Summary of September 16, 2020 meeting
A Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Teacher Advisory Council meeting was held via Zoom conference on Wednesday, Sept. 16.
This group meets with the Superintendent to hear a broad overview of issues facing Lincoln Public Schools. Members are then invited to make comments and ask questions. After the meeting, a summary will be sent to council members so it can be shared with staff members in their buildings.
Update from Superintendent Steve Joel
This is an important meeting because we’ve been at it now for about a month and we’re very, very interested in getting your thoughts, your opinion and your suggestions. We’re at a point now where we’re trying to evaluate our programs. We’re in the process of garnering survey information from both teachers and parents to get a sense of how things are working. And I want to say at the beginning of this, and I know I speak for my entire team and our board: You’re doing amazing work, and we’re so appreciative for it, and you’re doing it under very, very difficult conditions. I’ve been in close to 30 schools and a lot of classrooms and my hat’s off to you, because I think we’ve all had to respond professionally and certainly what’s happening in our classrooms has been nothing short of spectacular. We also know it’s difficult and there’s some stress associated with that and probably a lot more planning. I hope we hear from parents that what we’re doing In terms of the options that we’ve given them are workable. I want to give you an overview of where things stand and what we see coming. We meet twice a week with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. I know there’s a lot of alarm right now within the community with regard to the number of positive tests. We know what occurred right after the university and Wesleyan came back – it really ramped up the numbers. We think the university has put in some measures to try to address that and we look for those numbers to come down.
The three-two solution at the high school has been a very, very good thing. We’re under quite a bit of community pressure to get high schools up to 100%. I think people have been very patient and very interested in supporting us but they also yearn for that day when our students can be back. People have very, very strong opinions on what we should be doing. I can’t remember a time where we had this many people either annoyed or angry with us with regard to decisions we are making or we’re not making. I don’t know how to fix that. I think people are trying to remember what life was like in LPS or their own personal lives on March 12. People have always looked at Lincoln Public Schools as one of the top school districts in the country – and I believe they still believe that, although it’s not the experience they’re used to. I think we have put a plan together and executed a plan better than any in the country. That’s always going to be subject to debate and discussion and we understand that it’s not perfect. We’ve told ourselves that and I’ve tried to message to teachers, you’re perfectionists and you all take incredible pride in your work, but in this case it just can’t be perfect.
October 1 will be the announcement of enrollment for the district and we’re preparing ourselves for lower enrollment. We don’t know how much lower but that’s never a good thing regarding the school funding formula and how budgets are developed. One of the concerning things that I think every district in Nebraska is dealing with is there’s a 100% increase in home school applications across the state. We’re not going to be immune to that. You may have some students that have done that, and one of the things that we’re hearing is that parents chose that is because they’re scared. So we’re going to be monitoring enrollment. And certainly we know that will affect next year’s budget, so we’ve got some significant budgetary considerations that we have to be thinking about.
The last thing I’ll talk about – and I’d like to get some feedback from you – is our emphasis on equity, diversity and inclusion. There should have been one training module that was delivered at each buildings. I’d love some feedback on that because the September module is complete and October should be delivered probably soon. What we experienced in July in the city of Lincoln was unprecedented. A lot of our students have just really struggled with what that represented. We’ve had many, many conversations with community groups. We’ve assembled a diversity team with district level leaders and we’ve created a community team that is about 20 strong. They’re helping us really understand what’s happening in our community because one of the things we do know about education is what occurs in society gets played out in schools and can lead to the best conversations. We’ve had virtual town hall forums with students that have been incredibly enlightening for me with regard to the student experience in a school system where 94-95% of the staff is white. We’re happy to report this year that we increased staff diversity by another 1%, which doesn’t sound like a lot but it is. We’ve been on a cultural proficiency journey for quite a while but we’re really going to dig much deeper and try to as a school district make sure that our educational experiences for students represent cultural diversity and that we’re teaching cultural diversity.
Elementary teacher comment: I’m really impressed with the kids. The kids are keeping their masks on and understanding why we’re here and how we have to do things. The first couple of weeks, it was hard to keep them three feet apart and six feet apart without their masks at recess but they’re pretty darn understanding. They know we can’t go on field trips, we’re not going to have our end-of-the year celebration, but they’re trying to make the most out of every day. The hard part that we’re seeing from the teachers’ point of view is the lack of subs. It’s what is right for the kids at the time but having no subs is really hard in our building and the double planning time that it takes to make all the remote learners have exactly what they need that far ahead is cutting into the deep planning that we usually have as teams.
Steve Joel: Thank you very much, I appreciate that. Quick question for you: Do you give your students a mask break?
Elementary teacher: Oh, yeah, absolutely. We do about three a day.
Steve Joel: Yeah, that emerged yesterday amongst some parents in our district that we don’t have enough mask breaks for elementary students, and we’ve kind of taken exception to that. So thank you.
