I have received many thoughtful and thought provoking notes and emails from many teachers – I’m truly grateful for these. I suspect many more of you have similar concerns and questions so I want to communicate to all of you directly. Because answers tend to generate new questions, my response email might seem lengthy, I apologize.
First and foremost, I am truly heartened that the vast majority of teachers who’ve contacted board of education members and me, have expressed their love for the kids they teach and for their profession. I think we all know that teaching is the most honorable of all professions. We’ve always claimed to be crucial and I believe the public in general recognizes that reality more today than ever before. No one asked for this pandemic, it’s impacting everyone. I have personally lost people close to me due to the virus and you surely have as well. Yet despite the pandemic, we have a mission to accomplish, a mission that is greater than me or any individual or personality. I am optimistic about success and about the future and my optimism comes directly because of the people who make up Granite School District. We have the best and the brightest in our ranks and I sincerely honor each of you and all of them for their service.
To this point, I’ve attached the Utah specific guidance school districts have received regarding reopening (note that the USBE document says “Draft,” the Governor has since approved it). I encourage you to look those over – principals have had these documents for several weeks and are preparing school specific plans with their leadership teams accordingly. In the Governor’s briefings he, and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, have emphasized several times and in different ways, the crucial role schools play in our communities and society. They have alluded to other experts, including the American Association of Pediatrics. One segment from the AAP that I’ve seen referred to multiple times is the following:
The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school. The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families. (Emphasis in the original)
One doesn’t have to listen to the Governor, Dr. Dunn or State Superintendent Dickson very long to recognize that our public education system plays just as crucial a societal and community role in our realm as do hospitals in their realm. As I have listened to their statements and read the materials they present, the conclusion is unavoidable that we have (at least) a threefold responsibility: First, academic; second, nutritional; and third, child care/welfare. The third responsibility has really struck home the last few years – look at the AAP statement and think of new state laws regarding child abuse identification training for all school employees and the statement in the USBE reopening document to “consider financial hardships and alternative childcare arrangements for single parent families or for families in which both parents must work outside the home and strain on childcare capacity.” Whether it was part of our teacher preparation programs or not, we serve the community in filling these three roles and are, consequently, as essential an industry as any hospital.
A number of letters we received encouraged the mandate of face coverings for children, something the state board and several local boards of education had considered but not adopted. Our board directed me to develop and bring a recommendation to that effect – requiring face coverings for children at all school functions or activities when a 6 foot distance between attendees could not be sustained – for the board meeting next Tuesday. It was prepared and was on the agenda when the Governor issued the same directive making our action moot. Consequently that will not be an action item on next Tuesday’s agenda.
Following face coverings, the second most emphasized point was the burden associated with giving parents an option (against the recommendation of the AAP, but within the rights of parents to direct the education of their children) to have their children participate in school via distance learning. In fairness, the burden lies less in giving parents that option, but in assuming that teachers would provide that service alongside face-to-face instruction. The explanation has some subtleties so please forgive me adding this context.
School districts receive the vast majority of their funding from the state based on the average daily membership of students in the district. When there are more students, district receive more funding, when there are fewer students, funding is reduced. Consider an elementary school with around 550 students. Based on the state funding we receive, the district allocates one full time equivalent, conceptually one teacher, for every 27.25 students. In the spring, schools receive their projected student count, and hire accordingly. So our school has hired 20 teachers for the fall of 2020. We come to the first day of school and let’s say a third of the parents decide not to send their kids. Our surveying of parents suggests that a third is probably the worst case scenario, we expect, especially given the Governor’s face covering order, that 10-15% will not attend face-to-face. But let’s say a third. What do we do with 7 extra teachers? This wouldn’t be a regular “fall surplus” where other schools have increased in enrollment and need those teachers, we expect that most if not all schools will be “down” students from their projections. The average total cost of a teacher, with retirement and benefits, approaches $80,000 now. That is a larger dollar amount, $560,000, than a 550 student school receives in Trust Lands and TSSA dollars. The scenario could well necessitate a reduction in our teacher force. Remember, fewer kids means reduced funds means loss of teachers – we don’t want this.
The easy answer is to assign those 7 teachers to teach all the distance students in the school. Let’s take this in one more level. Our school has a 5th grade with 90 students, three teachers, 30 kids per teacher. Since we are assuming a third, two teachers have face-to-face kids, 30 each, and one teacher has 30 kids, all distance. Here is where the problem lies with this model. What happens when there is a flare up in the third week of school and 20 in-person parents decide to go distance. Now the distance teacher has 50 students and the face-to-face teachers 20 each – assuming the kids left both classes in even numbers. Or, what if 20 of the distance families decide that having the kids at home is too difficult and send their students back to school. Now the face-to-face teachers have 40 each, and the distance teacher 10. This suggests that this “designate distance teachers” model only works if we are prepared to tell parents that they can’t change their minds, in effect, telling them that they are making an irrevocable decision about modality. In fact, we will explore with our board of education whether to require parents of elementary students to make a commitment – by quarter – for one modality or the other in our elementary schools. This would allow us to deploy our teachers as either face-to-face teachers or distance teachers. It reduces some flexibility for families but eliminates the dual modality planning requirement for elementary teachers.
Now, why am I distinguishing elementary and secondary? The vast majority of secondary teachers have a planning period each day – elementary teachers get a couple of hours on Friday. The number of “preps” for secondary teachers is less than the 11 for every elementary teacher. Secondary teachers teach a subject, elementary teachers teach all 11. We’re going to spend more time with our secondary folks regarding tools and planning, but the current pinch point is the planning burden of teaching in a dual modality on our elementary teachers. We will move to the secondary realities next.
Please recognize that while principals have had materials and direction for several weeks, site specific (that is, situation specific) plans have understandably not yet been completed. Principals are working with their leadership teams, and even inviting parents where possible, to address the unique needs and realities of their local communities. This is the right time and the right place for teachers to be involved and voice their concerns and opinions, please do so!
I feel to address something that came up in several letters as well. Many people listened in to the board meeting earlier this week and mistakenly believed they were hearing decisions being made rather than information being received. Board members asked, and I answered (some of the answers may have come from my staff members, but I take full responsibility for all of those) questions about employment and liability. I trust you understand that as elected officials the board of education has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of Granite School District and to not ask those questions – and for me to not answer those – would have been a breach of those fiduciary duties. I truly apologize to those who felt devalued, objectified or unappreciated by the discussion, it was never the intent to be callous and the bottom line management discussion does not reflect how we feel about or think about our employees.
While long, very long, I hope this has been helpful. We are listening and we are responding, although not always in the way others might wish.