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Faculty balks at 5-day plan

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/14/2020 9:40:30 PM
Modified: 8/14/2020 9:40:17 PM

HANOVER — The SAU 70 Dresden School District wants to reopen schools for on-campus classes on Sept. 8.

And many of the school system’s teachers and district’s parents aren’t thrilled with the idea.

The SAU 70 board and district officials encountered fierce resistance this week after they unveiled a plan to restore in-person learning at the district’s four schools, with only limited options for online instruction.

The plan, which was the subject of an at times heated four-hour Zoom teleconference among board members, teachers and parents on Tuesday, drew sharp criticism and pointed questions from participants who expressed concern over in-person classes at Hanover High School; Frances C. Richmond Middle School and Bernice C. Ray Elementary, both in Hanover; and Marion Cross Elementary in Norwich.

No sooner had the in-person plan, known as Phase 3, been disclosed by the board than teachers union Hanover Education Association sent a letter to the board signed by 72 teachers — representing 34% of the district’s professional staff — calling for schools to reopen at the online-only Phase 1 level, NEA president Liz Murray said in the Zoom call.

“The in-person version of school-for-all that is physically safe offers dubious physical safety at the cost of academic quality and student and staff social emotional well-being ... (while Phase 3) demonstrated an incomplete understanding of the learning and working conditions of a school building,” the Hanover Education Association said in its letter to the 12-member SAU 70 board.

In voting to approve the fully on-campus Phase 3 plan, the board also rejected Phase 2, which called for a hybrid remote and in-person model that is being adopted by several districts in the Upper Valley, including Lebanon.

Some parents in the city are petitioning the Lebanon School Board to go fully in-person — the model that Dresden adopted — arguing that it’s safe to go back to school five days a week with precautions in place, and that the in-person/remote hybrid option will harm students’ education and hamper parents’ ability to work.

The petition had garnered 345 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

Dresden’s on-campus plan calls for a five-day student week, in-person classroom instruction, physical distancing of at least 3 feet, requirement to wear face masks or shields, prohibition against students congregating in groups, symptom screening, hygiene and disinfection protocols and a “remote option available to students on a case by case basis.”

(Hanover High School would be allowed to schedule one day a week of remote instruction.)

SAU 70 Superintendent Jay Badams sought to frame the decision to resume on-campus learning as beneficial students and viable because of the low detection of COVID-19 in the county.

During the Zoom teleconference call on Tuesday, Badams said that “right now, based on the best advice we have from our medical professionals, ... there is a very, very small presence of (the coronavirus) in our region. And if that’s the measure of when we are going to change approaches to education, that there is no better time to actually have our kids attend school face to face than when they will have been in a remote situation or not in school at all for nearly six months.

“When we are thinking what is in the best interest of our kids — whether it’s educational, social, emotional, psychological, mental health — everything that we’ve been told and everything that we’ve been reading is that having kids in person is in their best interest,” Badams said.

He noted the downside of online-only schooling, with worse educational outcomes for many students.

“Many of us are seeing (students) who did not thrive during remote learning. ... We’ve been told by medical professionals that they are seeing the adverse effects of students being left at home, in some cases fending for themselves educationally,” he said.

Nonetheless, the school board’s decision elicited sharp rebukes by teachers on the call. One teacher scolded the board for not taking into account the reality of high school students.

“I’m kind of shocked that you guys are asking all these questions of the doctors but haven’t turned to us teachers to ask how we feel,” said Marie D’Amato, an English teacher at Hanover High. “We don’t feel comfortable with the plan the way it is. We don’t trust the people that are making decisions for us.”

She asked the board to put themselves in her position as a teacher of 18-20 students in each class.

She couldn’t envision 3 feet of separation in her classroom, and she worried about students passing in close quarters in hallways, socializing and eating in class.

“I don’t understand how any of you would feel safe if you were in a room with 20 teenagers,” she said.

Sally Hair, a physics teacher Hanover High School, said in an interview Friday that she has “reservations about the ability to successfully implement all aspects of the plan given the limitations on staffing and the numbers of students in the building.”

In an emailed statement, Kelly McConnell, chair of the Dresden School Board, and Neil Odell, vice chair of the Norwich School Board, said the board is “committed to offering a safe learning environment for our students and a safe working environment for our teachers and staff that return for in-person work.”

They noted that heads of the respective teachers’ unions have been involved with the task force set up to develop reopening plans.

“Our school administration is working incredibly hard to accommodate all of our employees’ concerns and will continue to work with individual employees and with union leadership as we approach the start of school. We look forward to a collaborative start to the school year,” McConnell and Odell said.

On Wednesday, the day after the Zoom teleconference call, Badams and the chairs of the district’s four separate school boards addressed a letter to the “SAU 70 School Community” in which they struck a somewhat chastened tone by saying the 30-member task force formed to develop the reopening plan “has been surprised this week by the teachers’ genuine sense” that they were excluded from the planning process.

Although Badams and the board chairs contend they made efforts to involve the teachers, they nonetheless said they recognized “not all felt their voice has been heard” and vowed that “teachers will have a prominent role in further planning.”

Hanover High School, from which several teachers spoke, has approximately 750 students.

Hair cited the “nature of adolescents” who are not likely to strictly abide by social distancing and mask-wearing rules. She also pointed to Hanover High’s open-campus policy as problematic concerns over reopening the school.

“Many teachers are fearful of coming back and many teachers are eager to return. There’s a big range,” said Hair, who adsed that she intends to return to the classroom herself. “I’m concerned with the level of detail they provided in the plan.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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