Elementary teacher: We try to take them outside for a lot of that time. And then they can sit. We’ve had a bunch of towels donated that they can sit on the grass and do their reading and their annotating and so we have quite a large break a couple days a week and then three small ones most days
Middle school teacher: I would say the same thing. We’re impressed with the students that are keeping their masks on and sanitizing all the time. Sometimes their hands do kind of start falling apart because that is a lot per day. It’s very powerful stuff for a good reason.
I don’t know if anybody else has experienced this in terms of the sheer volume of what we call Zoomers or remote learners, we can feel the difference of having over 200 people missing in the hallway. Again, it makes things even more manageable at school. As far as our Zooming situation, the hardest part is you can request them to turn on their camera and being a band person I want them to play. And I’ll say please play so I know you’re there. If they’ve logged on, you see a name across there, but I still don’t hear from the student. I’m lacking that engagement factor because we don’t know where they’re at for sure. We’re allowed to request but we’re not allowed to require is what I’ve been told. That’s the frustrating part as far as achieving with the remote learner. And again, access is an issue for our demographics, in terms of having transportation. We’ve even opened up on Saturday mornings so that parents can get there and pick up materials for the students for class. But we still have a lot of materials sitting in the office still, so it’s a real struggle with the remote learner. And that’s a challenge for all of us, I would say.
Steve Joel: I just want to follow up on the reason to make sure you can’t activate a camera remotely. That’s almost entirely an information security consideration. And you can see that if we have the ability to activate a camera remotely, particularly without any agency by the person on the other side of it, what we might see could be problematic for any number of reasons. So for that reason, and for issues of their privacy, it’s just not something that we can do.
Middle school teacher: Right, and that’s what’s been explained, but on the flip side when I’m asking a student to answer a question or to be engaged, and they don’t flip on the microphone, any suggestions for that?
Steve Joel: What I would do from an engagement perspective on that is some kind of cadence, having an expectation that, Hey guys, I’m going to be doing regular checks. And I’m going to need some kind of audio feedback from you. Because if I don’t get that, then I can’t verify that you’re there.
Middle school teacher: Sometimes, too, I let their parents know that hey, it’s been three days and I’ve called on your son or daughter and I’ve gotten no response whatsoever. And again, sometimes it could be an internet problem. We don’t know if that’s part of the problem too. We just don’t know what’s going on – whether they take a bathroom break or something like that – we just don’t know.
Steve Joel: I completely appreciate and understand that. To the degree that we can control it and intervene, we try to. One of the things that we’ve told a lot of parents is when they chose remote, they took on a responsibility to make sure their student was engaged and we weren’t going to be able to police that like we could in the classroom. And I would just say, don’t frustrate yourself too much. Do the best you can to connect with them. Thank you for your effort.
High school teacher: I teach at Southwest High School, and the three-two plan is going way better than I thought it was going to go. I didn’t think that kids would want to have their cameras on and want to be unmuted and stuff like that. But they have performed better than I was expecting. And how I communicated my expectations to them, I said, hey, I can’t make you do this. I can’t force it. But it would be really cool so that we could all get to know each other. I’m real big on relationship building. And it has been a process; it wasn’t easy. But now we’re starting to build a sense of community because we have a lot A kids and B kids and Z kids. And so it’s blossoming with patience. But the biggest struggle I would say is the wait time – like asking a question. Sometimes I’ll literally countdown, 5-4-3-2-1, and if I don’t hear anything back, I move on. Just for the pacing and sequence in a lesson or in a conversation and discussion, it’s been very challenging. And with internet access and what gigs speed – that’s a challenge. But it’s going a lot better than I was expecting.
Questions and Answers
Question: Will we be able to stay in school the way we are, even if Lancaster County and the City of Lincoln push us into the red? What kind of information and how much lead time will we give if we do go into the red and we go 100% remote?
Answer: First, let me let me tell you that I can’t see a point in time where we will be red based on the risk dial. We’ve been told that is when there is uncontrolled virus spread. Having said that, what we said at the beginning of this is that we have had zero school spread. That tells us and it should tell parents in the community that the safest place really is school, as long as we continue doing our mitigation steps. We would have the option of, if we do go red, we would have the option of continuing school. We would work with the health department on that. We’re big believers that school really needs to be open if at all possible. But if we go into a shelter in place, or everything gets shut down, of course that would change that. When we wrote our plan, back in June, we tried to tie everything to the risk at that time, but we’ve learned so much more about this virus and how it spreads. I know as soon as the risk dial goes down, people are screaming and yelling, no more masks, get everybody back in school. The risk dial goes up and it’s, are you going to close schools down? I think it’s a blessing and a curse that people are conditioned to the risk dial. Now in terms of notice, I have a weekly phone call with the mayor, a couple of times a week with the health department director, and they will give us plenty of notice if in fact there’s going to be a dramatic change in the risk dial. But again, I don’t anticipate that being the case.
Question: To follow up, when we did dip down into the yellow why didn’t we go 100% in-person with the high schools?
Steve Joel: It was great to celebrate yellow, but one week does not a trend make and we proved to be right. We knew college was coming back. And if we were yellow and the college kids weren’t here, we probably would have brought back our high school students.
