By Scott Buttram, publisher
TRUSSVILLE — Publisher’s note: Multiple teachers, parents and students reached out to the Tribune with concerns as schools reopened in Trussville last week. While the Tribune confirmed the identity of each individual, we agreed to keep their identities private so they could speak freely. Additionally, the Tribune received anonymous comments from people purporting to be be teachers whose identity we could not confirm. Those comments were not used for this story.
State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey urged Alabama school systems to delay opening until later in August, a suggestion that most school systems in the state followed. Additionally, Dr. Mark Wilson, health officer for the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH), made further recommendations for the safe reopening of schools in Jefferson County which had been hardest hit with COVID-19 infections and deaths.
Wilson’s recommendations included all elementary students, which are least likely to spread the virus, returning to class while wearing protective face coverings and maintaining social distance. Middle and high schools, where students are more likely to spread the virus, were urged to either offer virtual classes only for the first nine weeks or use a blended option which divides the student body into two groups with each group attending school on alternating days to keep on-campus capacity at 50% or less at all times.
Wilson’s recommendation for middle and high schools stated, “If schools decide to provide in-person instruction, then (I)t is strongly recommended that schools use whatever means they can employ to decrease the number of students who come in contact with each other, such as a hybrid (A/B Schedule) in-person and virtual instruction plan splitting the student body in half so neither half is in is in the physical school space together at the same time. Have a well developed plan that can be fully implemented on day 1 of classes and followed completely at all times.”
A zip code map provided by JCDH shows that out of 25 county districts and more than 50 zip codes, 35173 has the second highest positive COVID infections per capita in Jefferson County as of Thursday, Aug. 20. That’s up from sixth highest just over two weeks ago on Aug. 5.
Of the 11 schools systems in Jefferson County, eight systems followed the JCDH recommendations. Those systems include Homewood, Hoover, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Birmingham, Jefferson County, Leeds, Fairfield and Bessemer. Only two, Tarrant schools and Trussville schools, followed a different path.
Trussville City Schools began the reopening process on Wednesday, August 12. TCS used a staggered start with roughly one third of the student body returning each day for three days. On Monday, August 17, all students who chose the on-campus option, about 80% of the student population, arrived in full force. About 300 students chose the blended plan which puts them on campus with traditional students two days a week.
Despite not following the state suggestion of delaying the start of school or following the county recommendations, TCS earned high praise from Dr. Wilson of JCDH for the reopening plan.
“I think the main thing to focus on is reducing the class sizes or the number of students in a classroom, at a time, to approximately 50%,” Wilson said on Aug. 12. “As I understand it, that’s what Trussville City Schools has done, but it’s just doing it in a more creative way than some of the other school systems are doing.”
TCS superintendent Dr. Pattie Neill said the school system reduced the number of desks in each room to ensure around a 50% capacity in each room. Wilson explained that is one of the reasons the TCS plan works.
“On the surface of it, it may look like they aren’t following the letter of the recommendations exactly, but I think they actually are achieving it, just in a more creative way,” Wilson added.
But according to multiple middle and high school teachers and students, the 50% reduction in classrooms is not happening.
The opening process led to conversations with teachers across all levels of education in Trussville including elementary, middle and high school.
The good news
One common theme among all teachers at all levels was the appreciation of principals and assistant principals in navigating the reopening.
Teachers said that it feels like school administrators are following directives but the directives keep changing. That was most apparent in the days right before reopening.
“Our administrators here at the high school are working their tails off, but it looks like they’re having to react to everything changing,” one high school teacher said. “We were still moving desks in and out of classrooms as students were returning to campus.”
“You can sense their frustration but they are totally focused on helping us make it work,” another HTHS teacher said.
“My principal has been responsive to every issue that I’ve brought to her,” a middle school teacher said.
“My suggestion to other teachers has been to take a problem to Jennifer (Abney) before venting about it,” another middle school teacher said. “Give her a chance to help fix it. I think every teacher that has done that will tell you that she’s been great. But she also has to follow what she’s being told to do. The biggest problems are beyond her control.”
Elementary teachers that spoke to the Tribune echoed the sentiments of the middle school and high school teachers regarding campus administration.
