‘It’s not working’ | Teachers voice frustrations with hybrid model, express support for modified work week

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LIVINGSTON PARISH, La. (Livingston Parish News) — Teachers voiced a wide range of frustrations during a tense meeting of the Livingston Parish School Board on Thursday, with most of the concerns focused on the district’s hybrid model of instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Teachers also expressed support for a modified work week that would lessen the after-hours burden being placed on them as the district tries to serve its students through traditional and online methods.

Speaking nearly two weeks into the 2020-21 school year, teachers said flatly that the current model “is not working,” and several said they are overworked trying to be “two teachers in one day” for both their in-person and virtual learners.

Some teachers admitted to feeling “strained,” overwhelmed,” and “like a failure,” saying they are working “around the clock” and “seven days a week” to juggle educating students who are in class and at home. One teacher said she goes to bed “at midnight every night with my computer,” while another said he answered nearly 40 messages from students related to online learning during the meeting alone.

“The impact on the teachers has been a whole lot more than we ever expected,” said board member Devin Gregoire, of District 9.

The meeting was held in front of a packed house, with some people having to stand outside after the Suma Professional Development Center reached its 50-person limit.

At the start of the meeting, District 2 board member Kellee Dickerson motioned to lift the agenda to allow for more of a back-and-forth exchange between board members and those making public comments, a point of contention at the last meeting. The motion was seconded by Gregoire and passed on an unanimous vote.

That led to a longer than usual public comments portion of the meeting, with more than a dozen teachers and parents sharing their thoughts. A few broke down in tears as they explained the challenges they’ve faced at the start of this school year.

Connie Bond, an ELA teacher in Albany, said teachers are “stressed to the max” and feel as if they “were not prepared or supplied with the basic things we need to do our jobs.” Tracy Carlisle, an eighth grade teacher in Walker, said she’s having trouble figuring out which of her students are “coming in… coming out, and where assignments are coming from.”

“It’s not working for parents, it’s not working for us, and it’s definitely not working for our students,” Bond said.

Mona Icamina, the Livingston Parish representative of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said she recently had a phone call with teachers who were “crying, wailing” for more than two hours regarding their “15- and 16-hour work days.”

Tiffany Spears, an elementary teacher in Denham Springs, said she and her colleagues have been “quite emotional” to start this school year and asked the board to consider alternative options to allow teachers to better educate themselves and ultimately, their students.

“I’m having trouble putting my head to sleep because I personally have been in tears for the first time in 30 years [of teaching],” Spear said. “I have said, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s not a good idea to tell your boss that you’re really not doing a good job,’ but I’m not.

“I am failing the children that I serve virtually and those I serve in person. I don’t have the time. There’s not enough time to learn everything I need to be able to equip my kids.”

Gregoire, who represents the Albany-area schools, put the discussion on the agenda to gage the impact of a new teacher work week that would make Fridays “100-percent virtual.”

Currently, the Livingston Parish Public Schools system is in Phase Two of its reopening plan, which mirrors the phase Gov. John Bel Edwards has set for the state. In Phase Two, students in grades 3-12 learn through an A/B model, with children alternating days on and off campus.

According to the district’s latest count, there are roughly 15,400 of the parish’s 26,000 students on the A/B schedule who receive face-to-face instruction five days every two weeks.

Meanwhile, just under 3,000 students have opted for all-virtual learning (Group C, all grades), and the rest receive in-person instruction five days a week (Group D, which includes students in grades Pre-K-2, students with significant disabilities participating in alternate assessment, students attending the ELEC Center, and employee’s children). 

Group A students are in class on Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday, while Group B students are in class on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other Friday.

In the “LPPS Start Strong” reopening plan, the school system states it can physically accommodate only half of its students on campuses on any given day “due to transportation restrictions” from the Louisiana Department of Education.

Gregoire said his suggestion would keep the A/B model of Phase Two intact. Teachers would still instruct students Monday-Thursday but not on Fridays, which he said would give them more time to develop lesson plans, create virtual content, and answer questions from students.

“All the teachers I have talked to have said that if Friday was 100-percent virtual, it would make a tremendous difference,” said Gregoire, who received unanimous approval from the teachers in the room when he asked if they agreed.

District 3 board member Jan Benton, a former teacher and principal of 36 years, echoed Gregoire’s sentiment to find “more time” for teachers but added “we also need our kids in school.” She said principals and supervisors are currently looking at ways to give teachers additional time during the school day while also making sure students remain in school as much as possible.

“I know it’s hard on teachers,” Benton said. “I feel your pain. We just have to stick with it.”

Bradley Harris, of District 4, called the current situation “a different animal” and said that many of the issues teachers are currently facing would be alleviated if and when the state moves into Phase Three, which the governor is scheduled to decide on next week.

Students would receive face-to-face instruction five days a week if the state moves into Phase Three, while all learning would be done virtually in Phase One.

“It doesn’t solve all our problems, but it means a lot,” Harris said.

Along with the extra workload, teachers also expressed concern that some of their students — particularly elementary-age students and those without adequate access to the internet and technological devices — are being left behind.

Kindra Williamson, a third-grade teacher in the Watson area, said more than half of her students are in daycare on their virtual days because their parents work. Those students, she said, can’t start school work until after 5 p.m. and don’t finish until “late at night.”

She said virtual learning “is unrealistic for an 8-year-old” and that the district should’ve determined how many students were without internet access before forcing them to learn virtually.

“If we know we’re a rural district, we can’t set that expectation because we can’t set our kids up to fail,” she said. “We work for kids. Not their parents. We work for their children… who need more from us than we’re possibly able to give them right now.”

Later, Williamson said, “I do believe this will work for high school and can work for junior high, but our elementary students deserve better than what we’re giving them.”

Frank Ariza, a social studies teacher in Albany, said 45 of his 142 students are without internet access and a computer, adding that many can’t keep up with the work at home.

He also expressed concern that the current problems teachers are facing won’t go away if the district moves into Phase Three and urged the board to consider the modified work week.

“Even if we go to Phase Three, we’ll still have [Group C] kids,” he said. “It’s gonna be like this until we’re 100 percent virtual or all kids are in class. I understand there’s guidelines, but we knew we wouldn’t be in Phase Three when we started.”

When a parent asked how many students are without internet access, Superintendent Joe Murphy said the district is waiting for a “list and map” from network providers “to get a better determination of where that stands.”

Murphy said that the school system is in the process of expanding internet access “to as many sites as we can” and “to provide infrastructure where it doesn’t exist.” The school system is also in long-term talks with Louisiana lawmakers regarding internet connectivity in the more remote areas of the parish, he added. 

Currently, Murphy said officials are exploring “”short-term” options to help bridge the gap for those without internet access, such as having students bring in devices to download their assignments so that connectivity wouldn’t be an issue.

“This is not a Livingston Parish problem, this is not a Louisiana problem,” Murphy said. “This is a national problem.”

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