On Wednesday, August 6th, an assembly of parents and teachers gathered before the regularly scheduled Jefferson Parish School Board Meeting to protest the start of in person schooling for the largest school district in Louisiana under current conditions. I won’t go into the responses to their protest, which range from support to compassion to anger to dismissal. What else is new these days?
For a myriad of reasons, I opted not to attend in person, and watched the online stream. My family and I have made the hard decision to allow our children to return to school in person. That decision was made after a lot of hand wringing, research, unknowns, and input from the kids themselves. Several families went through the same process and opted for Virtual Jefferson.
Plenty of families do not have the luxury of choice. They have no one to watch their children. They don’t have the bandwidth to teach them. They are essential workers, healthcare workers, or in inflexible jobs. This pandemic is slowly but surely wearing all of us down, if it hasn’t already.
But that’s probably another discussion. My point is there is no “right” or “wrong” and I wasn’t about to question other families’ choices. Then the surrounding parishes opted to either delay their start date or begin virtually. Meanwhile, Jefferson Parish public school teachers and support staff returned to work this week, and more information unfolded.
I want to talk about so much. I want to talk about the fact that, because our government has not created a unified stance in the world of education, we’ve siphoned the burden of these decisions down to already stressed and overwhelmed families. I want to talk about how pandemic pods and private schooling have created an even larger economic disparity. I want to talk about the lack of communication that public schools have exhibited in the past six months, whereby they claim they are prepared and ask us to trust them with our children, but haven’t managed to iron out details when prompted. I want to talk about how we as a state are still under the assumption that LEAP testing, required school days, and teacher evaluations are still somehow necessary right now.
I want to talk about the fact that schools are suddenly limiting before and after care, forcing working families to scramble to adjust their work schedules, often with little support from their employers. I want to talk about the careful language that Jefferson Parish has used in its Start Strong plan, which includes a heavy burden on parents and individual schools to make choices “to the maximum extent possible.” Hell, I want to go back to the board’s abrupt hire of the Louisiana State Superintendent of Education, who completely disrupted the system as he Yertle the Turtled his way through us to the Louisiana Department of Education. I’m not totally mad at that one – I like the new Superintendent. I want him to succeed – because it means our district does.
But for now, I’m going to focus on the school board meeting that ended abruptly when a black man raised his voice to a white woman. Mr. Board Member, I want to give you the benefit of the doubt, I truly do. You pride yourself on mentioning that you are the longest standing board member, so I have to assume you’ve been yelled at before. I want to believe your reaction was not racially motivated. But I’ve been to those meetings, and here’s what I’ve seen:
- Board members answering their phone while a concerned parent or teacher is speaking
- Board members leaving the room while a concerned parent or teacher is speaking
- Board members looking at their phones, seemingly texting, while a concerned parent or teacher is speaking
- Board members eating snacks while a concerned parent or teacher is speaking
- The Board Attorney surfing the internet while a concerned parent or teacher is speaking
I won’t go on. You get the point. You’ve showed us, repeatedly, that you don’t always care what we say. You say you do. So maybe you do. But do you hear?
Still, I’m going to set that aside and give you the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to assume that if I, as a white woman, was upset because I’m genuinely frightened and angry about the coming school year and I saw your fellow board member looking at her phone while I gave an impassioned plea to be heard so I raised my voice – you would have reacted the same way.
I don’t like what he said either, but I get what was behind it. And once he was escorted out, there was still a line of people who had waited three hours to express themselves. See below – this was taken when you abruptly and inappropriately adjourned the meeting.
These are the people who voted for you. These are the teachers and staff who are asking for a safe, reasonable working environment so that they can do the immense work of educating our children. They are not being lazy. They do not want more time off. They want to be able to do their jobs in the way you promised they would. These are the people you’ve asked to trust you.
You let them down. You let us down. You could have removed that man and continued to patiently and attentively hear the voices of the people you are sending into ill-equipped and under prepared schools on Wednesday. Particularly since you had already delayed the vote about whether or not to adjust the start of school to your super secret executive committee meeting. The things they had to say directly affect that vote. And they went unsaid. Because you chose not to listen.
I don’t know the right answer, and I don’t envy you in making this decision. Here’s what I do know. The right decision should not be based purely on business interests. The teachers and parents and professionals who were able to speak last night made valid points. Since the board has a history of zoning out when people other than them are speaking, I laid them out for you below.
- Promised PPE and sanitization supplies have not yet been made available at every school. Several teachers showed you they either had received very little or nothing at all. One teacher held up the 16 oz bottle of hand sanitizer she received. Cleaning products, masks, and thermometers are a crucial part of your plan to keep everyone safe. You required it (with good reason), but you are not providing the support you promised. This will have a drastic effect on the schools that are economically disadvantaged or lack parental involvement. This is what one teacher received.
- Chromebooks and Promethean boards are “not in” yet. School starts in less than a week and even the students who chose the Virtual Jefferson option are not prepared with the right equipment. Additionally, teachers do not yet have cameras in their classrooms to record their lessons.
- Teachers were notified that they are expected to teach virtually AND in-person simultaneously. There are several legal questions surrounding the children in the classroom and whether their names and faces will be on the video. Additionally, teachers will not be able to monitor a chat feed, in person questions and keep the class flow. This is unreasonable. You promoted Virtual Jefferson on the premise there would be a separate pool of teachers – particularly those who are immunocompromised and would be at risk if they taught in-person. You sent out a survey, so you must have used all that information to make these decisions, right?
- Parents are being notified – with very short notice – that aftercare slots are limited and may not be available. Some parents have been notified there is not a slot available for them. There is no clear understanding of how those choices are made, how one person won the lottery and another didn’t. Probably because you left that up to each school instead of providing guidance, and they can only do so much, amiright?
- Bus drivers will not be taking temperatures, it is assumed that parents are sending healthy kids to school. Let’s ignore for a minute that many, many people are asymptomatic. This means that children will ride the bus, walk through the school and get into the classroom before there is a temperature check taken.
- At the meeting, the representative from Oschner indicated that rapid results testing would be made available to educators to cease the spread of coronavirus in the event a teacher or staff member is infected. Great!!! Unfortunately those tests are not yet available and “may be” ready by the time school starts on the 12th.
This is just a few of the things mentioned last night. The parents and teachers last night were just getting started. They deserved to be heard, every single one of them. I don’t know what the right answer is – do we delay or not – what I do know is that the impression you gave last night was that your mind was made up, no matter who it hurt.
I hope I’m wrong. I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt and be a supporter of public school systems. After all, I love my children’s school – their faculty and staff are dedicated, professional, and amazing. I’m trying, very hard, not to be angry that you’ve dismissed the countless people who are now dealing with the fallout of your “amazing” Start Strong plan.
The board needs more educators and fewer business people. The Parish deserves a board that is actively passionate about the students, teachers, staff and parents it serves. Particularly when, last night and beyond, you’ve shown me that, behind closed doors, you’ve already made up your mind.
School starts very soon. Please prove me wrong.