In a school division that prides itself on being a family, Monday’s school board meeting revealed a family in crisis. Five teachers expressed extreme frustration with a ballooning workload they feel they can never escape, and Curtis Harris of Locust Grove, a father of four, told members of the school board they need to take responsibility and help teachers and students deal with the huge challenges of virtual learning during the pandemic.
Later in the meeting, Director of Secondary Instruction Renee Honaker and Director of Elementary Instruction Judy Anderson introduced a group of teachers from Gordon-Barbour Elementary School and Orange County High School who demonstrated how Canvas, the online platform newly introduced this year, enables teachers to run virtual classrooms. Their presentation—not without a few computer glitches—provided a sharp contrast to the remarks during public comment when teachers pleaded for help, their voices occasionally betraying their anguish.
“Crushed by their workload’
John Lyon, president of the Orange County Education Association and a special education teacher at Orange County High School, spoke first during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Lyon said members of the local chapter of the teachers’ organization told him during a recent meeting that they “feel like they are being crushed by their workload,” which is requiring far more time than their contractually obligated eight hours per day.
“Frankly, there are a lot of people that are incredibly frustrated. I’ve had at least four people tell me that they have letters of resignation ready to go, ready to hand in at a moment’s notice when they reach that breaking point. That’s not good,” Lyon said, adding that some teachers have said they’re afraid to express their opinions publicly for fear of retribution.
He also said teachers are upset that they didn’t get the raises they had anticipated this year, and though no one faults the board for the pandemic-related drop in state revenue that took away those raises, he said low pay is “a big sore spot” for many. Further, teachers have told him they are disturbed that the board meets at 4 p.m., when many of them are still at work and unable to attend the meetings.
OCHS drama teacher Robert Kristel spoke next. He began and ended his remarks by expressing his love for the school district where he is in his seventh year of teaching but said he and his colleagues are barely hanging on.
“Right now I’m feeling concerned for my colleagues and myself as to what’s sustainable. I’m used to working long hours, but I’m coming in at 6:45 in the morning. I’m staying at school until six at night and going home, taking an hour break to have dinner with my wife, jumping back on the computer, starting to work until 11 o’clock at night. This is every day for the last three weeks.”
Kristel said he spent 12 hours on Sunday uploading videos on Canvas.
Addressing the somber-faced board members, he said, “I feel like I need to tell you guys that we’re at the breaking point, and we’re only three weeks into the year, and who knows what’s going to happen in October and November, and February?”
Kristel said he thinks of teachers as public servants and believes Orange County teachers are doing a good job for the public. “But please remember we are people as well and we do have families. I have a son that’s going to be born any day now; I start my parental leave today. I’m exhausted. I’m getting stress headaches; I can’t sleep.”
He said he’s stayed in Orange County because he doesn’t “want to be a number” in some other district. “I love the family atmosphere here. I want to be a part of that family. Right now I’m not feeling the love back from the family.”
The other teachers who spoke during public comment were Heather Schmidt, Norm Schmidt and Caroline Carter-McClure, all of OCHS.
“Mentally and emotionally exhausting”
Career tech teacher Heather Schmidt said she and other teachers have been getting calls from angry parents, “actually screaming at us” out of frustration with the online learning setup. She said she realizes the parents are “having a really bad day,” but for teachers, attempting to do their work and address parents’ concerns, “It’s just exhausting, mentally and emotionally exhausting.”
She said the Orange County Schools have not clarified the attendance policy since May and that there are students who have not logged on to Canvas since August. She noted that OCHS students are searching for information on “the middle school page” because they can’t find the answers they need on the OCHS Canvas site.
English teacher Norm Schmidt read a letter from Patrice Day-Owens, a career tech teacher at the high school who was unable to attend the meeting. In her letter, Day-Owens said teachers ‘are not feeling part of the process” as the schools attempt to offer a complete education online.
Given the demands of their online teaching duties, which don’t easily accommodate time off, Day-Owens wrote that teachers feel they “can’t take sick time unless we are dying—literally.”
Speaking of his own frustrations, Norm Schmidt said parents and students didn’t receive adequate training in the use of Canvas, which replaces Google Classroom, the online platform the school division used in the spring during the early weeks of the pandemic.
