REGIONAL-Teachers from St. Louis County School District had a strong message for school board members and Superintendent Reggie Engebritson on Tuesday: teaching in-person classes and distance …
REGIONAL-Teachers from St. Louis County School District had a strong message for school board members and Superintendent Reggie Engebritson on Tuesday: teaching in-person classes and distance learning students at the same time is taking excessive time, creating stress, and threatening the quality of instruction.
A board committee of chairman Dan Manick and members Christine Taylor and Chris Koivisto, along with Engebritson, was joined in a Zoom meeting on Tuesday by about 20 additional people who listened as EducationMinnesota Local 1046 President Tim Herring, an industrial education teacher at Cherry, took the lead in describing challenges and posing questions about the start of the new school year.
Engebritson opened the meeting by reading a lengthy list of steps the district had taken to adapt to schooling under the state’s COVID-19 mandates
For a district now dependent in part on Zoom for instruction, Herring’s opening remarks were delayed by an ironic technical glitch that distorted and muffled his voice. After several attempts to identify and fix the problem, Herring instead had to move to a different computer in the district’s board room.
Herring addressed frustrations with the in-person learning model adopted by the district that, by state mandate, also allows students to participate via distance learning through live hookups to classes and recorded classes and lessons online.
“Number one is teachers pulling double duty,” Herring said. “Right now, we’re teaching in-class students and the distance learners in our classrooms. What are your expectations of us as classroom teachers trying to work with both?”
Engebritson reinforced the district’s plan to have students participate live via Zoom and also to have teachers upload recordings to Google Classroom. She also noted that assistance was available to help with technology, and distance learning coordinators were in place to take some of the burden off of teachers.
“The hope of the plan for distance learning coordinators is to make sure that we don’t have teachers in the evening double checking or following up on students,” Engebritson said. “We don’t want that to be happening.”
Herring’s reply was blunt.
“I’m just letting you know that’s not working – at all,” he said. Turning to another teacher, he said, “Uploading to Google Classroom takes, what do you say, hours?”
While the teacher could not be identified from the Zoom feed, her comments were telling.
“So, Friday I tried recording a live lesson with the intent of posting it, so it was Friday I recorded from 11 to 11:30. I did an upload to the cloud on Zoom. I didn’t get an email until Saturday at 8:30 p.m. saying it was ready. So, a day and a half it took Zoom to process that and get it ready. That’s a big concern. Even if the lesson lends itself to recording and uploading, the technology isn’t there yet.”
Herring returned to the theme of doing “double duty.”
“One of the major hang-ups on our end is we were told in July we won’t be having teachers do double duty. We don’t want that to happen. August, it was ‘we’re looking at it,’ and now here we are pulling double duty.”
Engebritson said the term double duty was subjective.
“When we said double duty it was that you’re not teaching face-to-face all day and then going home and having to teach kids who are distance learning,” she said.
“But the problem with that whole situation is there are extra hours involved with prepping for distance learning. There’s nothing right now that is helping teachers prep for those lessons,” said Herring. “There are a whole bunch of other aspects that are coming into this. And teachers are buried right now. We are flat out buried. I’ve heard a teacher staying up ‘til midnight planning lessons for the next day, and the problem is they’re not great lessons. We’re just making it through.
Tammy Bjorge, a South Ridge math teacher, amplified those concerns.
”We’re very swamped with what we’re doing because it feels like we’re doing double duty every hour,” she said. “The online aspects and being an effective classroom teacher, they’re different. They’re different beasts. And every day, I feel like I’m failing somebody. I’m either failing the kids that are at home distance learning, and it might be only two or four kids per hour. And then if I’m paying attention to them, I feel like I’m failing the kids that are in the classroom with me. But just the amount of time it takes to do everything, and to learn how to do everything well, is really where our struggle is right now.”
Board member Christine Taylor asked Bjorge if she had any suggestions for fixing the situation.
“Other than adding five more hours in my day, I really don’t know,” Bjorge said. “I wish I had suggestions, but at this point I feel like it’s just time. I never have enough time to do things the way I want to.”
Engebritson asked if the union would be willing to consider an alternative approach. The district could evaluate the number of distance learners in each grade level and possibly assign one teacher in the district to be the distance learning teacher for a particular grade. Engebritson provided an example of a third-grade teacher at one school who might switch from in-class instruction to exclusively doing distance learning for third graders throughout the district.
