ACAE opposes in-person school, releases recommendations for hybrid learning plan

Press release from Asheville City Association of Educators:

Asheville City Association of Educators is our district’s largest association of public school staff, including teachers, administrators, custodial workers, instructional assistants and other school employees. Like everyone else in our community and our nation, we have been thinking nonstop about the terrible tension around school reopening. Over the last few weeks, as the district considers when and how to reopen, ACAE has held all-staff meetings, conducted surveys, and consulted with health experts.

On the one hand, we know that remote learning is no substitute for in-person learning: it’s harder on most children, it’s harder on most parents, and it’s harder on most staff. Nearly everyone is desperate to get back to in-person learning as soon as it’s safe.

Safety, of course, is the other hand. In the middle of a pandemic, in the nation with the most COVID cases and the most COVID deaths, it’s very difficult to know whether, and how, it’s possible to reopen schools safely.

We don’t want to be fearmongers. We have all committed our lives to providing the best schools our children can have. But unless reopening is safe, we cannot support it. We cannot support endangering children, staff, or the community at large.

Here are the conditions under which we believe our district can safely transition to a hybrid learning model:

  • At least 14 days of positive test rates under 3%This follows CDC reopening guidelines for when it’s safest for schools to reopen. Buncombe County currently meets this metric, and as long as we continue to meet this metric, it’s a very positive sign.
  • N-95 masks for all staff. It’s crucial that staff have the best possible protection when we reopen.
  • Adequate ventilation and filtration. We need to know that our HVAC systems will not be spreading airborne diseases.  Facilities staff expressed earlier this month that our HVAC systems were inadequate. The reasons for their concerns should be fully addressed. All spaces with students should have adequate ventilation, including access to outside air. Utilizing more outdoor spaces has helped with this concern in other communities and should be explored here.

  • Accurate screening equipment and adequate health staff. Many buildings report that staff are screened with inaccurate thermometers that regularly report staff temperatures below 95 degrees. These thermometers are not effective screening devices. Before students return, every school should have accurate, reliable screening equipment–possible an infrared-screening temperature station. In addition, every school needs to have adequate health-care personnel in case a student comes to school showing symptoms: such cases should not be left to non-health-care staff.
  • Prioritize high-need students. If we return under a hybrid model, we must ensure that students who need in-person education most receive it first. If this means a smaller cohort returns full-time, this is more equitable than having all students return part-time. We agree that our district must address our resources where they are most needed.
  • Plan for fully-staffing custodial positions. Under normal circumstances, many buildings report that it’s common to have custodial positions vacant. This is not acceptable during a pandemic. There must be a hard commitment to keeping these positions filled, so that schools can be properly sanitized.
  • Transparent communication about cases. Asheville City Schools needs to go above the health department’s minimum requirements for reporting outbreaks. Staff and families should know when they have been exposed, to the extent that the law allows. If privacy prevents the district from reporting a case without permission of the sick staff or student, a voluntary reporting procedure should be developed. In addition, the superintendent should schedule weekly afternoon virtual meetings open to staff with concerns, questions, or feedback on the reopening plan: our district must use front-line staff’s expertise and observations.
  • A plan for responding to community outbreak. The district needs to prepare for the possibility of a second wave this autumn. If positive test rates rise above 5%, the district must commit to closing schools until rates fall below 3% for two weeks. The pandemic is not over, and we must not act as though it is.

These conditions are feasible, based on the best available science, and in keeping with similar conditions from other professional associations across the nation. We encourage our district to adopt them in order to keep our community safe during any transition to in-person learning.

In addition to these safety and health conditions, it is crucial that the district plan hybrid instruction carefully, so as to maximize the quality of instruction that staff can provide to students. We make three recommendations along these lines:

  • Protection of planning time for staffWe know that teaching under a pandemic imposes additional requirements on everyone. However, in developing a hybrid plan, we need to ensure that all staff have protected planning time in which they are not supervising students.
  • Separate remote instruction and in-person instruction. Lessons prepared for remote instruction will not translate well to in-person instruction, and vice versa. It will not suffice simply to set a camera to video in-person instruction. Specific staff should be dedicated to continuing to provide remote instruction and should be able to plan together across the district, while other staff provide the in-person instruction.
  • Allow and encourage flexibilityWe know that as more people enter the buildings, risks increase for everyone. Allowing staff conducting remote instruction to teach remotely when possible will help to manage that risk. Principals must have the flexibility to work with their staff to meet the needs of their students.

We’re in this together, and we want to ensure that our students return to the schools they love to gain the education they deserve. When the district respects staff working conditions, students reap the benefits.

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