Carter-McClure, a special education teacher, is a familiar face to school board members. The step-daughter of the late Judy Carter, a longtime board member, Carter-McClure told the board, “I feel like I’m under toxic stress.”
She said she is not “an alarmist” by nature, but the pressures of the pandemic combined with the increased workload have been overwhelming.
“You guys should be getting yelled at”
Curtis Harris offered a parent’s viewpoint. Speaking calmly, Harris nevertheless made his anger and exasperation very clear. He said he and his wife pulled their sixth-grader out of the local schools after the boy dissolved into tears of frustration when he couldn’t get Canvas to work properly.
Harris said that teachers don’t deserve to bear the brunt of parents’ frustration. “You guys should be getting yelled at,” he told the board members. “Please, listen to the teachers in your district. We have to do better. Please, do better.”
During the Canvas demonstration, several teachers voiced no complaints as they walked the board members through the technology teachers and students use every day.
Mustering smiles, OCHS teachers Laura Beth Chambers and Shelly Dean described how they work online with special needs children.
“We’re pretty much Zooming all day long with our students because they need the socialization,” Chambers said. She projected an image on the boardroom screen showing children in a virtual Zoom class. She added that she and her colleagues continue the Zoom meetings during the children’s lunchtime.
Although Chambers and Dean and the teachers from Gordon-Barbour appeared on top of their Canvas game, it was obvious they, too, are pushing themselves beyond normal expectations—and that they had to become full-time techies, whether they wanted to or not.
“Lean on each other for some support”
After the Canvas presentation, during the Q&A session with board members, Honaker told the board she understands the impact the pandemic has had on public education in Orange County: “I know this is hard on teachers and on families,” she said, her voice breaking. “We’ll get better.”
She acknowledged that Canvas “does have its quirks.” Speaking to the larger issue, Honaker added, “This is an unprecedented time, but we do support [teachers] and we want them to know this.”
Board chair and District 2 representative Sherrie Page said she felt “empathy for everyone sitting in this room. … My heart breaks for everyone in here. I beg of you to lean on each other for some support.”
Page said that teachers need to realize that completing every lesson is not as important as “reaching that kid and making that connection.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Cecil Snead said he is aware that all the people involved in the school division’s pandemic learning experiment are “in different development stages.”
He said, “This is a very disciplined, strong-willed process that has no shortcuts,” he said of the school year in progress. “Along the way, it is painful.”
Given that the schools have “hit a situation that we can’t fix”—the logistical nightmare created by the pandemic—“we have to grow into it.”
One thing is clear: the Orange County School administration is trying mightily to cobble together a meaningful educational experience for the 4,740 students Snead said are enrolled this year, while frantic teachers, students and parents are losing sleep over every dropped Wi-Fi connection and every assignment that mysteriously vanishes into the ether.
Positive case at OCHS
A positive virus case is not helping matters in the least. Last week, Snead announced that a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. A letter sent to OCHS staff and families revealed that the person in question worked at the high school: “Students who were in the same classroom as this individual or who are considered close contacts have been notified separately, as they may be at a higher risk.” The letter went on to note that school personnel were working closely with the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District “to identify the steps that need to be taken to keep our students, staff and families safe and healthy.” There were no plans to put in-person classes on hold due to the positive case.
On Tuesday morning, Snead said via email, “The learning curve for everyone is quite extensive. Our solution addresses needs for those children who attend face-to-face and for those who select a 100% virtual solution. We all have had concerns about the sustainability of our work pace at some point in time throughout; however, what we have learned and witnessed at different stages in the process is that the intensity over a period of time becomes more manageable.
“For example, you witnessed a demonstration by teachers who created an exemplar in teaching at the high school level and elementary level. They demonstrated the Canvas platform and engagement activities. As I've visited elementary, middle and high school classrooms across the division, this expert level of use seems to be more of the norm.”
He noted that teachers and other staff members are eligible for emotional support from the school division’s insurance company and OC Cares, a new program making use of activities and a book called “Onward,” by Elena Aguilar.
“This, as with all other measures, continues to be developed as time progresses,” Snead said.