Parkway needs to listen to its educators

According+to+data+from+the+Dec.+21+Parkway+Board+of+Education+meeting%2C+in-school+exposure+to+COVID-19+has+resulted+in+at+least+234+staff+quarantines+and+positive+cases%2C+each+one+represented+by+a+dot+in+the+above+image.

Photo illustration by Tyler Kinzy

According to data from the Dec. 21 Parkway Board of Education meeting, in-school exposure to COVID-19 has resulted in at least 234 staff quarantines and positive cases, each one represented by a dot in the above image.

Consider the Parkway School District’s four-pronged strategy to ensure staff safety amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Creating objective measurement systems that are third-party verified to measure performance against benchmarked standards.
  • Working with recognized subject matter experts and academia to access guidance and to challenge the way we think.
  • Leveraging our scale in our local community to drive the right outcomes.

The fourth plank, however, is far more worrisome.

  • Taking a whole-system approach that considers everything from housing and husbandry to humane slaughter.

These bullet points aren’t from Parkway. They’re lightly-edited excerpts from the McDonald’s Animal Health & Welfare website. The people that made the McRib have a better action plan than the people running our school district.

This was put on full display Dec. 21 when the Parkway Board of Education unanimously voted — through a Zoom meeting, no less — to resume in-person instruction for second semester. The latest proposal is even more aggressive than the one that lasted just two weeks in November. Although the district’s Virtual Campus will remain active, the new reopening plan effectively doubles building attendance for any given day by no longer dividing in-person students into two scheduling groups. All the while, local COVID-19 metrics such as the number of new cases, transmission rate and test positivity rate remain well above the thresholds listed on the Parkway Community Health Dashboard.

That said, this piece isn’t going to focus on the question of whether or not schools should reopen. As a member of the Pathfinder Editorial Board, I would refer you to our October editorial discussing that matter. Rather, I want to echo the sentiments that numerous teachers have expressed to me off the record: the Board of Education’s decision-making process amounts to one slap in the face after another. Educators are the ones who bear the consequences of school board choices; there is no excuse for shutting out their voices.

“This summer, we had a task force to look at what it would look like to begin school. We had administrators and teachers from each level when we started off. Have we pulled that group together since that time? No, we have not,” Parkway Deputy Superintendent Chelsea Watson said at the aforementioned Dec. 21 meeting. “Have we had a large committee, a large group, to give feedback, to ask questions specifically about this plan? No, we have not.”

Instead, Watson cited Parkway National Education Association (PNEA) president Pat McPartland as a de facto liaison between the district and its teachers.

“We have truly depended on Pat McPartland to be the voice of the teachers that he represents,” Watson said. “He’ll have to speak for himself at some point.”

McPartland did speak for himself, delivering a citizen statement roughly an hour prior.

“The Board [of Education] members suggested that before plans or initiatives were presented to the Board, they have received input from many groups, including staff. This has not been true with the creation of the plans that will be shared this evening,” McPartland said. “This is a mistake that can and should be remedied. [Educators] want continuity for students and their learning. They want a plan that addresses concerns about safety for students and staff and reflects the reality of conditions in our area. We ask that there is collaboration with educators to create such a plan for the second semester.”

His speech wasn’t the only one pertaining to teacher input, or lack thereof.

  • PNEA Executive Board member and Central Middle theatre teacher Moira McCracken: “My biggest disappointment this school year is that district administration has left teachers out of the planning process. I’m not talking about surveys or Thoughtexchanges, I’m talking about real problem-solving collaboration. The decision about how to safely learn this year is hard, so why aren’t we asking for input from people who really know what is happening in the classroom?”
  • West High PNEA representative and social studies teacher Jeff Chazen: “As the [West High] PNEA rep, I can state that several teachers are concerned and upset by the lack of voice we have as professionals in the decisions that are being made concerning COVID-19. Many teachers at all levels feel as though we are not being treated as stakeholders and are beginning to lose faith in the decision-making process of Parkway. We should be part of the process, yet people that don’t have to implement the plans in the classroom are the ones that are making all the decisions.”
  • West High social studies teacher Zaven Nalbandian: “I also ask the same question my colleagues asked: why are we not part of the decision-making process from the beginning? It doesn’t make any sense. These are all challenges that we have to face, and challenges in Parkway can be solved. Sickness and death cannot be solved.”
  • Central High English teacher Kemba Metropoulos: “I am concerned there is a lack of voices from teachers, parents and students to formulate this plan. I am concerned about having a plan we can implement to ensure consistency. I am concerned we are not doing enough to protect everyone in our district.”

“Thank you for your comments,” Board of Education president Jeff Todd repeated as speakers were cut from the broadcast after their two minutes elapsed.

It quickly became clear who had spent the past semester in the proverbial trenches and who hadn’t. The teachers showcased their insights into navigating Schoology, accommodating students forced to self-isolate and the logistical challenges brought about by an inconsistent class schedule. By comparison, the administrators could only muster up vague generalities.