Parents of elementary students said the same.
“Joy Tyner has personally responded to every email,” a Cahaba Elementary parent said. “I know how many things she is dealing with and she still takes the time to answer every question. I couldn’t ask for a better principal for my child.”
Students and parents are cooperative
Another positive feeling expressed by teachers was the cooperation from students and parents as the schools reopened.
“These kids are amazing,” an HTHS teacher said. “When they come in the building, they doing all they can to make this work. I’m so proud of them.”
“These kids are smart, okay? They know they aren’t at high risk,” a high school teacher said. “But they know their parents and grandparents may be. They don’t want to be the reason an adult in their home gets sick. They’re trying their best to protect their families.”
“My students and their parents are a bright light in all of this,” an HTMS teacher said. “I’ve taught in other systems and I know they aren’t this way in other places. They are cooperative and their parents are supportive. From that standpoint, I couldn’t ask for any more.”
“When you’re talking about kindergarteners or fifth graders, they’re just babies,” an elementary teacher said. “It’s hard to keep a mask on all day at that age, but they’re trying so hard. I spend a lot of time comforting and reassuring them that they’re doing a great job. I’m getting emotional just talking about them.”
“Okay, the parents,” another elementary teacher said. “They’ve had a lot of questions and they still do, especially the parents of virtual students. But I feel like they are behind me 100%. It’s been pretty amazing.”
Classroom size has not been reduced to 50%
Despite the insistence by Dr. Wilson of JCDH and Dr. Neill of TCS, middle and high school teachers and students said that classroom capacity has not been reduced to 50%. In many cases, teachers said it’s not even close. Elementary teachers said that practicing social distancing is problematic.
“Here’s an example,” an HTHS teacher said. “I have a class with 27 students. Three are virtual and two are blended. I have 20 desks in my room so I have 20 students in that class with at least two being sent to the learning lab. I’m not a math teacher but I know 20 out of 27 is not 50%. That same situation plays out in every one of my classes and with every teacher I’ve talked to.”
“When I read that Dr. Neill had added the blended option to the traditional option, honestly, I thought you guys (The Tribune) were confused,” another high school teacher said. “Then I found out your story was correct and I was dumbfounded. Why would you add a blended option if you’re going to keep the traditional option? It doesn’t make any sense. All of my classes are well above 50% capacity.”
“The (Tribune) story with Dr. Neill saying classes would be at 50% was the reasons teachers started talking to you,” a middle school teacher said. “That’s not true at all. That article set us on fire and that’s when we knew we had to speak up. I’m concerned that there are parents out there who made decisions based on misinformation.”
“Okay, the 50% claim,” and HTMS teacher said. “That’s baloney. It isn’t happening and everyone knows it.”
“No, classes are not at 50%,” an HTHS student said. “It looks like they removed a couple of desks and spread everybody out a little more, but all of the desks are full. I would say classes are a little smaller, but cut in half? No. Not even close.”
“Trying to socially distance 19-21 elementary school-aged students is impossible no matter what protocols are in place,” an elementary teacher said. “It’s not in a 6, 7, or 8-year-old’s nature to distance from one another.”
Contact tracing if a student tests positive
Most every category measured to track coronavirus spread in Alabama is trending downward. There has been nothing but good news as the statewide numbers continue to decline. State health officer Dr. Scott Harris has said the key to keeping the numbers down as schools reopen is aggressive contact tracing. Some teachers said that would be a problem at TCS.
“We have the desks six feet apart,” an HTHS teacher said. “I’m afraid if a student tests positive, the distance of the desks will be used as an excuse not to contact other students of a positive test. That defeats contact tracing completely.”
“Even if we buy into the myth that the six-foot distance will somehow stop the spread in a classroom, we’re still sending 80% of our students into the hallway at the same time between classes,” said another high school teacher. “There’s no way to track that.”
“Contact tracing? Good luck with that,” a middle school teacher said. “The halls are packed when the bell rings. Teachers are busy cleaning their classroom so they can’t help distance students. In the cafeteria, they’ve gone from one seat between students to two seats. But the students across the table are still much closer than six feet. Masks are off because they’re eating, talking, laughing, being teenagers. This cannot be avoided with 80% of your students on campus at the same time. No way.”
