Del. teachers union, key lawmakers urge virtual learning to start school year

Stephanie Ingram, president of the state teachers union

Stephanie Ingram, president of the state teachers union, is urging that the first six weeks of school, at a minimum, should be remote learning only. (Courtesy of DSEA)

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The state teachers union is now urging Gov. John Carney and school districts to have remote learning only for at least the first six weeks of the academic year, and the politically powerful force also has allies among legislative leaders.

Delaware State Education Association President Stephanie Ingram cited health and safety concerns about the coronavirus among the union’s 12,500 educators and school staffers in issuing her call.

Ingram told WHYY News on Thursday that with barely a month left before school is slated to begin, teachers are anxious and frustrated by the uncertainty. The governor, who closed schools on March 13, reiterated Tuesday that he is deferring a decision on how to proceed until sometime in August. School is set to start Sept. 1.

“They really don’t know planning-wise what they should be expecting,’’ she said.

Under the three potential scenarios outlined last week depending on the level of community spread of COVID-19 — fully in-class learning, hybrid of in-class and remote learning, and fully online-learning — Carney said Tuesday the hybrid model would fit the current situation of minimal-to-moderate spread. The state’s 19 districts are now devising plans for the 2020-21 academic year.

“I know they are working hard to create the plans for the scenarios, but we haven’t seen any plans,’’ Ingram said. “We don’t really know what’s going to be in those plans. So in the absence of that, we just decided that remote learning is the best way to keep everyone safe. It’s the best way to provide quality instruction for our students.”

Ingram said the initial six weeks of remote learning was a consensus decision after meetings with local DSEA leaders and the statewide executive board.

The union’s new position represents a marked hardening of its stance a week ago, when Ingram recommended districts to begin with remote learning “if there is even the slightest doubt’’ students and staff can be safe and that detailed guidance from the Department of Education can be followed.

Two New Castle County districts, Appoquinimink and Brandywine, have already delayed school openings beyond Sept. 1. In addition, the University of Delaware announced Wednesday that almost all classes would be held remotely.

The leadership of the Democrat-controlled state House of Representatives endorsed the union’s latest position.

“We agree with DSEA that until we have a better handle on this virus and a more comprehensive mitigation plan in place, we must prioritize the health and safety of our teachers and students above all else,’’ read a joint statement issued by Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst and Majority Whip Larry Mitchell.

“Beginning the school year using remote learning is the safest option available to us in the current climate. As a state, we must work with our school districts and teachers to make sure they have the resources they need to successfully begin the school year.”

The lawmakers called the union’s 12,500 active teachers and staff, which includes custodians, cafeteria workers and bus drivers, “our frontline workers when it comes to educating our children. The issues and concerns they have raised are more than valid: they are a reason for us to pause and take stock.”

The Bancroft School in Wilmington
The state teachers union wants classrooms like this one at The Bancroft School in Wilmington to be empty until at least mid-October. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“The health and safety of our teachers — as well as the students they educate — have to be our highest priority. While we all would like to seek a return to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible — parents loading their children onto buses and sending them to school, then heading to work — that has to take a backseat to what the health experts, educational leaders, and our own observations tell us.”

Leaders of the Democrat-controlled Senate concurred, saying the union’s concerns “are legitimate and should be strongly considered’’ by district and state education leaders “before our school buildings are reopened” to in-person learning.

“Beginning the school year with remote learning is not only the most prudent option available, it also will provide our educators with the time they need to have their concerns addressed while giving our state an opportunity to deliver the resources they need to return to the classroom in the safest manner possible,’’ President Pro-Tem David McBride, Majority Leader Nicole Poore and Majority Whip Bryan Townsend said in a joint release Thursday.

9 in 10 educators have health, safety concerns

Ingram cited a survey taken by about a third of the union’s active members that found when pondering in-school learning, about 9 in 10 believe it’s important to keep schools closed to help prevent COVID-19 spread, and have concerns about the health of themselves, their families, fellow school staff and students and families.

Keeping buildings shut for at least the first six weeks — until mid-October — would amount to the length of the first marking period for most districts and gives districts time to evaluate the success of remote learning while monitoring Delaware’s ability to control the virus.

To date, Delaware has identified nearly 14,000 confirmed or probable cases of the coronavirus and more than 500 related deaths. The state has been averaging roughly 100 new cases a day, which has put Delawareans on the 14-day quarantine list for New Jersey and New York, and last week for Pennsylvania.

“The virus is so unpredictable,’’ Ingram said. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen in the fall. So there is a possibility that we don’t return to school in October or November just because of what is happening.”

In response to the union and lawmakers’ new recommendation, Carney spokesperson Jonathan Starkey said “the governor will not recommend returning to school even in a hybrid model if it’s not safe for children, educators and staff.”

Starkey added that “it’s still too early to make an informed decision about schools based on the data we have available today. Districts should continue to plan for all three scenarios.”

He said Carney will “continue to follow the science and the data, in close consultation with Delaware’s public health experts’’ and consult with both educators and administrators “on a path forward.”

But Starkey also stressed that having kids in school at least part of the time is important to the governor.

“We need children in school learning, particularly our youngest learners. There is no substitute for in-person instruction. But safety remains the top priority, and we’ll be working over the coming weeks to help districts and teachers get to a place of comfort and confidence.”

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