Frank Edelblut, New Hampshire’s Education Commissioner, selected school administrators and school boards representatives for his official Task Force. NEA-NH, and the 17,000 professional educators we represent, was not invited. “We were instead offered a place on a workgroup, meaning the voices of those in the classrooms, hallways, buses, cafeterias and offices – the frontline for any return to school – were not given a chance to vote on the final recommendations going to the Governor,” said Megan Tuttle, NEA-New Hampshire President.
Since the Commissioner chose to ignore them, NEA-NH surveyed our members to be sure their voices were heard. We asked our members about important reopening criteria including safety measures, how they will reach students when the school year begins, and on the Task Force’s draft recommendation to create hybrid learning environments by combining in-person and remote instruction.
- More than 75% of the educators surveyed were not comfortable returning to the classroom without a vaccine or effective treatments. One in three were very uncomfortable heading back to the classroom under those conditions.
- More than 80% of the educators answering the survey were concerned about their health and safety if schools were to reopen; 40% very concerned.
- Even more importantly, those same educators were even more concerned about their student’s health should schools reopen this fall. More than 90% said that they were concerned about the student’s health and safety – with more than 45% very concerned.
- When asked if they believed social distancing, screening, smaller class sizes and staggered schedules might be enough to safely reopen schools, NH educators were closely divided with 52% saying no and 48% agreeing that these measures would be enough. But their confidence in the ability of our current system to carry out these measured was absent.
- More than 82% do not believe a majority of students will be able to maintain social distancing and hygiene policies. More than 77% do not believe their school has the capacity to restrict class sizes and increase social distances to safe levels.
- The vast majority believe that any reopening plan should be based on the most current scientific and medical advice – not just advice that works for their district.
- Hybrid instruction plans (combining in-person and remote instruction) represents a major transformation to student learning environment and educator working conditions. More than 95% believe creating hybrid learning environments will result in changes in hours and other terms and conditions of employment that must be bargained or otherwise addressed by the local association.
“Schools are not designed for social distancing,” said Tuttle. “Classes and hallways are already overcrowded and many of our schools have inadequate HVAC systems resulting in poor air circulation. These are prime COVID-19 transmission conditions. If we’re not ready to make the investments necessary to make our buildings safe, then we’re not ready to reopen them”
Ask any parent near the end of summer break if they are ready for their child to go back to school and most likely the answer will be yes. Ask them the same question after an extended period of stay-at-home orders and you should not be surprised at the answer. Being ready to have children back in school is natural for any parent and an expression of a desire to return to the “normal” we used to know. During a global pandemic, rushing to open schools in the fall simply because that’s when they normally begin is unwise and unsafe.
In “normal” times, we made sure every adult in the building passed a background check, that students learned in a bully free environment, that those who came to school hungry they were fed, and that buses and building were clean and maintained. We made sure educators were highly qualified and set standards for student achievement. We moved to have weapons and drugs banned from school zones. We tried to ensure every classroom and student had access to the technology they needed to succeed. We knew that we could not provide every resource or remove every risk, but we always did our very best to make schools a safe place to learn.
These same criteria must now be used to determine if, when, and how to safely reopen our schools. Just because we say we’re ready to send our kids back now, doesn’t mean it’s safe to do so.
“Frontline educators agree that it will be very difficult for students to maintain social distance, PPE, and hygiene rules for the duration of the school day,” continued Tuttle. “Many of our educators fall into one the high-risk categories or take care of someone who does. Returning to in-person education too soon puts them at risk as well.”
“If districts are serious about Hybrid instruction models, combining in-person instruction with remote learning, then they need to recognize that this represent is a major change to learning and working conditions. Expecting educators to work both from home and in schools on schedules that may conflict with their own children’s school days is most certainly something that must be worked out between local associations and their districts and cannot be forced on any educator.”
“The pandemic forced us to implement a statewide remote learning system in less than a week. We agree that remote instruction is a temporary measure that provides instruction and safety during the crisis. During the last few weeks of this school year, students, educators, parents, and administrators learned a great deal about the challenges of remote instruction. Right now we have time to be better prepared for remote instruction, enhance safeguards and ensure that everyone has access to the tools and technology needed to improve this temporary system until January when a vaccine could be available” said Tuttle.