“We will continually put pressure on our teachers in the second semester with students who are going to be quarantining or have other needs,” Parkway Superintendent Keith Marty said. “We’re just going to have to do our best to give [teachers] our support.”

Even more troubling were several outright concessions regarding key safety issues. Some classrooms only allow for distancing up to three feet, a direct violation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines to remain six feet apart. Meanwhile, lunch presents an entirely separate list of questions that the district seemingly has no answer to.

“To be honest, [lunchtime is] not the safest time in a building. What our schools will do is the very best they can,” Watson said. “Are we going to have kids closer together eating lunch? Probably. It’s an area that we have to do our very best, which may not prohibit quarantines or exposure.”

Parkway Director of Health Services Robin Wallin correctly noted that the majority of exposure to COVID-19 has occurred outside of school. However, excluding out-of-school transmission from staff data still leaves 26 positive cases and 208 quarantines as of the Dec. 21 meeting, each one imposing a burden on staff members and their families that shouldn’t go understated. These numbers aren’t an abstract body count; they represent how educators are paying the price for decisions they had little-to-no say in making.

At one point in the meeting, Parkway Chief Financial Officer Patty Bedborough casually referenced “a team of our custodial staff that was quarantined.” The anecdote arose not as evidence of how already underpaid employees are jeopardizing their health to work a thankless job, but because the revised second semester calendar will likely require custodians to work overtime conducting building-wide deep cleans.

“We had the request out there for overtime [during first semester] and we did not have a lot of takers or volunteers,” Bedborough said. “We do have that issue where we have very high quality workers, but sometimes they value their family time as well on the weekends.”

It’s a remark that comes off as tone deaf at best. At worst, it underscores the oftentimes exploitative relationship between administration and staff. Substitute teacher shortages were similarly cast aside as inevitable, a mere inconvenience, rather than a byproduct of the district’s failure to keep its educators safe.

“We know that we will continue to have staff members who are not able to come to work,” Watson said. “This is just a reality of where we are.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg with regards to how little agency staff members possess. By the end of the brief in-person stint in November, librarians were managing classrooms to fill vacancies. That proved to be insufficient, as some teachers were asked to give up their planning time — during a year when they must scramble to adapt to the quarter grading system and, in many instances, a blended learning setting — to cover for unavailable colleagues. Despite district contracts stipulating that teachers cannot be forced to accept such a request, staff who spoke with the Pathfinder said they felt powerless to say no to their superiors.

Others were able to avoid this situation by working remotely, but teachers have also had little influence over the Virtual Campus selection process. Teachers were given a questionnaire asking for their preferences, but the only way to ensure a virtual spot was by meeting two criteria. First, a teacher would provide sensitive medical information proving they are a ‘high-risk’ individual vis-a-vis COVID-19. They also needed luck on their side; some courses had an overflow of teachers hoping to land a Virtual Campus position.

Students who voluntarily opted for brick-and-mortar learning are free to attend class via Zoom whenever they wish and for any reason. (As an aside, this forces teachers to simultaneously juggle a physical and virtual classroom to the detriment of students in both.) Some teachers, on the other hand, were assigned back into the building against their will. Parkway implemented a process that does not guarantee a safe workplace for all employees with serious medical concerns, let alone those who care for or live with ‘high-risk’ loved ones.

“Our principals need to work with those teachers that have concerns and put in place things that will help those teachers,” Marty said. “When we talked to other superintendents, what we have heard is fear was a big factor.”

Apparently the issue is fear, not a contagious disease that has killed over 350,000 Americans. About 20 minutes later, Wallin mentions how students lying on their daily screenings and during contact tracing has complicated public health efforts. Parkway doesn’t know if its teachers are safe.

Nor does it care.

“The motion carries 7-0.”

The Board of Education proceeds to add salt to a fresh wound. They go on to enact a paid leave resolution that requires teachers to burn through three personal days before they can access their 10 days of paid COVID-19 leave. They also only offer two-thirds pay should a teacher need to use their leave to care for an infected family member. In a fitting act of poetic cruelty, the policy refers to “the COVID-19 virus” multiple times despite COVID-19 being a disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. If the previous two-plus hours weren’t any indicator, science isn’t a major concern here.

None of this should come as a surprise. The practice of limiting teacher leverage has long been codified, with Missouri state law prohibiting public school teacher strikes. Picketing is allowed under Parkway contracts, and for public union workers statewide following a March 31 Missouri Supreme Court ruling, but many educators, fearing community backlash, are hesitant to even take this step.

The morning after the Board of Education ignored staff members’ input at its Oct. 7 meeting and capitulated to calls to reopen schools in November, I sent a teacher of mine a message.

“If it’s any consolation, know that us underlings care about the people in your shoes.”

I can barely begin to convey my gratitude to Parkway’s staff members because articulating all the ways they support us is an impossible task. Our educators deserve better. They can’t speak up and the district isn’t listening anyway, but the pandemic has made it clear who does have the Board of Education’s ear: taxpayers. Vocal community members got us into this mess. They can get us out of it too.

If you share my concerns, please click here to contact the Parkway Board of Education.