Teachers raise questions over state guidelines for fall school reopenings 

Loud and Clear

click to enlarge Mahwish McIntosh, a teacher and representative for SC for Ed, said teachers need standard operating procedures, not guidelines to follow for the new school year

Ruta Smith

Mahwish McIntosh, a teacher and representative for SC for Ed, said teachers need standard operating procedures, not guidelines to follow for the new school year

The South Carolina Department of Education's AccelerateED Task Force unveiled its guidelines for teachers, students and parents on June 24 in preparation for a return to school in the fall. But beyond that, teachers and advocates in the Charleston area have a lot on their minds regarding the state of affairs at both the state and district levels.

"We have a lot of veteran teachers," said Mahwish McIntosh, a North Charleston High School teacher and local representative for SC for Ed, a statewide education advocacy group. "What we've come to recognize, is that even if the tactics are a little different, we still have the same ultimate missions and goals in mind, and sometimes the details tend to muddy the waters, but we've decided as a team that we are only stronger together."

AccelerateED's recommendations are split into four phases: Immediate Actions, Summer Planning and Preparation, Pre-Opening and Reopening and Continuity of Operations. Moreover, these phases are split into numerous parts, making up some 29 pages of recommendations in the 92-page document.

Ranging from simple suggestions like schools purchasing personal protective equipment to more complicated recommendations like developing a mental health crisis response team, the plans cover basic and not-so-basic aspects of reopening schools in the midst of a global pandemic.

A few of the highlights of the current Phase 1 include:

• Establishment of health condition levels for schools

• Creation of a health and safety infrastructure grant

• Development of local task forces for reopening schools at the district level

• Conducting a survey of staff

• Conducting a staffing needs assessment.

• Addressing the digital divide between students in online learning

• Determining of student attendance

As the state inches closer to Phase 2 and Phase 3, some other guidelines worth keeping in mind are:

• Schools seeking waivers from testing requirements

• Removing earnings cap for retired educators

• Addressing shortages of student services providers like counselors and school psychologists

• Developing a distance learning contingency plan for the worst case scenario if schools are closed once again

Despite many of the challenges this year having dropped onto teachers' shoulders, they are happy to see work being done to keep schools safe.

"Sometimes, as teachers, we tend to complain," said Dorchester's Oakbrook Elementary School Reading Interventionist MaryRita Watson. "But, we do appreciate the work that has been done by the task force at the state level. They were tasked with something that was very difficult, and people were uneducated in that they thought the information coming from them was going to be the rule of law. But, not everyone can do what they are asking because of the inequities we have in our schools."

Those inequities make it difficult for schools to address a crisis like this equally. McIntosh said because of this, the state has already said they understand the need for flexibility, because what works for one district may not work for another, but not everyone agrees with this being the best way of seeing things.

"As much as the task force tries to give us flexibility from district to district, there is no flexibility," Fort Dorchester High School teacher and SC for Ed representative Dedra Scherer said. "There's no, 'Some people can do it this way, and others have to do it this way.' There is a basic minimum standard, and having transparency from the task force will help us keep our kids safe and their families safe, and our families safe."

The idea of transparency and open communication from those making the rules and those who need to follow them is echoed by many in education. Specifically from the district levels, one thing that teachers across the area have said they're missing is firm instruction and a concrete plan moving forward.

"In my communication with my superintendent, I have made it clear that we don't need guidelines," McIntosh said. "We need standard operating procedures — what we need to follow, what we need to do and what will be the consequences of faculty, staff, students and others who are not following those procedures."

The fear is that without more solid planning and clear and open communication between these different groups, no one returning to the schools in August will feel safe. Though to some, feeling safe isn't enough.

"Safety is not a feeling," Low said. "It's not something that I'm asked about and my feelings decide whether or not I'm safe. I know I'm safe when experts tell me that when I've done all these things, I have created a safer environment for me and my students.

"You could turn to someone and ask them if they felt safe skydiving," she said. "You are actually safe when you jump with someone who is an expert, and they can tell you, 'This is how I made your parachute; this is how I folded it up; these are all the fail safes that we have, and now we are going to jump.'"

For teachers and students alike to both feel and be safe, though, a lot of decisions need to be made very quickly. And the clock is ticking.

"There are so many pieces, and I don't see how in a month, they are going to magically come up with every answer," said Berkeley's College Park Middle School special ed teacher Rachel Gamble. "I want direction — this is hard, this is scary and I need leadership, and I haven't seen it from the district level at all."

For many, this goes back to the same struggle teachers have been in for years regarding a lack of understanding and support from legislators and other community leaders.

"Leaders should be driven by getting these guys back to the classroom, getting them learning and having them succeed," Low said.

"This is a workforce we are preparing, and we are doing it at cutthroat prices," she concluded. "Rarely when you make an investment do you say, I would like to invest in something at the cheapest prices and hope for the greatest outcome."

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