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Delaware teachers lobby for virtual reopening this fall

Andre Lamar
Dover Post
Helen Jackson, 64, of Smyrna, teaches English at Lake Forest High School. Jackson said she loves her job, but she’s been worried about potentially going into the classroom during the pandemic, due to being at high risk for contracting the coronavirus.

Gov. John Carney’s recommendation for schools to reopen under a hybrid model in September has left teachers scratching their heads over what that’ll look like.

Under a hybrid model, school districts can offer a mix of in-person instruction and remote teaching this fall, where students may not have to report to school every day.

Helen Jackson, who teaches English at Lake Forest High School, said she’s felt “distress all summer long,” partly because she was nervous about the idea of heading back into the classroom during a pandemic.

At 64 years old, she’s at a high risk of contracting the coronavirus.

“I need to work because it gives me meaning and purpose. It’s something I love doing,” the Smyrna resident said.

“Financially, I’m not in a position yet to fully retire. I’d like to keep working as long as I can. But I’m very worried,” she added.

Jackson said Lake Forest School District Superintendent Dr. Steven Lucas sent her a letter Aug. 5 about the district tentatively planning to begin the fall semester virtually.

The letter mentions if a student needs in-person support, the district will accommodate them.

“I think what he’s saying is … we have a few kids who are rural and are pretty much in the woods down there, and can’t get internet access. So we might need to get some kids into the school building [to teach them]. But it would just be a few [students],” said Jackson, explaining her interpretation of the letter.

Smyrna eases into remote teaching

Smyrna School District announced all of their students in pre-K through grade 12 will begin the academic year in a virtual setting Sept. 8.

Barring further changes to the governor’s orders, Smyrna plans to begin transitioning students into the hybrid model in October.

Frances Strosser, president of the Smyrna Education Association, said her district is on the right track. She’s been lobbying for Smyrna to start virtually, because there’s a lot of logistical things that need to be ironed out right now.

She’s raised concerns to the Smyrna School Board about racial and economic disparities, poor air ventilation, mental health services, and how the district will address the shortage of substitutes (which is a nationwide issue).

For mental health, she wanted to know if the district would provide support to teachers and students, since returning to the classroom during the pandemic might be unsettling for some people.

“This is going to be a sterile environment with shields up around everything. I think it’s going to be a little frightening for some of these little babies when they’re coming back,” she said. “It’s not going to be as nurturing as people are thinking it’s going to be, despite our best efforts.”

Strosser, a physical education teacher at Smyrna Elementary, said no one wants to be at school more than her.

“I love playing with kids. I’ve got the best job of all, because I get to play games all day with kids,” she said. “But in my heart and soul, I know in my opinion, that’s going to be more detrimental than it would be, to be remote.”

Appo teachers discuss childcare problems

Steven Byers, legislative chairman for Appoquinimink Education Association, is also in favor of schools reopening virtually, giving districts more time to tie up loose ends.

For example, he said he doesn’t know how teachers will be able to get enough hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for their classrooms, since they’re selling fast and teachers across the state need them, too.

Whether kids stay at home or go to school, childcare is going to be an issue for some families.

Yet by reopening with a hybrid model, this could make childcare more confusing for parents and employers, he said.

That’s because one school district could have students come in for two weeks out of the month, while another district could have them come in every other day. This could be chaotic for parents who have kids at different schools and districts.

Byers, who teaches social studies at Middletown High School, has a daughter who begins second grade this fall. His ex-wife works for Capital School District in Dover.

“If our schedules are completely opposite, and our daughter has a completely different one, now we have three different schedules to figure out how we’re going to do the education for our daughter,” he said.

Sussex teacher spends $600 for students

Indian River School District is planning for a hybrid opening. The district has been assigned a Division of Public Health (DPH) liaison who’ll work with them to ensure buses and buildings will be sanitized for students.

“We do understand this is a difficult decision. We wish we could start this school year in a traditional manner; but the governor has recommended that we plan for a hybrid model that includes both remote and in-person learning opportunities,” according to a statement from the district.

David Warick, drama instructor at Sussex Central High School, said he’s trusting the process that Indian River is spearheading.

“I’m going on hope that they’ve thought this out,” said Warick, 56, of Rehoboth Beach. “I’m going to make [the classroom] as safe as I can under the circumstances I’m given, even if I have to clean something myself.”

During the pandemic, Warick said he invested $600 of his own money into educational theater development, with the purpose of learning how to better teach drama to his students in a fun way virtually, since he wasn’t sure if he was going back into the classroom this fall.

David Warick, of Rehoboth Beach, spent $600 out of his own pocket for theatrical development to learn how to teach drama class in a fun way virtually to his students this fall at Sussex Central High School.

His training was through Impro Theatre, International Schools Theatre Association, and TheatreFolk.

There’s improv workouts where people would normally stand together in a circle. Now Warick can achieve that using the boxes in Zoom.

“You’re making virtual contact,” he said. “You can tell stories online where you call someone’s name and they say the next sentence in the story. These are fun little things you can do.”

DSEA against hybrid rollout

Delaware State Education Association president Stephanie Ingrid has called on school districts to reopen remotely, to prioritize the health and safety of students, educators and families.

“This virtual start will give districts the time needed to address important issues such as safe distancing in schools, the PPE [personal protective equipment] that is needed for staff and students, and to assess their ability to comply with the other guidelines put out by the state,” according to a DSEA statement.

“With recent COVID outbreaks at summer camps and schools that have already opened in other states, we need to make sure we get it right,” the statement added. “We just can’t take the chance of opening our school buildings only to have to shut down again.” 

To reopen or not reopen?

The debate whether students and educators should return to the classroom in the coming weeks is a controversial one that’s heating up around the country.

A story about a school district in Georgia recently went viral after 260 employees tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to it.

In Delaware, there have been 15,365 positive cases. Of those, 7,095 are in New Castle County, 5,786 from Sussex County, 2,247 from Kent County and 240 are unknown, according to the Division of Public Health.

There have been 587 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

‘I don’t want to die’

Lake Forest English teacher Jackson said at some point her school district is likely to transition teachers back into the classroom during the pandemic.

If that time comes, she’ll have to decide if that’s something she’s willing to do. Jackson, of Smyrna, said that’s a hard decision to make, because teaching fulfills here, especially after her husband suddenly passed away five years ago.

Helen Jackson, 64, an English teacher at Lake Forest High School, in her home office in Smyrna.

The 64-year-old said she takes social distancing seriously and still hasn’t visited friends since the pandemic began. She’s mainly been stuck at home over the last five months.

During that time frame she hasn’t hugged her son, a restaurant manager, because he’s constantly interacting with strangers on the job. He doesn’t want to get her sick, she said.

In addition to her adult children and grandchildren, Jackson loves her classroom babies at Lake Forest High School.

“My desire is to be there with my kids. I’d like to think that this is not my last birthday,” said Jackson, who turned 64 on Sunday. “I need my job. But I don’t want to die for my job.”