Chesapeake teachers group advocates for all-virtual start to school year

The association representing more than 1,000 Chesapeake teachers and school staff said Wednesday that it does not support any plan that calls for in-person instruction when school resumes.

The announcement by the Chesapeake Education Association calls for virtual instruction for all students during the first semester given an increase in numbers of coronavirus cases in the region, including Chesapeake. It comes days before the city school board is set to vote on a plan that would bring at least some students back to the classroom in September. The group said it does not support those plans until various concerns are addressed, including safety and sanitation in school buildings.

The education association is opposed to any version of in-person learning, including an option called the “on-campus continuum.” That includes one model of traditional, five day learning in the classroom. The option is contingent on rates of coronavirus infections — more cases mean students could learn under a blended model of two days in the classroom and three days at home or a temporary online model. Families can also choose a second, all-virtual option.

The statement mirrors concerns some teachers and parents shared with The Virginian-Pilot about the school administration’s plan, saying they worry that without the virus under control a return to school buildings will vastly complicate lesson planning and increase risk of exposure.

“Asking educators to either put their health and lives at risk or to cut their close ties to the community they serve should not be a choice they must make,” the association said in the statement. “Chesapeake Public Schools should begin the academic year with virtual instruction for all students during the first semester.”

On Monday night, the School Board will decide where on the spectrum students who chose the on-campus option will start. A task force that came up with a return-to-school plan will make a recommendation but the board has the last say.

The meeting time was moved to 4 p.m. to accommodate a large number of speakers. It also will be the first meeting since a July 9 article in The Virginian-Pilot about Facebook posts by board member Christie New Craig that contained false information or conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. A Facebook group was created in support of Craig and said t-shirts were being made to be worn at the meeting.

On Monday, the school division extended a window to July 31 for families to choose between the two options, on-campus or an all-online start.

Coronavirus cases are spiking in Hampton Roads, especially among younger age groups, and several other school districts in Virginia have opted to start the school year completely virtually. At least five of the nine Chesapeake board members have said they support or hope for a full five-day return to school.

Administrators have sought to reassure staff and families that they will be putting safety measures in place. Jacqueline Miller, chief student support services officer who co-chairs the school’s return-to-school task force steering committee, said there will be daily temperature checks, mask requirements for staff, middle and high school students while moving around the building and hand sanitizing stations, among others steps.

But some teachers say the overall plan is flawed, and worry that they have not received answers to pressing questions. Chief among their concerns: expecting teachers to prepare what could be four lesson plans: day-to-day, lessons for a school closure, lessons for students who are quarantined, and lessons for the days they are quarantined or sick themselves.

“We are being set up to fail,” said Jennifer Naperala, an Advanced Placement English and composition teacher at Hickory High School.

Naperala wanted to make it clear that she’s willing to do her job. She just wants to do it safely. The best way to do that? Keep everyone home and start the year completely virtual.

For teachers who do work in person in the fall, Naperala worries about them sanitizing their rooms in between classes, tasks that could increase the chance of getting the virus and leave little time to do administrative work or even use the restroom. She questions the reality of the district’s safety measures and how social distancing will be successful.

Moreover, teachers get 10 days of sick leave. How will their pay be affected if they have to quarantine once for two weeks or beyond that?

“It is a task that is impossible to execute,” said Naperala who plans to address the board at Monday’s meeting. “If the School Board would have moved to the all-virtual option, that would give us teachers time to create lesson plans that are meaningful, ongoing, and not interrupted by any illness or quarantine or shutdown.”

At the board’s last meeting July 6, a number of parents spoke out in support of a return to the classroom, saying the online spring semester was a “nightmare,” kids do better in the classroom and need to be around their friends.

But Naperala questioned the return this fall, saying it won’t be like pre-COVID times. Kids won’t be able to be in groups in the classroom due to social distancing and collaborate or goof around. Adult staff members might be hindered to help out a student who’s feeling sick or hurt themselves while playing.

“The classroom situation to me is going to become more artificial and stilted,” she said.

The Virginia Department of Health reported an increase of 60 positive cases in Chesapeake on Wednesday and the city’s seven-day percentage of tests that were positive stood at 13.1%.

Asked about the city’s rates and reopening schools, Dr. Nancy Welch, the city’s health director, wrote in an email that teaching online reduces risks.

“There is no doubt I have health concerns if we start with face-to-face at a time when rates continue to increase,” Welch wrote.

The education association is planning a car rally to have people come out and show support of an all-virtual start to the year. In their statement, they also highlighted four main points that need to be addressed before they could support any in-person learning option.

One asked that the school division increase custodial staffing so teachers wouldn’t be responsible for disinfecting.

Gordon Rago, 757-446-2601, [email protected]


©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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