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Back to School Staff Q&A addresses concerns

By Staff | Jul 27, 2020

Although some of the many questions teachers have regarding reopening were addressed during a live Facebook webinar last week, many others are still being hammered out during bargaining meetings with SPALC and TALC.

District spokesperson Rob Spicker led the one hour webinar, with many questions coming from more than 300 emails sent to the district. The district will continue to release more information as more decisions are made on those topics, he said.

* Staffing

The first theme of the webinar revolved around staffing with the first question of “What happens if I’m afraid of coming to the school building?” being addressed.

Superintendent Dr. Greg Adkins said he believes safety is something that weighs on everybody’s minds as COVID-19 has spread fear around the entire world.

“Coming back to work and reopening schools is something that is a large concern to all of us, but I do think this is why our team has worked very, very hard to make our reopening as safe as we can possibly make it for our students and our staff,” he said. “Just yesterday we went another step and mandated masks. And the reason we mandated masks again was taking the extra step to make our students and staff safer.”

Chief Human Resource Officer Dr. Angela Pruitt said she wants to make sure staff understands that the executive order that the district was first working under in March and April with the “type of people that shall stay home,” expired on June 30.

“The options that were available back when we first entered into the pandemic and quarantine are not the same options that are going to be available today,” Pruitt said. “We are working with our unions to come together and provide you with what the processes are going to be when it comes time to basically commit to your decision about coming back to work and the way in which you are going to come back to work.”

She went on to say that the district wants to make sure all of the teachers’ questions are being asked and that issued are bargained with the unions. From there, they will communicate to staff as to what choices they have and what, in particular, they have to do for that choice.

“Then you will have time to make your final decision about returning back to work,” Pruitt said.

Another question addressed those teachers who have a special condition, such elderly family members at home.

When options are provided to staff, it will be very clear to them on how they are going to go about making those choices, Pruitt said, adding that if there is any kind of documentation needed, the district will advise with enough time for them to make that decision.

Spicker said another question revolved around what the process would be for those who are teaching Lee Home Connect and Lee Virtual School if more teachers are needed.

Pruitt said that is probably the biggest question every one is receiving across the district.

“This is a condition and a process that we are going to work very closely with TALC in reference to how teachers are going to be assigned to Lee Home Connect and the Lee Virtual School,” she said. “The first step in the process will be determining what our families have chosen. Then we are going to look at that information by school, which will also include the Lee Virtual School. Then we are going to look at how many chose Lee Home Connect and face-to-face and evaluate that and match it up against what staff has said what there preferences are and need to be because of medical or other reasons. From there, we are going to outline a process to you about how we are going to figure out the folks who are going to work at the Lee Virtual School and which folks are going to be assigned to Lee Home Connect.”

Although it is a bargaining issue, the hope is that the district can do this in a way where they can maintain, or have first rights to their position, at the school they had prior to the pandemic, Pruitt said.

The bargaining with TALC has been scheduled for this week with a goal to have all the issues resolved by the end of the week.

Spicker said another common question was regarding what duties would staff have to take on when schools reopen.

Pruitt said this, too, is a bargaining issue. What she can say is when you think of everything that has to be done to meet the safety of students and staff, it is likely going to take a team effort.

“We are going to have to work through what that really means and what those duties might be,” Pruitt said.

Another question, Spicker said, is will a teacher still have to teach if they are in quarantine.

Pruitt explained that there will be different scenarios for quarantining, such as quarantine from a school site for an employee or student testing positive, or someone going to a picnic where someone tested positive. They are in the process of coming up with those scenarios and what needs to be done.

“As we bargain next week we are going to fine tune this and then this, so that everyone will be clear on what our intent will be,” Pruitt said.

Teachers also questioned whether they will be expected to teach face-to face and Lee Home Connect at the same time.

Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jeff Spiro said ideally, their goal is for the assistant principals of curriculum to develop master schedules where teachers have pure classes of just Lee Home Connect students.

“There may be situations where the schedules just don’t allow that type of flexibility,” Spiro said. “For the vast majority, we are trying to have those classes be pure.”

Spicker said another question came from working parents and Lee Home Connect.

“If I chose Lee Home Connect as the model for my children, what happens if I want to teach remotely and can I delay following the choice in which I was assigned.”

Pruitt said a lot of it will depend on the choices parents make and the capacity in which they need to fit the request of parents. One of the things that is no longer really an option is the Emergency Family Medical Leave Act. It was available to families who had young children to care for at home, which was only if the day care and schools were closed.

“Since our schools will be open that Emergency Family Medical Act isn’t going to be available and relative to this question you are asking right here,” Pruitt said.

* Calendar

There were also a few calendar questions that came forward such as why the district cannot just begin the year with virtual learning.

Adkins said the first and foremost reason is the education commissioner’s emergency order that was given on July 6 required the district to provide a brick-and-mortar face-to-face option to the families who want to send their children to school.

“For most of our children, face-to-face instruction is by far the best way for them to receive instruction,” Adkins said of high quality teachers providing educational instruction.

With the social distance environment that we are all in, and being a part from one another, Adkins said, has been very difficult for many children and families.