Question: The next question group is about remote learners, Zoom and engagement, particularly on the secondary level. We’ve talked about being able to turn on the camera, managing Zoom and in-person teaching at the same time, elementary specials, traveling vs. staying in their spaces. So I think the question is, elementary specialists are having to travel from classroom to classroom, and it’s a challenge. Is there any discussion about changing that?
Matt Larson: The answer is yes. We’re having a great deal of conversation about changing that. We’ve been discussing it with Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department and my best advice is to stay tuned over the next week or two. We appreciate that that’s a concern for specialists who have to move and move all of their stuff. And it’s also a concern for classroom teachers who don’t have access to the room while the specialist is in there. So we’re very empathetic towards that concern.
Question: How can we make Zoom more sustainable should this last longer to help teachers who have blended Zoom and in-room learners at the high school level?
Steve Joel: That’s that’s a question we’d like to pose to you. Based on your experiences and your conversations, what suggestions would you have that would provide some relief and/or help with management of the dual option?
High school staff member: I had an opportunity to teach summer school. I’m in the counseling center now. And from that experience of summer school, where I just had a full Zoom classroom, it was really easy to monitor and to have everybody on the same page. But speaking to colleagues in the building, I think they feel like they’re either locked to their screen with their Zoom learners and then they miss out on that engagement with students in their seats. And vice versa. I’ve talked to students on my caseload, and they’ll even say, sometimes you just feel like you get more attention when you’re Zooming versus in the class because teachers are just having a hard time balancing that. So on the high school level, I think, with a lot of those classes that are graduation requirements, it would be a really cool opportunity to see if the district could calculate how many students around the district are taking that particular class and have one teacher from different high schools teaching those remote learners – like a virtual high school, because I think that would be a lot easier for teachers to manage. And I think the Zoom learners would get a lot more out of that opportunity. Like when I look back at summer school, my students were always engaged. I didn’t really even have to ask them too often to turn on their cameras except for some students with anxiety issues. And it was just a different community because I think they all knew they were Zoom learners together. And it wasn’t. I have two students with the same name in one class. And whenever the teacher would call out that name in the classroom, my Zoom student got very frustrated and didn’t know who they were talking to, which created a lot of anxiety in the first two weeks of school.
Steve Joel: Good suggestion. That’s something that we certainly are going to continue to think about. Thank you for that.
Elementary teacher: On the elementary level, it would be nice if we didn’t have so many blended classrooms. It’s really hard. I teach second grade. And you know, the kids are on the screen a really long time. And even though we give them breaks, to be there for the instruction – it’s just really long for seven-year- olds, and they do the dancing and all that kind of stuff.
Steve Joel: Did you have that conversation amongst your grade-level team at your school because we have three or four elementary schools where they’ve actually designated a Zoom teacher?
Elementary teacher: Yes we did. And we do have some – our first grade is doing that. I think that’s great. It would be nice if that was more of an expectation because really, it was left up to our teams. And there were strong feelings. It would just be better if it was, we should have it or have it, versus leaving it up to individuals because it doesn’t always work out the way that we want it to/
Steve Joel: Thank you for that. And I appreciate it. And we deliberately wanted the school building to make that a site-based decision and within teacher teams. I think Dr. Larson and I were surprised we didn’t have more interest in that than we actually did. Maybe we do need to more strongly encourage it. So thank you.
High school teacher: I didn’t have the same classroom type experience you did this summer but one of the things we had talked about amongst summer school teachers at the time was possibly thinking about a block schedule for more than just Southwest. And again, you’re talking about a complete change and lots of logistics. But that nine-week term is a little easier if somebody has a long-term absence or illness, which we haven’t seen much of thankfully, and also builds in a little bit of cushion because there are 80 credits available instead of the 70. I don’t actually know if that’s a good suggestion, honestly. But that was one thing we had discussed this summer – would students it be easier to only move them four times. I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not, but it’s something we had discussed as a group of teachers over the summer school about would that be an option for more than just Southwest.
Elementary school teacher: I can kind of just reiterate what the other elementary teachers said, that the Zoom kids and the kids in the classroom at the same time is very difficult. And one of my concerns coming up with music is that so much of it is observation. Typically I would be wandering around the room. But then my Zoomers are just left there with nothing in front of them other than the screen that’s projecting. And then I have concerns for when grading time comes. I couldn’t really tell you how my Zoomers are doing because a lot of times the internet plays a factor when they go to respond, I can’t hear them or it’s delayed. And then if they hang out for a while, they tend to find other things to do if I’m not right there in front of them. So I’m kind of struggling with that aspect as well. And I would reiterate that I think doing all Zoom or all in classroom would be much more beneficial for both sets of kids.
Elementary school staff member: I agree about how hard it is to do the planning and how hard it is to do the engagement. Having had to sub in five places this last week because of my job position, I’m really glad that I know how to Zoom and how to do all the Zooming engagement in classes. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to have those kids in the room at the same time. And I know some schools are taking the Zoom kids to other classrooms if there’s a substitute, but I’m glad that I had the opportunity to do that so I feel more comfortable if we were to have to do a lot of it.
