This letter to the HCPS School Board is written by Venus Freeman, a friend and veteran teacher colleague who, like me, teaches in high school. When I read this letter I felt it not only captured the emotional outpouring of educators I saw online after the special called board meeting of this past Thursday, but also articulated how unconscionably thoughtless and politically driven this “decision” was. Though the board will be meeting to decide our collective fates next Thursday, August 6th, there is an upcoming regularly scheduled board meeting this coming Tuesday, July 28th–please continue to email each of them your concerns and be sure to CC them to BoardPublicComments@sdhc.k12.fl.us so that they will be included as part of the public record.
Dear Members of the Hillsborough County Schools Board,
A story from WTSP on 7/23/202 asserts “Infectious Disease Experts Believe Schools Will Be the Epicenter for the Spread of COVID-19 This Fall.” The title alone tells the tale and explains what teachers have known since we ended the 2019-2020 school year, and what we have been certain of since Florida AND OUR DISTRICT became an epicenter for this disease. We have always understood that we did not have the resources to enact CDC guidelines for social distancing because even with unlimited funding, we do not have the teachers available to teach the increased number of classes that would be necessary to provide that social distancing. And frankly, with infection rates where they are, we should not be bringing students back into school buildings even if we could provide social distancing. I won’t rehearse the numbers for you, but I will remind you that Florida posted a new record for deaths both Thursday and Friday. With the numbers we are currently experiencing, there is simply no way we should be bringing students and adults back into school buildings because it’s not safe for anyone.
Important as it is, the need to implement eLearning for the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year is not the subject of this letter. My subject instead is how upset I am about the decision not to decide on that issue at Thursday’s meeting. The request to wait to make a decision after consulting with experts, and every vote that validated this idea, was completely disingenuous, and every teacher who was sitting on the edge of their seat yesterday waiting for a decision knows it. While COVID-19 is indeed a novel virus and we are still learning about it, everyone knows it is a highly infectious disease. Only someone living under a rock does not know that a classroom, with 30 or more people jammed into a confined space for extended periods of time, is precisely the most dangerous situation for spread of this disease. On our high school campuses, we routinely house more than 2,000 students, so every day potentially constitutes a super spreader event. We all know that there have been infections that occurred on campuses this summer, though the district has been less than transparent about these cases, and summer is the safest time on any campus for the spread of an infectious disease because summer is the time when there are the fewest people on campus. We already know ALL of these things, so there really was no need for experts at Thursday’s meeting, and there’s no reason why said experts could not have been consulted before the meeting or asked to attend if we wanted their comments in person. It’s not like the Board could not have predicted the subject coming up at the meeting.
You likely wonder, though, just why teachers—and I mean just about ALL of us—would be so upset by a simple delay. No big deal, right? WRONG. Firstly, many, many teachers I know have indicated that this has been the most stressful summer they have ever experienced because we have spent the entire time that we were supposed to be getting recharged for a new school year anxiously watching the news, waiting for some clear, detailed, concrete plan from our leaders, only to hear nothing for weeks and weeks and weeks, all while we watch infection rates and death rates climb. We have spent many sleepless nights this summer wondering what, if anything, we can do to protect our families, wondering if now is the time to retire, or what other options are available to us.
As if that weren’t enough, we are also trying to think about how we will provide instruction and trying to make plans for how we present our material because the single thing that is certain is that nothing will be “normal” this year, none of our tried and true practices can be relied upon in our current situation. But apparently, the Hillsborough County School Board is filled with people who think teaching requires no planning or preparation—apparently our school board believes teachers just walk into a building, stand up in front of children, and get started. While it’s disheartening enough to have members of the general public assume our work requires no actual work, it’s frustrating beyond belief to have the people who make decisions that affect our personal and professional lives every day do the same.
Your simple little delay, for frankly no good reason other than politics, costs us the entire first week of our pre-planning, precious time we should be using to prepare for the actual situation we will be facing. We CANNOT simply plan for BOTH online learning AND face-to-face instruction. Firstly, we do not have the time and secondly, these situations are so completely different we cannot formulate comprehensive plans for both. Training for these situations is dramatically different. How do we train for such entirely different situations simultaneously? Do we purchase supplies? Most teachers begin the school year with supplies for the year already purchased. But do we need to spend that money now?
Even more important than the vital planning and preparation time teachers lose to your delay, school guidance counselors in all of our schools, middle and high school especially, will have to go forward with changing the schedules for literally thousands of students as if face-to-face instruction is going forward. If we switch to eLearning for all, then they have to go change all of those thousands of schedules back. School administrators must go forward with setting their teachers up for eLearning for those who will fill those positions if face-to-face instruction goes forward and change their master schedules accordingly. Consider all this work at every school site around the district, work you have dismissed as nothing by your very decision, as if we don’t all have other work to do, as if it’s no big deal if we spend an entire week working on these projects, possibly only to find that it is effort entirely wasted. I don’t know how you feel about putting a week of your life into something only to have it rendered meaningless, but this is potentially the situation you are putting all these people in through your delay. A delay that has no justification except for a lack of courage.
Here’s the thing: there is absolutely no decision you can make that will absolutely keep everyone safe other than online learning for the first nine weeks. This virus is not going to magically disappear in the two weeks you have decided to waste. Teachers were frankly relieved to hear that the Board had elected to delay the start of classes because WE NEED THAT TIME TO PLAN. We’ve never taught in the middle of a pandemic before, except online at the end of last year, and if we have to do it again, we want to be better prepared to serve our students to the best of our ability.
So, essentially, you have set us up to fail yet again. Take away our ability to plan and prepare, then express disappointment and disapproval when teachers work harder than ever before (and we are normally very hardworking people) because our product wasn’t ideal. Well, if you want a high-quality product, you have to give us the time and the information we need to create that product. Contrary to popular belief, we do NOT simply walk into a classroom and start talking!
We teachers have spent this summer staying at home to stay safe, watching the infection rates climb, planning where we can by getting wills and other end-of-life documents in order. Just contemplate that reality for a moment: teachers have spent the summer getting their end-of-life documents in order as preparation to return to school! Because if you make us go back into brick-and-mortar buildings people will die, and there’s no way to ensure that it won’t be ME. Every teacher in this district has spent the summer with these thoughts as their constant companions. Think about the stress and anxiety that has caused for thousands of teachers across the 7th largest district in the country.
Other places where social distancing is easy are closed: county offices are closed, and those clerks and other employees are not sitting in enclosed spaces with over 30 people for extended periods of time! But teachers should walk back into classrooms gladly and just do their jobs. After all, it’s what we signed up for! No, not one single teacher I know joined this profession expecting to be told just to risk their lives every day, as if it’s a simple thing, as if our lives count for nothing. As if our work counts for nothing, as if our daily dedication, working many hours every day, every week beyond what we are paid for count for nothing. I wonder how you would feel if your life and the lives of your family members were treated as disposable.
Perhaps the School Board should remember that teachers are also their constituents, and we have lots of friends who are constituents, too, and we have long memories. Make a decision and give us the time we need to put together our plans to begin instruction online for the first quarter so we can make it as good as it possibly can be. Keep students AND teachers (ALL the adults in our buildings) and all our families safe.
Venus S. Freeman, PhD