Demands on teachers go beyond what was promised
In a recent meeting of the Trussville City Schools BOE, Dr. Neill told board members that teachers were given a choice between teaching virtually or in class. She said teachers who chose virtual were given virtual and teachers that chose traditional were given traditional. But teachers say that is not the way the reopening unfolded.
“We were told to choose between virtual and face to face,” an HTHS teacher said. “Now we’re doing both, sometimes in the same class.”
“I have classes with traditional, virtual and blended students and I’m teaching all three groups at the same time,” a high school teacher said. “Let me put this in a way everybody in Alabama can understand. Let’s say the coach calls a play and the quarterback is running one play. The offensive line is running another play and the backs and receiver are running a completely different play. Go ask Josh Floyd how that is going to work out. Somebody is going to get their bell rung.”
“We are required to teach our regular lessons Monday – Friday which takes all our typical planning and facilitate virtual lessons for three days a week for students who are in the blended model,” an elementary teacher said. “With less than an hour training session via zoom.”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about giving a test,” a high school teacher said. “I’ve got students in a classroom, in a learning lab and at home. Students need to be able to ask questions and get clarifications during tests. How are they supposed to do that while spread out in three places? How do I monitor virtual students and students in a learning lab during a test?”
Virtual technology problems
Teachers, students and parents said they were also dealing with technical problems with Schoology, the online platform provided by the state. Additionally, PLP, the curriculum piece for virtual learning is creating problems for the staff.
” I was sent to a ‘learning lab’ and told to sign in to Schoology to do my assignment,” a middle school student said. “The class was almost over before I could even sign in. I just kept getting no connection messages on my Chromebook.”
“When I’ve uploaded PowerPoints and documents, the website scrambles them,” an HTHS teacher said. “I have to do it all over again. This doesn’t seem very well thought out.”
“We have smart teachers that can’t figure out Schoology,” a middle school teacher said. “I mean if they’re coming to me for help, you know there is a problem.”
“Both of my kids are virtual,” a parent said. “Sometimes they can’t sign on at all. Other times, they sign on, do their assignments and think they’re through. Later, we see more assignments that weren’t there the first time. It looks like some work assignments aren’t loading like the teachers expected them to.”
On Thursday, Dr. Neill sent an email to teachers thanking them for their work. The email included correspondence from Devlynne Barnes from the Alabama State Department of Education where Barnes serves as Educational Administrator and Educational Technology.
Barnes praised TCS for the amount of training offered to teachers saying, “Trussville has risen above in training teachers and schools for Schoology and PLP.” Barnes called TCS a ‘model system.'”
Teachers say the training consisted of a 45-minute video and two additional one-hour videos. Teachers responded strongly to the suggestion that online training had been adequate.
“What a lie,” an elementary teacher said. “We have received one 45 minute training and been offered two one hour optional training sessions. Keep in mind this was offered while we were trying to set up our classrooms because we didn’t get in them until one week before school.”
“Yeah that is very misleading,” an HTHS teacher said. “Yes, they held lots of training but is was working with small groups of teachers for 45 minutes at a time. Most of us only know as much we do because we sought out our own training on our own time.”
“Like we had a choice,” a middle school teacher said. “Sink or swim.”
All of the teachers said the problems they are seeing are more related to the Schoology platform and early opening of the schools.
“We have a great technology department at TCS,” a high school teacher said. “Honestly, I’ve worked in multiple systems and our technology people blow them all away. But you have to remember, they were dealing with an unreasonable timeline, too. That’s why almost every school system in Alabama waited a week or 10 days to open schools. I would have loved to have seen what our tech department could have done with a little more time.”
“The problem is that training on how to get on the website and use Schoology is only one piece of the puzzle,” an HTMS teacher said. “After you sign on and actually start to use it, you begin to discover the problems. Technology has bent over backward to help us fix glitches and make suggestions to get it to work. But we have what, 500 hundred teachers, and only few technology employees? We should never have rushed the opening. That was a big mistake that another week may have resolved.”