Elementary school teacher: When the suggestion came out to have a Zoom class, our team had the thought that we had put so many hours and hours and hours into our classroom and knowing who our kids were, that to actually have a Zoom classroom we’d have to change so many things and put so many more hours in to changing that. It felt overwhelming at that time. Now looking back on it we wish we would have, however, it also would have made our other classrooms a lot bigger, and we can’t social distance with all those kids. So that was another factor – making those other classrooms so much bigger.
Steve Joel: How many Zoom students do you have?
Answer: I have five.
Elementary school teacher: Our team felt the exact same way when that came out at the beginning of the school year. We sat down and kind of talked about it. And I told my team, we could have one really, really stressful day at work but it saves us in the end from being stressed about doing multiple things in our classrooms. So I now teach all of our remote learners, and we have 26 in the fifth grade at my school. So I just do full Zoom all day long with the kids. And it’s the best decision that we could have made. And I don’t know if it’s something that teams could change now that we started the school year and class lists are made. But if it would be possible for schools or teams to adjust that, it has honestly been the best decision that we could have made as a team. Then one of my teammates ended up getting sick with the virus and she’s been gone. So that allowed me to be the sub in her room. And I already had all of my procedures established and my kids were doing fantastic. And I was able to teach the same curriculum with her kids. But with us having larger Zoom numbers – she has 11 kids in her classroom – it made it really easy to have that fluid movement and we’re not cross-contaminating. But I don’t know if we could switch that now that the school year started, but I would highly recommend it if it’s possible.
Matt Larson: You can change right now. You simply have to work with your team and your principal. We made this change just last week at one of the elementary schools and in fifth grade. You have to communicate it very clearly with your parents and Mindy Burbach can help you with that. Because while you will solve the problem or the challenges for you as a group of teachers, you will simultaneously upset a group of parents who don’t want their children to be moved from their teachers. So you simply have to decide if you’re willing and able to respond to those questions and parent concerns about the changing of a class list, you can change class lists at anytime you want. You simply work with your team and your principal and you’re free to do that. In fact, we wouldn’t discourage you from doing that. We just want you to be aware that you’ll need to carefully craft a message and Mindy has templated messages ready to go around that because we have already done it. We want our parents to be happy. We want them to have confidence in our work, but we also want to be able to produce the best work we can and when we put it to parents that way, they understand it. So there is that messaging piece.
Elementary school teacher: I was just going to add to that we had a Zoom teacher who was just doing all the Zoomers and then we had the other three classrooms. This is fifth grade and this in a full class of Zoomies as we call them. But she was kind of getting burnt out from Zooming in with the kids all day and not actually teaching to live bodies in the room. So something cool they did is they started co-teaching. She brought her computer in there and they tag team. Somebody would teach math and then somebody would teach reading. A teacher could be right there next to the computer and help the kids who are Zooming. I thought that was really a unique way to give each other a break.
High school teacher: I teach at Brian Focus Program and I think in so many ways we’re unique. But I’m going to guess that we have the highest percentage of remote students – as of today we’re at 43% remote. Because we’re so small, and there’s just there are fewer than 20 of us, none of us teach the same thing. So I teach five different preps and no one else in my building teaches those classes. For us to have a dedicated Zoom teacher would be really difficult. At the same time, this has had some really positive effects for some of our students who come to us because they struggle in the building, they struggle with attendance, they have crises at home, keeping them from being in the building. I just wonder long term, if there’s any way to think about keeping some sort of remote options to maybe offset some of the homeschooling numbers that could end up sticking after the pandemic for some of these families, that for whatever reason, figure out this works better for their family but don’t necessarily want to be lesson planning or buying curriculum and those kinds of things. It might be an idea for the future to think about something long-term remote because like I said, for some of our kids that’s the most engaged they’ve been because it’s safe.
Steve Joel: Certainly if you believe that the pandemic has changed behaviors, and the way we go about our business, it’s hard to imagine that remote learning goes on the shelf after everybody gets vaccinated. I think certainly we’re going to be doing some transition – we’re going to have to. Thank you for raising that. That’s a good point.
Elementary teacher: I teach first grade at Eastridge first grade and we have two or three classes at each grade level. I don’t know if other people are doing this but one teacher has taken in most of our Zoomers. So, one first grader has four or five Zoomers, then their regular class. So that made it better. The other thing is that just a week or two into school, I talked to parents and I don’t know for sure what we can say or what we can’t say but I just I told them I’d love to have him back and things are going great here at school and I got three out or four Zoomers back. So,
Steve Joel: Thank you, I appreciate that very much. You’re right, it’s that personal touch. The messaging that you do as teachers really carries a ton of weight with parents. So thanks for doing it.
