UPDATED: More Worcester County School Concerns Aired

NEWARK – Local teachers are struggling as internet problems have exacerbated the already difficult task of moving forward with in-person and virtual learning simultaneously as the pandemic continues.

Though Worcester County Public Schools (WCPS) officials say connectivity issues have improved, they don’t dispute the fact that teachers are dealing with a lot.

“Our teachers are our frontline heroes through all this,” said Annette Wallace, the school system’s chief academic officer for grades 9-12.

While the school year started virtually, with distance learning for all students, a first wave of students returned to school buildings Sept. 28. Additional students have been brought in every two weeks since and roughly 56% of the school system’s students have now returned to in-person learning. Any additional students who want to return to in-person learning are expected to return to school this month, and parents are now being asked to submit an opt-out form if they want to keep their kids in distance learning for the rest of the school year.

“I think parents are pleased with how we’ve opened schools,” said Dee Shorts, chief academic officer for prekindergarten through eighth grade.

Teachers, however, are feeling the strain. A longtime Stephen Decatur Middle School teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because school staff have been warned about negative publicity, said she’s got numerous concerns with the way schools have reopened and is really worried about when the next wave of students returns in mid-November. Because the school isn’t large enough — more than two dozen students last year had to share lockers because there weren’t enough for everyone — students who can’t fit in the classroom and social distance will be sent to the cafeteria. In that “overflow” area, those kids will use Zoom to connect with their class, just as they would be doing at home. With the cafeteria in use, students will have to eat lunch — meaning they’ll have their masks off — in the classroom.

“It takes every teacher’s personal safe space away from them,” said the teacher, who pointed out that numerous staff members in the school have individual health concerns.

She says she’s also frustrated because teachers have had more and more responsibility in this unprecedented situation placed on their shoulders. The last eight days of district-wide internet outages — which have forced some teachers to use their cell phones as hotpots — are making matters even more difficult.

“None of what our job entails right now can be done in a building without internet,” the teacher said.

Another county teacher went to the website Reddit to anonymously share similar concerns. The post brings up the overflow issue and the lack of adequate space for physical distancing at some schools. It also says teachers are being asked to come up with three lesson plans — one for face-to-face students, one for distance learners and one for overflow students.

Shorts, however, said in an interview last week that there were not multiple lesson plans.

“We don’t have two sets of plans,” she said. “That is a piece that makes the distance learning experience very related and close to face-to-face learning.”

The Reddit post also questions the support teachers are getting from school system administration.

“This entire push to reopen schools are making us teachers into unwilling guinea pigs so that the superintendent can look good for the state,” the post reads. “But they are only able to look good by hiding information from parents, teachers and students.”

When contacted, the person who wrote the post said they simply wanted to share information.

“A huge issue that I see with WCPS at the moment is the lack of transparency when it comes to the amount of cases or transmissions in the school,” the teacher said. “Parents cannot make an informed decision about the safety of sending their children to school when the county is deliberately being opaque about the status of the schools. I see very little reason why teachers have yet to be tested at all since our return to the school buildings. Parents are sending students to school with COVID-like symptoms and checking them in online without indicating that they are sick. Students and staff are being removed from the school, without other teachers being notified. Teachers need to seek out cleaning supplies and aren’t being provided with the supplies necessary to clean their classrooms.”

Wallace last week, however, said that the school system was providing all of the COVID-19 information it was required to with its Responsible Return plan.

“We follow every protocol put in place in our plan, which was approved by the health department. We have made every contact we should be making,” Wallace said, adding that it was the health department that notified the school system when there was a positive COVID-19 test. “The health department is in the driver’s seat here.”

While the Reddit post says teachers are being pushed to the limit, Wallace acknowledged that educators were under a lot of stress and said the school system was doing what it could to help. She said that lately, the school system was offering mental health resources and stressing the importance of self-care.

“We’re trying to find creative ways to pay it forward to them,” she said. “One of the things we’d appreciate is grace for our teachers and our school system. None of us have dealt with this before.”

Nevertheless, teachers feel their concerns are falling on deaf ears.

“Teachers have, and always will be, willing to go the extra mile to provide a safe and loving educational environment for students,” the author of the Reddit post said. “However, we don’t have the necessary support to provide that at this time. The board of education is instead pulling educational assistants to cover classes, adding more work for us by requiring us to split our classrooms between Zoom students, classroom students and overflow students. The central office has had months to come up with any plans at all, and they are seemingly winging it as they go. What we want is the support necessary to provide these students a meaningful and equitable education. No teacher wants to teach online, but the hybrid model is a failure, and it is time for [Superintendent of Schools] Lou Taylor to admit that. If they intend to bring back the amount of students that they say, they need to shift students to other schools (such as sending some to Worcester Technical High School), hire more personnel or change the school schedules to provide teachers with the planning time necessary to juggle the tasks they’ve shifted to us.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.