Herring agreed it would be an option the union would be willing to explore.
Herring also asked if distance learning coordinators have specific job descriptions, noting that they are not staffed or used the same at all schools.
Engebritson acknowledged that there were differences among schools, and that clarifying the roles of distance learning coordinators would be a topic of discussion at an administrative meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
Teachers also expressed concern about how classroom recordings might be used outside of teaching, with Herring noting that there isn’t any language in the negotiated contract covering the use of the recordings, which could be used, he suggested, for performance evaluation.
EducationMinnesota Uniserv Director Evan Sandstede added that this issue has been raised in other districts and that he could provide the district with draft language for the contract that would address this concern.
A final issue Herring raised was an apparent lack of classroom cleaning supplies and miscommunication among building staff when trying to get them.
“At the start of this whole thing, we were told we are going to have wipes in the classrooms so if teachers wanted to clean they can. We haven’t seen any wipes, our cleaning supplies have been touch-and-go based on buildings, there’s no continuity,” Herring said. “We had a meeting last Thursday and they said okay, ask the janitors. I got an email yesterday from the principal saying don’t ask the janitor. We’re just not getting any [cleaning supplies] in the classroom and that’s a problem.”
Engebritson said the district provided wipes at the beginning of the year, but that another order to be delivered is backlogged until the end of September. She said there shouldn’t be a shortage of spray bottles because the district “bought a boatload of them.” She noted that the cleaner and wipes the district is using are safe to use without personal protective equipment.
Still, the shortage of supplies is apparent from a survey distributed to teachers last week. Out of 41 responses, only seven teachers mentioned that cleaning solution is available in their classrooms, and only three mentioned that hand sanitizer was available in the classroom.
Engebritson said the district decided to go with larger hand sanitizing stations.
“Rather than having small bottles of hand sanitizer, you’ve got the stations through the building plus the bathrooms to wash hands,” she said.
Manick expressed frustration that the cleaning supplies issue had to be elevated to the board.
“Not that the school board doesn’t like hearing issues like that, but I’m just a little disappointed that it can’t be taken care of in each school,” he said. “If teachers are requesting something, and they’re bouncing around between a janitor or a principal telling them something, and once again, I’ll listen to any complaints we have, but how can we not just be addressing this at the school?”
Manick also noted that the district didn’t choose to do simultaneous in-person and distance learning, rather that it was an option dictated by the state. He voiced his support for considering the option of assigning grade-level distance learning teachers.
“This probably would have been something that should have been thought out a little more clearly to begin with,” he said. “I thought it was just silly myself that really, the in-person also includes distance learning? Logistically and technologically it just seemed like a nightmare before it even started, but this is the hand we were dealt.”
Taylor encouraged district officials to look at alternative ways of giving more staff input into possible solutions for the challenges they face. She observed that funneling all the teachers’ concerns through a union representative is likely to leave some good ideas overlooked.
“Whatever you can do, Reggie, and the union can do and the teachers can do to open the lines of dialogue and make sure that whatever ideas are out there are getting communicated, and not just the problems.”
Sandstede cautioned that the union has to be involved in any issues that would touch on things covered in the negotiated agreement, but then offered that there are numerous models of labor-management systems the district could look at that would provide expanded input and communication.
Koivisto reinforced the need for better communication in finding solutions.
“I think we really need to work together, because they’re all new problems that teachers are having,” he said. “And we all have, we have to put all of our heads together and try to share some of the best things that we can.”
Engebritson closed the meeting on a positive note.
“I am appreciative of everyone’s time and suggestions and I’ll get started on this tomorrow and will include more people in our meetings,” she said.
Following the meeting, the Timberjay contacted Herring via email for his reaction to the meeting.
“We are and have been ready to work with the district to find solutions to the issues that we brought forth,” he responded. “We have previously shared these concerns and are hopeful we are being heard. As teachers we are trying to provide an equitable education for all students because they deserve the best education possible regardless of where they are learning. Teachers are trying their best, and there are not enough hours in the day to teach both in-class students and distance learners at the same time. We are hoping to have more input into a sustainable plan that will provide quality education for all students.”