Kathy Danek: I think that’s the one thing that Zoom parents are the most concerned about, that lack of connection with the teacher. They sometimes feel alienated, even though they chose it for their children. So thanks for reaching out to your kids. That’s what I hear from parents, that they feel disconnected. And I as much as we try to make them feel connected, that piece of being able to walk into a school, walk into a classroom – they don’t have that piece right now, no parent has that in all of LPS right now. Thank you for all of the extra work you’re doing, reaching out to parents and kids because they notice, even if it’s a little email, even if it’s a phone call, they notice and every parent I’ve talked to said to make sure that we tell every teacher in this district, You guys rock, that you are working more hours, and that the work that you’re doing is incredibly valuable to their children. I am extremely proud of all of you because this isn’t easy. And I’ve seen enough districts from Minnesota and Wisconsin all the way down to Oklahoma where my grandson is in sixth grade and his mother wants to pull her hair out because she doesn’t know how to do remote learning. She thinks she’s a failure as a parent. That is an overwhelming thought for a lot of parents who feel they’re failing kids. You guys are doing a great job in helping parents.
Steve Joel: Thanks, Kathy. Any other comments with regard to the academic planning and teaching and learning taking place?
Elementary teacher: Yes, I teach first grade and the conversation we’re having involving parents is more about conferencing and grading. And then we have the other extreme, some parents aren’t involved. When it comes to conferencing and report cards, we’re going to have to put what we see on paper, but as a teacher, we’re hesitant because we know they may not be there yet, but it’s our name on that paper that has to say, your kids doing great, they’re on grade level, keep up the good work.
Steve Joel: Thank you.
Question: I guess it was just in regards to the 10-day exemption and I may just need some clarification. As a special education teacher, I have most of my kids in person, which is great. But I worry about, and I understand why we’re sending kids home the way we are, but I worry because I have a few kids on my caseload whose parents will get a 10-day exemption and be like, okay, now they’ve missed 10 days of school and I know they have the option of taking them to the doctor and getting a COVID test so that they can return. My concern is how frequently we’re going to be doing that and how you don’t qualify for remote learning until you’ve reached day 11. So I just worry about some of my kids that are going to be gone.
Steve Joel: Can I ask a clarifying question, did you say 10-day exemption? Are you saying that they’re being asked to self quarantine?
Special education teacher: No, it’s the letter they get. When they go to the nurse’s office and they have the symptoms, they’re given the letter from the health office saying that they’re being excluded for 10 days – sorry, not 10-day exemption, I meant exclusion, that they’re being excluded for 10 days unless they show a doctor’s note or a negative Covid test. From personal experience, my own children got that the second week of school, so we spent two days at urgent care trying to get rapid testing done. Our bill was over $300 by the time it was all said and done, just to get them back to school and knowing it was allergies. Both of them had negative COVID tests, which was great, but when they saw the doctor, the doctor said, Yeah, it’s probably just a cold, it’s not COVID, but I can’t say 100% unless I test for it. So then we paid for two tests. We got them back quickly and we were able to get the kids back to school. And I understand safety is our highest priority. I mean, my kids are back in the building and I’m teaching. I feel like it’s a good place to be. But I worry about kids being out that long and not having access to remote learning.
Matt Larson: One thing that has changed is that they don’t have to be gone for 10 days or more to get remote learning now. We set that up at the beginning of the semester because we were concerned it would be challenging for teachers, and another level of frustration with bouncing in and out. But we quickly learned that that wasn’t really feasible. So now what we’ve said is to provide 48 hours notice so the teacher can be prepared and Synergy can roll over to designate them as a remote learner. So you don’t have to wait 10 days anymore to become a remote learner. We fixed that part of the system. The other part is something the health department put in place, and I’m not sure we can get that changed.
Special education teacher: Thank you for clarifying that. Like I said, when it happened with my own kids, I was like, Oh my gosh, they’re missing so much school. And I was told they don’t qualify for remote learning, so then I started thinking about my own students who are already behind and me having access to them while they’re gone. For my daughter, we couldn’t get a rapid test for her. So she had to wait three to five days for results. So she’s out of school waiting for results, whereas my son was able to get a rapid test and we got him back the same day. She missed the whole week of school and so I’m glad to hear that we’ve changed that a little bit and you can keep everybody safe, while also educating the kids who are out of the building.
Matt Larson: We’re going to stick with the 48 hours unless we hear otherwise, you wouldn’t have this problem at an elementary school but imagine a high school student who had the option to roll over in bed at 7:30 and didn’t want to get up so they Zoom in. So you can see why we have to have some sort of parameters around this so that people don’t abuse the system either.
Question: Kind of piggybacking on that one, I heard some conversation in my building today about when kids switch to Zoom and we have the weekly pickups, but sometimes it happens in the middle of the week, and teachers are concerned they don’t have time to get the materials to those kids. Is there any leeway in time as far as joining Zoom within 48 hours? Is there a time limit on how long before they have to have materials?
Matt Larson: No, we do the best we can and we understand that’s hard to turn all those materials around overnight and or within two days. So everybody has to be understanding, we just do the best we can.
