Springfield NEA says adding more in-person learning days 'unsafe at this time'
Springfield's largest teacher union pushed back on a district proposal to increase the in-person learning days for K-8 students, citing a spike in local COVID-19 cases and high hospitalization rates.
The leadership of the Springfield National Education Association repeatedly met with top officials in recent days.
The district announced Wednesday that elementary and middle school students who are currently learning in person two days a week — Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday — will be able to attend all four of those days in early November.
"As educators, we miss seeing our students and want them back in the classroom, but we feel returning to a four-day in-person instruction is still unsafe at this time," said Sarah Schofield, president of the Springfield NEA. "Every exposure endangers students, teachers, staff and their families."
The Springfield NEA was elected to represent all teachers, librarians, counselors, school nurses, and secretaries at the bargaining table.
Springfield and other Missouri districts halted in-person classes in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In August, before the start of the 2020-21 year, the district offered parents two options: Full-time virtual learning for the entire fall semester or a hybrid model that includes two days of in-person learning and three days of virtual learning.
The district vowed, at the time, to revisit learning options by the end of the first quarter — or Oct. 22 — to see if adjustments were possible.
Superintendent John Jungmann announced Wednesday that K-8 students signed up for the hybrid model will return to four days of in-person learning next month. The change will be Nov. 2 for kindergarten through second grade and Nov. 9 for grades 3-8.
“Our goal has always been to welcome more students back to school as soon as we had gathered enough data to determine it was safe to proceed," Jungmann said, in a news release.
No changes were made for grades 9-12 or students, in any grade, that opted for full-time virtual learning this fall. Parents will have the option of selecting a learning option for the spring semester prior to the end of 2020.
At the Oct. 6 board meeting, Jungmann initially proposed allowing all hybrid students, in eighth grade and below, to attend in-person five days a week.
Springfield NEA surveyed more than 900 educators and staff regarding the proposal and only 12.59 percent supported a return to in-person learning five days a week.
Schofield noted, in a statement: "The vast majority were not comfortable with the plan."
She noted the rejection of that option was universal, across grade levels, staff positions and district buildings.
According to the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, there have been 8,628 cases — 3,087 of which are active — and there have been 121 deaths. Currently, there are 149 hospitalized including 31 in the ICU.
The Springfield district has logged about 200 cases of COVID-19 and more than 1,200 have quarantined since the start of the school year on Aug. 24. So far, the infection rates have been higher in the upper grades, and district officials said contact tracing showing the spread was primarily outside the school setting.
The district offered a hybrid model to significantly reduce class sizes and the change will result in fuller classrooms. However, they likely will not be as full as last year because 25 percent of students opted for full-time virtual learning.
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The Springfield NEA listed the top concerns, according to the survey:
- Ability to maintain adequate and consistent social distancing
- Additional workload from increased social distancing and follow-up
- Not enough time and support to follow disinfecting procedures
- Possibility of spreading COVID-19 to families of students and staff, who may care for elderly relatives
Schofield said Springfield NEA met with district leaders multiple times to discuss their position and concerns. During the talks, the union advocated for policies to improve student and staff safety, including:
- Extension of paid quarantine leave. Currently, the district covers up to 10 days for a school-related quarantine.
- Additional support for nurses
- Reduced class sizes
- Additional protective equipment.
Schofield acknowledged that the current set-up is creating challenges for families and there are parents who want more in-person learning days.
"Many educators are also parents and are experiencing the same hardships of juggling work and virtual schooling," she said. "Every educator’s first responsibility is keeping their students safe — in good conscience, we cannot support anything other than the current hybrid plan until our community numbers are lower."
Stephen Hall, chief communications officer, said the district values its "collaborative partnership" with Springfield NEA and appreciated their perspective.
"We agree that there are no easy answers in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. We acknowledge that no plan will meet every need or address every challenge posed by COVID-19," he said. "The common ground is our sincere desire to serve our students and community in the safest way possible and we are committed to working together to achieve that outcome."
Hall said Springfield NEA was an active participant in the development of the district's re-entry plan and provided valuable feedback on proposed changes.
"Over the coming weeks, as we prepare for students to return to four days of in-person learning, SPS will remain focused on ensuring staff have what they need," he said. "The district is committed to presenting a policy revision for consideration to the Board of Education that would expand quarantine leave for staff who have been exposed to COVID-19 in the school environment."
The district has worked closely with the health department, which endorsed the return, and additional resources were provided to support contact tracing efforts, Hall said.
"We recognize that there is a potential for higher numbers of quarantined students and staff in the months ahead," he said. "SPS values the SNEA, our teachers and our support staff, and we are committed to continuing our work together."
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.