hard to tell what was said, and that goes in both directions,” Rich said. 

“No one is talking about what happens when one, two or ten students test positive. Do you quarantine their classes? What about the other classes their teachers have? What is the number that has you shutdown a school?”

This is just a shortlist of the concerns teachers have expressed, and not many of these concerns have answers from the state or the local level. 

“I’m very angry that I don’t have those answers. Angry doesn’t even contain it,” Zawacki said. “I’m infuriated that I don’t know what my classroom will look like, and parents are being asked to make a decision on what kind of instruction their child should get when they have no idea what that instruction will look like.”

After being left out of committee meeting hearings and discussions with lawmakers, teachers have turned to heavily relying on their district administrators to have the answers and make the decisions. 

Watkins said one of the arguments that she hears is that superintendents shouldn’t be blamed and that the governor should decide whether or not schools will reopen. 

“Absolutely. The president should be a leader. The governor should make these decisions. But because they don’t, that does not excuse our local leaders from their responsibility,” Watkins said. “A tenet of conservatism and the ideal American Dream is this rugged individualism. So under that belief, be an individual and stand up when asked. Make the decision. Make the right decision. And if you don’t, shame on you. And when we die, we will blame you.”

When asked during a “State of Michigan Schools” roundtable hosted by the Tri County Alliance for Public Education about the struggle between teachers and administration, education leaders say that superintendents are doing the best they can with what they have. 

“It’s always difficult if you’re an individual teacher and you’re not involved in specifically an activity that’s going on, you may not know the kinds of things that school districts are doing to address that,” Tri-County Alliance for Public Education Executive Director Robert McCann said. “I can assure you, every single superintendent that I have talked to are very much concerned about the safety of their staff, the anxiety that staff are feeling about going back to school, and they and their school boards are very much attuned to that and are monitoring that very closely. Believe me.”

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Rich said the lack of answers from his local school district is concerning to him as he prepares for the school year. 

“I am scared to go back to school. I think many teachers are,” he said. “I am not hearing answers from any district that make me feel comfortable. I want to take the virtual option for my own kids, but I can’t make that decision yet until my school tells me what I am doing. It is a scary time.”

While many teachers have expressed the same concerns about safety and preparedness as Rich, Watkins and Zawacki, Rich says that speaking up about these issues isn’t always in the teacher’s best interest.

“I think a lot of teachers are scared to say anything and have it held against them,” he said. 

During the protest Thursday, Joe Liebson, a teacher at Birmingham Public Schools said that he wasn’t sure if he was going to participate in the protest because of the tensions he has already created with his district. 

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to get up here and talk today because quite frankly I’ve already pissed off a lot of people, from my district leadership to the school board. A lot of people are pretty pissed off at my advocacy, and only for standing up and telling the truth,” Liebson said.  “I’m a Spanish teacher, and just like in my classroom every year when Columbus Day comes around and I tell the truth about who Cristóbal Colón was, I’m also not gonna sit up here and pretend that this isn’t some sort of injustice that we’re going to be sent back to these classrooms under these horrendous conditions.”

Tessa Shaw, a first year teacher at Lansing Public Schools has had a different experience than many of these other teachers because she said she has felt like the issues raised by teachers have been addressed by the district. 

Lansing Public Schools was the first district in the state to make the announcement that they would have a completely virtual start to their upcoming school year.

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“I would love for my first year to be normal, like what I’ve been dreaming of since I was a little girl, but I’m a firm believer that this is the right decision and until it’s 100% safe for us to be back in person … I am 100% fine with being online,” Shaw said. “I know it’s not ideal, but I feel very thankful to be hired by a district that is taking this head on and really just helping us, supporting us and giving us all the resources.”

Shaw said that because the district made the decision to go online mid-July, it has given teachers the time to familiarize themselves with the online program they will be using and more time for online professional development. 

However, many school districts are not in the same position as Lansing Public Schools and are still locking in the final plans. 

The word “normal” has become a buzzword during this pandemic as schools, businesses and lawmakers work to resume life as it once was before COVID-19, but Zawacki says that this school year is going to be anything but normal, whether it’s in-person or online.

“This will be the most irregular in-person learning, unorthodox, not-best practice supported classroom experience public education has ever seen,” he said. “And I’m not saying that hyperbolically, I’m saying that as a fact.”