Steve Joel: I know we have six or seven questions but before we do that, Eric, did you want to talk about the sub situation? Because I know everybody’s very interested in that.
Eric Weber: The first thing I want to say is thank you to all of you. You’re doing this better than anywhere else in the country. We are so proud of you. You’re keeping kids on track every day, you’re making a difference. We recognize we have a sub issue, that’s a concern. As we look at our sub numbers, our total number of absences actually is not all that different than a year ago, through this last Friday, we had roughly 3000 absences. Last year, it was 3100. So we’re not that off in terms of our total number of absences through the first three or four weeks of school. But our number of unfilled is different than last year. Today, we were at 5.8% unfilled absences. This year, we’re at 18.2% in terms of unfilled positions. It was a daily average of about nine percent unfilled classrooms a year ago. This year, it’s a daily average of about 26. We expected this a little bit because much of our sub pool is individuals who are retired teachers, and many of them just said, You know what, until everything calms down, we don’t feel like we can come back into that environment. And we respect that and we recognize that. So we know that we’ve got fewer subs in the pool. When we look at our raw numbers, we’re only down 62 subs from last year. We’re at 574 right now, last year we were 635. But we are down so we know everybody is feeling that. So we’re working on six strategies to try to attack that. Number one, anybody in the building who has a bachelor’s degree can actually be a local sub. We also implemented a 15 day sub incentive. If a sub is willing to sub 15 days in a month for us, we will pay them another day. If you don’t have parents who are willing to do it, there may be some volunteers in your buildings who have bachelor’s degrees – if they have a bachelor’s degree, we can get them a local sub certificate.We’re also exploring the possibility of some kind of incentive around sub referrals. We haven’t put this in place yet, but we’re thinking about it. If a sub refers another person who becomes a sub, we would pay them a stipend. Again, we haven’t put that in place yet, but we’re working on that. And the last thing, we heard from our retirees that one of the things that’s concerning to them is working with Zoom learners and in-person learners at the same time, so we have decided that we are going to set up a series of sub training days where we will pay them and train them specifically on Zoom and get them more comfortable with that environment. We know that the sub situation is a big deal and we can’t say thank you enough for those of you who are covering classes and doing your part to help out your colleagues.
Question: One more question about subs. When leadership teams can’t get multiple subs for a school building and there are a lot of absences, what are we doing to support them at the district level?
Eric Weber: One of the strategies that we’re working on is hiring what are called teacher associates. It’s kind of a new concept. What we would do is in some of our high traffic buildings, where we have a lot of subs and a lot unfilled, we would hire a permanent sub who would take that building. We did that last year with middle schools as a pilot. It got rave reviews from the buildings where that happened. Typically, those are Title I buildings where we have more difficulty recruiting subs. So what we want those administrative teams and leadership teams to do is to continue to talk to us so we know that that’s happening so we can hire some of those teacher associates. Those of you who have been in LPs for a while what we’re doing with those people, we’re hiring them on one year only contracts because we can then recruit them to stay on board with us. So they’re typically just graduating seniors from college, We also can hire people who have been subs for a long time as teacher associates. They’re our first call for subs. Then there are those Rockstar teachers we can hire into positions for next year so it’s kind a recruiting tool for us too.
Question: How long do you think students will be able to receive the free breakfast and lunch that was announced on Friday?
Liz Standish: The free breakfast and lunch is based on the USDA. If you think about this nationally, how many large districts that serve huge populations of students are doing all remote learning? S what they’ve put in place actually are the summer guidelines. We’re feeding like we were able to feed during the summer because a lot of those communities need that flexibility. That’s what is authorized through December 31. But they’ve also said it will be in place as long as funding lasts, so that’s why we didn’t put the December 31 date out there because we didn’t want families to count on December 31, have funding run out and then have charges for lunch. The Nutrition Services team has done amazing work all throughout this pandemic, making sure families have access to food. Edith Zumwalt will let us know from her contacts as soon as we feel like they could be running out of funds. I could also see that if the funds are gone, it could be extended on the flip side.
Question: Do all high schools release two minutes early, every period on odd even days? The halls are already quite empty and it does not really seem necessary. It takes away from instructional time that they’re already losing for cleaning. Is that something that all high schools do? And is that something they need to keep doing?
Matt Larson: I don’t know the answer to that. What we did was inform all principals to make sure they could dismiss early so that teachers had time to get the room disinfected before the next set of students came in. I think if you don’t believe that amount of time is necessary in your school anymore, have a conversation with your principal and perhaps it can be adjusted. But that’s the reason that was originally put in place.
Question: When a Zoom student is constantly missing or logs out early, we notify the secretary who’s keeping track. What would be the repercussions for the student – does a note go home about absences and tardies like there would be for in-person learners? And then in addition to that, we had another question: Is there a way to have Synergy marking, where they can mark a student for leaving early – like a reverse tardy?