“Having their social and emotional needs met by being able to come to school and interact with their peers, interact with counselors and teachers, I think many of our students need that so getting back to school allows that to happen,” Adkins said.

There also are health considerations, such as the students nutritional needs being met.

Teachers also asked what happens with summer since the start of school has been pushed back to Aug. 31.

“I think what we have done here is delay the start of school for as long as we can to give us the time we need to put systems into place and make sure our schools are as safe as possible,” Adkins said, adding that the district also is providing additional training for staff so they are well prepared to implement the strategies and safety precautions.

Whenever the start of the school is delayed deep into August, it will push into the next summer, Adkins said. Ultimately, it is up to the calendar committee to look at with a recommendation coming at a later point.

“If I was an employee out there that was not on the 255-day contract that was planning for what my summer looks like next year, I would be planning for somewhat of a shortened summer than what we are going to see this year obviously,” he said.

* Compensation

Spicker said a lot of questions came in about pay and sick time, such as does sick time have to be used if they are quarantined, or if they have to be quarantined because of a family member.

Pruitt said they are all issues that are covered by the collective bargaining agreements. These are scenario based answers that they will work on with the unions.

Spicker said another question related to if an employee gets sick with COVID while on the job are expenses covered by workers comp.

Pruitt said at this time the guidance they are receiving from legal folks in the arena of workers compensation is there is a very high burden on the employee to basically prove that they would contract it at the work location. In other words, the employee could have contracted it at the store, or somewhere else.

“Right now workers compensation is probably not going to be a factor in all of this on how the finance are going to be handled,” Pruitt said, adding that information comes out daily, but right now she does not see that as an option.

As far as hazard pay, the unions have asked about the topic and she was sure there would be a discussion point.

With that start of the calendar year being delayed, Spicker said a question was how does it affect benefits and how will they be paid . . . at the beginning of the year and the extra weeks added to the end of the year.

Chief Finance Officer Dr. Ami Desamours said the pay schedules are being finalized and released shortly.

“We have every intention to adhere to the original pay schedules with no interruption in pay dates and benefits,” she said. “As far as the additional days at the end of the year, each employee is scheduled to work a certain number of days in the year. The new work schedule will contain the same number of days for each employee. So you will be paid for all the days that you work.”

* Health and Safety

Health and safety was another hot question, especially with the new mandate of masks being required in the school house and district office.

Adkins said they have to learn to be flexible as an organization and community and what the best practices are to combat COVID-19. He said when the Pandemic Task Force convened the incidences of the virus was substantially lower than it is today.

“I think this is going to go a far way in making our students and staff more safe. We consulted local experts in the medical field who have basically really helped us in the science behind this decision,” Adkins said. “Staff and students both will be mandated, not only in our school buildings, but down here in the district office.”

Adkins said when they cannot social distance, masks will also be worn during P.E.

The district has put together a Reopening Tool Kit, which will be available on the district’s website to help teachers familiarize themselves with the safety protocols.

This year the calendar committee took days to put in pre-school dates, so they can familiarize and receive training on the safety protocols to ensure it will be successfully implemented in schools.

Spicker said another question was in regards to there being enough personal protection equipment for staff.

Desamours said safety is paramount in the return to school plan. They have face shields and masks for teachers, gowns, wipes, hand sanitizer, and disposable masks for students that will be provided weekly to each location.

“In addition, social distance signs and counter shields for select areas will also be provided to locations as needed,” Desamours said. “We are handling that process centrally, so that we can get our hands on the large supply that we need centrally and most efficiently at the best cost.”

She went on to say that they are working with many vendors and suppliers to help ensure their supplies stay steady and adequate for what the district needs.

There also will be hand sanitizing dispensers at each location, with weekly refill distribution being sent to those locations.

Social distancing, and how will it be enforced in the school environment was also a question Spicker shared.

Spiro said children will be children and there will be times they will want to break that six-foot “barrier.” Their job as educators is to remind students and reteach those procedures that are expected. There will be no disciplinary consequences tied to it, but reteach health protocols.

Will teachers, staff and students able to get rapid testing done due to exposure or symptoms, was another question from teachers.

Coordinator to Health Services Beth Wipf said rapid testing is only available in hospitals and clinics and not available to the public on a wide spread basis.

Another question revolved around a student returning to school if they have a fever.

Wipf said they will evaluate why the child has a fever and what the illness is because it will not all be COVID related.They do have a district illness policy that they have updated in regards to how they respond to fever and symptoms in the school setting.

* Cleaning protocols

The cleaning protocols were also addressed, such as the daily preventative cleaning that will take place on touch surfaces and additional cleaning when groups of students changes at the secondary level. Additional, more aggressive cleaning protocols when a positive COVID-19 case is identified, was also discussed.

Chief Operations Officer Dr. Ken Savage said the aggressive cleaning protocol will take place with fogging when a special crew with special training uses a aerosol fog that kills the virus in under four minutes.

Another cleaning protocol takes place through air filtration, increasing the level of fresh air that is being introduced into the school building, which increases the probability that students stay safe.