State’s Poor Pandemic Response Takes Toll on Teachers

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) today released the results of a statewide survey of teachers regarding the experience of teaching during the pandemic. According to the report, 74% of teachers rated the state’s handling of the issues surrounding schools and COVID-19 as “poor.”

The findings should come as no surprise as Governor Bill Lee continues to pursue a privatization agenda while failing to actually do much of anything about the spiking COVID cases.

Here’s the full press release from the TEA:

As students and educators begin the Spring semester, a statewide Tennessee Education Association survey of educators reveals just how difficult and time-consuming the fall semester was on educators across the state. Public school educators are struggling under tough teaching conditions of the pandemic, working longer hours with little training or support—often with inadequately supplied classrooms—and enduring the daily threat and reality of infection.

“Tennessee public school educators have been staying strong for months, taking the challenges of teaching in a pandemic head-on,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Our educators need more support and resources as they begin what will certainly be another difficult semester. As the survey showed, most public school staff are working longer hours with daily disruptions and changing tasks, but with little guidance, support or tangible encouragement from the state. The state must do more to assist with the burdens of teaching in a pandemic.”

In December, more than 7,000 teachers, education support professionals, administrators and certified personnel participated in the confidential TEA survey on education working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. An overwhelming majority of those polled said their work is more or much more difficult than in past years.

Key findings of the survey include:

  • Eighty-four percent of teachers, 78% of administrators and 67% of certified professionals said they are working more hours than in the past.
  • The average Tennessee educator worked an additional 235 hours during the fall semester to overcome pandemic disruptions and maintain quality instruction.  
  • The concern of infection and the disruptions in teaching caused by the pandemic are taking a psychological toll on educators, with 84% reporting a negative emotional impact and half reporting being strongly impacted.
  • An overwhelming 91% of educators teaching virtually said they have been given new assignments and responsibilities that differ from their training and professional practices.

Additionally, a growing number of educators are being diagnosed with COVID-19. The rate of reported infections in the survey match TEA tracking data which shows educators having significantly higher infection rates than the general population and in the communities they serve. TEA estimates more than 16,000 public school educators have contracted the virus since July.  

“Educators are front-line personnel in this pandemic. From the stress of taking care of students and overcoming the disruptions the virus causes, to dealing with the anxiety of being infected and bringing it home to family and loved ones, these past months have been exhausting mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Brown said.   

While educators are critical of school districts’ response to the pandemic, the harshest criticism is leveled at the state government’s response, with 74% of respondents rating the state response poor.

“Our school districts have been left with insufficient guidance from the state, from how to slow infections or when to close schools to providing resources that assist with overcoming disruptions. The survey shows the high level of frustration with state leadership,” Brown said. “We’re 10 months into the pandemic, and one-third of teachers are still less than adequately supplied with personal protective equipment and cleaning materials. Most educators have once again dipped into their own pockets to purchase all the necessary supplies for their classrooms, and there is no excuse for that.”

“The survey confirms that we’ve worked more hours under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, going above and beyond for our students. The administration and legislature must acknowledge the sacrifices we’ve been making and take concrete steps to give us the support and recognition we have earned,” Brown said. 

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Students Set to Return to School as COVID Cases Spike

The head of the Knox County Education Association (KCEA) is calling on that district to begin school this semester in a hybrid or virtual model as COVID-19 cases spike in Knox County and across the state.

WBIR has more:

The Knox County Education Association called for the county’s schools to start the semester in the “red zone” with no in-person learning, or with an alternating hybrid schedule where students alternate in-person days, the group’s president said Monday. 

“We can’t sacrifice lives over politics and we need to do what’s right and what’s best for everyone,” Tanya Coats told 10News. “Educating kids is a priority for us, but we just need to do it remotely from home.” 

The push in Knox County to move to remote learning comes at time when new cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee and in Knox County are increasing.

As WBIR notes, since December 11th:

. . . the county’s health department has reported in excess of 10 thousand more positive tests and more than 100 new deaths tied to the virus. The number of active cases has increased by 62 percent. 

In fact, Tennessee achieved “best in the world” status for COVID transmission rate (the highest rate) in December and the entire state is currently identified as a COVID-19 “hot spot” according to Tennessean reporter Bret Kelman:

Some districts have already announced they will open virtually this semester for at least a few days up to a few weeks. With numbers surging and a post-Holiday spike expected, it’s not clear when conditions will be safe for in-person learning.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee has called a “not so special” session of the legislature to address the issue. That meeting will begin on January 19th.

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Lack of Action

Tonight, Gov. Bill Lee addressed the State of Tennessee in response to a growing crisis as Tennessee is a national and world leader in COVID cases per capita and in the rate of spread of the disease.

Lee insisted that masks work and then refused to issue a mask mandate. He did issue an Executive Order that says very little. It limits indoor social gatherings to 10 or less people but allows high school sports, says nothing about whether schools should or will be open for in-person learning, and does not change current protocol regarding bars and restaurants.

Here’s more on that order:

Lee took no responsibility for his failure to take action up to this point – a failure that has made our state one of the most dangerous places to be in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Tennessee hospitals are strained and residents are sick and dying (10,000 new cases a day, as Lee mentioned), Lee did not acknowledge that his policy ineptitude had anything to do with the current crisis – a crisis not faced at this time at this level anywhere else in the country.

State Representative Gloria Johnson of Knoxville offered this succinct response to Lee’s address:

“More than 6,000 Tennesseans are dead and many of these were preventable deaths. His own administration told us that hospitals are on the brink of collapse. At this point it is impossible to separate COVID-19 suffering and death from Gov. Bill Lee’s refusal to fight this virus.