Matt Larson: As for the first part, handle that like you would any behavioral disciplinary matter. We have suspended for the time being the letters that go home due to absences and the eventual notification to the county attorney. We know everyone needed to adjust to that. We’re deciding when we’ll put that back in place – it may be at the start of the second quarter after everyone’s adjusted to new routines and procedures. But if you have a concern with a particular student and their behavior or attendance, the first step would be to notify the parent. If that doesn’t work, notify the principal or AP and they can notify the parent and we can work that process just like we would if we had any disciplinary concern.
I’ll check into the specific Synergy question. Let me check and see what might be possible. It really is a matter of documenting loss of instructional time. If one of our students just walked out of the classroom, there would be implications for that, especially if it was happening with any regularity. Let me check and see what might be possible as a technical solution to that. I do think it does rise to the level of being a due process issue – if the student is consistently leaving class early and therefore losing instructional time.
High school teacher: At Southwest, we have a block schedule. We have six minutes between classes and I’ve got cleaning down to about three minutes before the bell rings. I have paper towels set up, I get my sanitizer ready and students get up and they come to the front of the room in a hurry and get it and then wipe it down. So I guess I guess the answer to the question of does every high does every high school lose two minutes per passing period is no because we don’t.
Question: I’m curious about students who are doing remote learning from a daycare. I have some students who will miss out on learning because their daycare is making them go outside or do something else. Is anybody else having this difficulty? And what suggestions do you have about that? I know we can’t control everything but I’m missing a lot of time with students pretty frequently.
Matt Larson: My first suggestion is to contact the parent and inform them hat you have a concern about the way their child’s placed and the impact that’s having on Zoom learning. We certainly can’t be responsible for the actions of every daycare center in the community so I think our best avenue is to share your concern with the parent and explain the impact that is having on their child’s opportunity to learn.
Question: We were told we would not have as many meetings. We’re having just as many as before, what is the protocol on meetings?
Matt Larson: If you are a teacher at the elementary level, you should contact Cindy Schwaninger or Gena Licata. If you’re a teacher, you would contact Pat Hunter Pirtle. The would look into the matter and do their best to address it.
Question: How does leave work if a staff member gets COVID?
Eric Weber: If a staff member tests positive, have symptoms or if they are a close contact as determined by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department they are quarantined. And when they are quarantined, they are entitled to up to 80 hours of what is called FFCA leave – Families First Coronavirus Act. That is additional leave that is granted by the federal government. It’s two full work weeks of leave. The employee is entitled to that leave to be able to get through a sickness period or to get through a quarantine period. That is paid at 100%. If you had to quarantine more than once, the law only allows for that 80 hours. So if someone had to quarantine twice more than once, it would start to tap into their annual leave.
Question: Class sizes are growing, yet we’re not able to hire more teachers. Is there a way to reduce some class sizes, especially when physical distancing is critical?
Matt Larson: All I can say is, it’s not possible for us in most cases to hire additional staff. So if you can redistribute in the same course or across the same grade to try to balance them, that’s the only option we really have. But I would remind everyone that physical distancing in our plan is absolutely not necessary at all times. Remember, the key pillars of our plan are self monitoring, good hand hygiene, wearing a face covering, and then to physically distance as much as we can. We don’t have to be absolutely ensuring that there’s three or six feet at all times. We do the best we can with the other measures in place to provide that added protection.
Question: Are we able to access the rapid testing that the university has access to?
Steve Joel: We’ve had conversations with the health department about that. We understand there are a couple of school districts that are working to put that together, so we’re in the process now of garnering as much information as we can.
Question: Eric, do you want to talk about the requirement for student teachers and practicum students to get tested before they come back?
Eric Weber: Last week, we solidified protocols concerning student teachers and practicums to try to make sure that those individuals are tested before they come into the school environment. We worked with the colleges and universities and the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department to implement a few different rules. Number one, when practicum students or student teachers come to the building, they’re going to be screened and they’re going to have their temperature checked. We will also ask them the screening questions. With student teachers and the upper-level practicum students, they were to be tested prior to September 11. If they could secure a negative test, they could return the following week. And then every two weeks they are going to have to secure a negative test. Those tests aren’t coming to us as a district, they’re going to the university, who then notifies us whether they’re whether okay or not. On the 15th and 30th of every month, student teachers and the upper level practicum students are going to have to secure those negative tests in order to remain in the environment. We all know how important those experiences are and we want to be able to recruit those students to when they get certification. We’re doing everything we can to try to preserve that experience and not make student teaching go away.
Question: This one is for Dr. Rauner. Are we seeing any secondary effects from wearing masks for extended periods and breathing their own carbon or insufficient oxygen to the brain?
