Tammy Payne, a teacher at Leonardtown Middle, told the St. Mary’s school board she was frustrated with a recent letter sent by Superintendent Scott Smith and lack of communication with staff.
Smith’s letter was sent to parents Sept. 3 explaining when students would return to school buildings amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic. Head Start and prekindergarten, along with SAIL and COMPASS special education students, will return in person Sept. 21 for four days a week for phase one of St. Mary’s return plan.
Phase two returns kindergartners, first-graders, sixth-graders, freshmen and seniors for hybrid learning, or two-days a week in-person instruction and three days a week online learning from home, starting Oct. 5. And phase three returns all other students to the hybrid model starting Oct. 19.
“By the conclusion of the first quarter, we anticipate all students will be in school for hybrid learning,” the letter states, adding CDC guidelines and student data will evaluate next steps.
Payne said during Wednesday’s school board meeting she learned about this from other parents before hearing from the school system. The teacher said she’s also frustrated that she had to have her temperature checked before entering the central office in Leonardtown when that is not the requirement for staff at the school where she works.
“You all … are standing up there preaching one thing and doing another,” she said.
She said she has seen teachers cry learning about the adjustment and was soon told repeatedly her three-minute public comment time was up.
Smith said later that temperature checks are for visitors and Payne should not have received one since she is an employee.
St. Mary’s reopening plan initially stated school officials will monitor data in September, then phase into in-person instruction in October or November, or after the first quarter, Smith said during a July 29 town hall. That plan has now changed, catching not just teachers but also families off guard, based on many social media posts and comments.
The state board of education voted Sept. 1 to enforce schools be opened 180 school days, hold at least six hour days, an average of 3.5 hours of synchronous instruction and systems that are not planning to return students until the second semester should reevaluate by the end of the first quarter.
Smith mentioned during his report on Wednesday he planned to send a survey to parents of students who would return in the first phase. He said it’ll ask if they are interested in sending their kids back and if they would ride the bus.
A link to a return-to-school survey was posted earlier this week on school websites. It did not specify when or who should fill it out, and led to confusion among some parents on social media.
Karin Bailey, chair of the school board, said she heard parents say the questions were too vague. She recommended viewing the school system’s return plan to clear up any confusion.
Smith announced a town hall meeting next Wednesday will address entering phase one of the plan.
Marie Rankin, president of Benjamin Banneker’s PTA, took the podium to say she was appalled the board allowed the superintendent to create the return to school plans on his own.
“I would ask that the board of education stop the reopening plan, hold and allow public comment and make a decision with regards to reopening schools that is best suited for our community,” Rankin said, adding that the community should have a say in reopening.
School officials noted in past presentations that a recovery planning team consisting of 90 parents, students, educators and other members of the community helped make decisions on returning to school. Some details of those plans were abruptly changed this month, though.
Rankin also used her public comment time to note the hybrid learning model never stated students would not have daily interactions with their teachers, as it states now.
Smith’s Sept. 3 letter stated “parents forgoing in-person instruction will be responsible for progress through the platform material Monday through Thursday and provided interactive time with instructors on Fridays to check progress and review work completed.”
It also stated families will have to commit to the choice of either hybrid or all virtual for each marking period.
Sara Dixon, also a member of Banneker’s PTA board, first applauded the school system for Schoology. She said she was excited virtual learning was going well.
“But then I get this letter that we’re moving back going back to school very fast,” she said.
She said the superintendent’s mention of needing data from parents is like putting the cart before the horse since plans to return students are already set. Dixon suggested slowing down, receiving data from parents first, then making an informed decision.
Smith said before the meeting ended that people want to get angry and frustrated but they still have time to plan and make changes. He said he feels strongly about having kids learn in-person at least two days a week.
The conversation continued in the lobby after the meeting when Smith and Bailey addressed Dixon and Rankin who both repeated their concerns.
Smith said he would take their criticisms to heart, rewrite the letter and figure out how to better deliver the information. He also reminded them of next week’s town hall.