I have already heard from constituents with hospitalized family members and from doctors who had hopes the governor would listen to their pleas, they were devastated by the lack of action.”

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BREAKING: Rutherford County Schools Moving to Distance Learning

In the wake of a rapidly spreading outbreak of COVID-19, a virus that has already claimed the lives of two district teachers, Rutherford County Schools has announced that it will move to distance learning to until the end of this year. The move will take effect on Wednesday and mean the district will not meet with students in-person from Wednesday through Friday of this, the final week of the semester.

Here are screenshots of an email from the district on the move:

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#CancelBillLee

Center Square reports on how Gov. Bill Lee’s Administration continues to fail our public schools. This time, the news is about how Lee’s team has failed to expend millions of dollars in CARES Act funding at a time when Tennessee teachers are literally dying from COVID.

Here’s more:

More than six months after receiving more than $596 million in federal COVID-19 relief for education, entities in Tennessee have spent just over 43% of the funds, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) and Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE).

Under federal law, states must spend education-related COVID-19 relief within one year of the grant date by the U.S. Department of Education, or funds must be returned to the federal government. Tennessee funds were awarded by the USDOE in late May, so agencies have less than six months to spend the remaining 62 percent of funds before they are returned.

This is also noteworthy:

The federal database does not report how much of the $64 million in Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds awarded to the Tennessee Department of Education the state has spent, but state documents provided to The Center Square reveal the state’s plan for use of those funds, including $30 million earmarked for implementation of a literacy coaching program and literacy training for K-3 teachers statewide.

Let’s just be clear: Gov. Bill Lee cancelled a planned teacher pay increase this year fearing COVID-related economic concerns. Then, received millions in CARES money (Tennessee’s share for education was around $600 million). Lee did not offer teachers a bonus for teaching in a pandemic. He didn’t direct money to schools. His team is just sitting on the cash. Then, they put additional money toward a suspect literacy program.

Let me say this again: Tennessee teachers are dying because of failed leadership at the state level. District leaders look to Bill Lee who says it’s totally fine to operate without a mask mandate and that schools should be open — schools, by the way, are open, even if the buildings are closed. Lee is sitting by while teachers die and sitting on money that could help schools and kids.

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A COVID-19 Delay

The Tennessee Education Association is calling for a statewide delay in reopening schools because of the current levels of COVID-19 infection rates.

Here’s more from a press release:

Recent COVID-19 data does not support reopening school buildings and the resumption of in-person instruction in any part of the state. No system should make the decision to reopen school buildings, and where in-person instruction has begun, it should be suspended by the local district.  

The resumption of in-person instruction is a local decision, as it should be. However, directors and school boards who do not have local health departments with expertise in virus transmission rely on the state, and the state has refused to set thresholds when school buildings must remain closed due to new virus infections

TEA references a Harvard School of Public Health research-based guidelines on school building reopening and the resumption of in-person instruction. Any new case rate over 25 indicates no in-person instruction should resume.

Today 55 of 95 Tennessee counties have more than 25 new cases daily over the past 14 daysAnother 17 counties are ­­above 20 cases with increasing rates in new infections that indicate they will be above 25 if current trends continue.

Yesterday, Dr. Deborah Birx, chief national advisor on the pandemic, said if there are high caseload and active community spread, federal officials are asking people to distance learn at this moment to get the epidemic under control. Birx also said in Nashville last week that rural infection rates are likely far higher that what is reported. 

“Every school system should delay reopening of school buildings and begin the school year via distance learning, and if school buildings have reopened they should be closed. Unlike other states, the governor and commissioner cannot mandate school openings nor penalize districts for delay. This is a local decision and we are putting out virus data to show there is no sound decision on resuming in-person instruction in Tennessee,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Educators want to get back to in-person instruction. However, it is prudent and not contrary to Tennessee law to delay reopening school buildings for the next several weeks, when hopefully the data shows new infections have slowed. Parents and educators should demand this delay and hopefully can use the framework we rely on to inform their local school officials.”

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This

Peter Greene explains pretty much everything you need to know about public education in this post about returning to school amid COVID-19:

Finally, we know that based on everything we think we know right now, the price tag for safely opening schools again is huge. Lots of folks are trying to run numbers, and everyone agrees that the figure will be in the billions—many of them. And simply throwing up our hands and going back to some version of distance learning is, we already know, not much of an option—unless we pour a bunch of money into getting it right.

Teachers know, in their guts, where this is headed. They have seen versions of this movie before. For instance, in 1975 Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which promised every student with disabilities a free appropriate public education. Knowing that meant extra expenses for school districts, Congress promised funding to back IDEA. They have never, in 45 years, honored that promise, and schools have just had to find their own way to meet that unfunded mandate.

We’re having a national conversation about controlling the spread of coronavirus in classrooms where teachers still have to buy their own tissues and hand sanitizer.

THAT^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

And, well, this:

It would be great—absolutely great—if elected officials responded to the current situation by saying, “There is nothing more important than our children’s education, so we are going to do whatever it takes, spend whatever is necessary, to make sure that every single schools has every single resource it could possibly need to make its students and staff safe and secure and able to concentrate on the critical work of educating tomorrow’s citizens. We will spare no expense, even if we have to cut other spending, raise taxes on some folks, or spend more money that we don’t actually have.”

Nobody who has been in education longer than a half an hour expects that to happen.

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