Bob Rauner: No. Surgeons wear masks their entire careers and it’s fine. The whole CO2 thing is not relevant. The only time it might be relevant is if you have for example a 72-year-old smoker who’s on oxygen, then that would be an issue for them. For example, two weeks ago it very dusty on the bike path. My wife and I are both in our 50s and she wore her mask the whole way back from Cortland. So there are no negative health consequences from re-inhaling your bacteria. That’s a total internet hoax theory. It’s not a problem. There are some rare medical times where it’s just not practical for various reasons. Most of its skin sensitivity. My daughter in Japan, she was wearing a mask the whole time because she lives there and they all wear masks and she got maskny, which is acne caused by her mask. There are some people with legitimate anxiety problems that are set off by a mask. I know of one exception that was made because of that and that was backed up by both her family doctor and her cardiologist, by the way. But beyond that, there’s no trouble with a mask. I’ve been wearing masks for lots of meetings, day in and day out. Also, I tell people to wash them like they’re your underwear, so don’t keep wearing it for five days in a row. If I remember correctly, I think our mask exceptions were something like 0.5%.
Question: Are we seeing increased mental health issues with the stress from the added expectation?
Eric Weber: We know nationally we’re seeing that. Anecdotally we’ve seen that here in Lincoln. I think our numbers are very similar. We’re not seeing a lot of employees that are having to take leave due to mental health issues. I know from visiting with teachers, and going out to buildings, this is hard work. We all recognize this is really hard work, so I think it’s just a matter of us lifting each other up and trying to do the best we can to support each other as colleagues. And when we see someone that’s in distress or having some challenges, we have great supports and benefits we can offer them.
Question: Mid-quarter grades were due for secondary schools. And being in the Counseling Center, we’re noticing a huge amount of our students who are failing who are typically not students who fail. So I think on the secondary level, it’s very alarming that we have so many students who are not performing at the level we’re expecting. What is the solution? What are the supports that high schools will be offered because a lot of the failures we’re seeing are in math. And it’s not because our math teachers are doing an inadequate job, it’s because you’ll constantly hear from students that when they’re Zooming on their non-seat days, it’s very difficult to do math or science. We’re very nervous at our school about the failure rates right now.
Matt Larson: That’s the purpose of mid-quarter reports, so that we identify students who are currently at risk and then we intervene. There’s going to have to be a lot more teacher to parent contact and maybe that’s the situation. We are in the process of looking at a process for how we could identify students who may be at risk and not doing well and having them be able to return to school 100% of the time. Part of that criteria would be failure in multiple academic courses and the reason being that the remote format simply doesn’t work well for them. We certainly want to address that need.
Steve Joel: I’d love any feedback with regard to the first module that hopefully was presented in each of your buildings and to hear some testimonial on how that one has been received.
Answer: I’m glad that you brought that up because I wanted to make a comment. We’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about remote learning and we haven’t even touched upon the other two areas of the budget, especially coming into negotiations here. And about the race relations modules, my only comment is that I’m I was very happy to see Dr. Vann Price take on the position of director of equity, diversity and inclusion. I’ve known Vann for years. I was thrilled that we have a professional, someone that’s highly educated, of color taking a leadership role at the administrative office. The module really didn’t work for us, though, because there were so many problems with the technology that it was kind of complicated. I do just want to make a suggestion about talking about race relations, which is so important right now in our communities, especially in our schools. I know that we have had this conversation for years, Dr. Joel, is that you could look at the teachers on this advisory board – it’s infiltrated with people of my skin color, although I don’t identify as a white male, I’m Hispanic. My mother was born in Mexico. I think I’m probably one of the few minorities on here. It would be great to have a viewpoint of people of color on the teachers advisory board. I don’t know how you can go about that because people volunteer through their administrators. But if there could be a message sent out in that way, I would love to hear a perspective of people of color on the teachers advisory board. That’s my only comment.
Steve Joel: I appreciate that very much and you’re absolutely right. We can certainly encourage increasing diversity the next time we populate the group. Thanks.
Question: Are we going to be looking specifically at the preschool to prison pipeline? Because I don’t think any of us became teachers to be part of a system that sends kids on the wrong path. And we clearly need more training and decolonization to our system in order to make sure that we’re preventing that.
Steve Joel: Good point. And I will tell you, that’s been the work of the Safe and Successful Kids. Board regarding our partnership with the Lincoln Police Department. We as a school district have really been diving into our own data to look at that. We’re concerned about that, too. We’re concerned about disproportional referrals, suspensions, expulsions, attendance, participation in extracurriculars – we’re looking at a lot of that, and we’re trying to put it through a new cultural lens that Vann Price, Pete Ferguson and Walter Powell are helping us understand. It’s going to be a work in progress but thank you.
Steve Joel: Again, thank you. I can’t begin to tell you how much we all appreciate this. This is great feedback for us. Feel free to email myself or any member of my team with any questions or comments or concerns that you have. And if you have a great idea we hadn’t considered, let us know. We said from day one and when we developed plans, we’ll make appropriate adjustments if we can. That’s going to help us continue to move forward. And I’ll just close by saying thank you so much for you all you’re doing. We’re all going to be defined at some point by how we managed through this pandemic. There’s no greater purpose than the young people that are in our charge and who we have responsibility for. You’re making an incredible difference in their lives and for that we’re very, very grateful. We so appreciate your time and hang in there, keep doing great work and let us know what we can do to support it.
Updated November 9, 2020