Summary of the November 17, 2020 meeting

A Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Teacher Advisory Council meeting was held via Zoom conference on Tuesday, November 17, 2020.

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

We are concerned about the mental health of all of our educators and staff. We’ve been working with the Lincoln Education Association, as well as with our building leadership, to try to identify ways that we can provide mental health support. We’ve seen evidence of staff supporting each other at the building level, and we know that probably is the best support that’s taking place. Thank you to those who are supporting their colleagues.
We’ve had teachers who have really shown emotional stress. Not only is the job stressful, life is stressful for virtually everybody in Lincoln. Every time there’s a headline where there’s a large number of infections or fatalities, it impacts every single one of us differently. Mental health of our staff is the single biggest reason why we decided to take Monday and Tuesday off of Thanksgiving week. We quickly realized that’s a three day holiday week, and staff would benefit greatly by having two more days. We were pretty clear with the community and our parents as to why we were adjusting the calendar. It’s an opportunity, we hope, for teachers and staff members to unwind and use those two days any way they want – that includes extended family time as well.

We know that prior to that we had added some additional planning time added in for teachers. We are working to make sure we don’t get ourselves in accreditation trouble with the Department of Education with regard to required hours.

We’ve had a lot of conversations with the Lincoln Education Association and we are definitely open to other suggestions. If there’s something that we haven’t thought about, or you need us to think about, then please reach out to us.

There are rumors circulating that LPS will be 100 percent remote after Thanksgiving. We don’t know where that’s coming from because that’s not our intent. Our intent is after Thanksgiving, we are going to continue to do what we’re doing right now.

Our community and our parents appreciate and support the work that our teachers are doing every single day with our kids. Keeping our schools open has been a blessing to so many of our parents as we are still close to 80% of our parents who have their children in our schools. It would take the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department telling us that going 100 percent remote was the best decision to make.

The reality of it is we know that with the rising infection rate, we are still the safest place possible because we’re following our safety protocols. One of the concerns that we and others had is that we were taking off Monday and Tuesday next week. Some believe all that is doing was extending the break to nine days for our students and our families to not practice safety protocols. There’s a likelihood that the infection rate will continue to go up because of the extended time for gatherings without practicing safety measures.

We are hearing from a lot of students and families that there is a lot of stress and anxiety right now. We are hearing on a regular basis that high school parents really want their kids in school full time. While they understand the need for the 3/2 schedule, the reality of it is that their students are feeling disconnected. We know that our high school teachers are doing the best they can with Zoom learning, but we’re hearing that a significant number of high school students may be logging into a Zoom class, but they’re not engaging or applying themselves. That’s creating stress not only for parents and students, but also for teachers. In addition, we’ve been trying to hold on to full capacity at the middle school and elementary school levels, but kids are struggling and families are struggling. Parents who have been laid off have been struggling. We have a lot of parents who have chosen to have their children remote learn, but the parents are working and not able to supervise and I know that is additional stress for the teacher. Our counselors and social workers are working double time with regard to connecting with families and students to resources. Teachers are the first line of defense with regards to students. We have supports in place in LPS and the community and we can help connect students and families to those resources. Don’t hesitate to ask your principal, counselors or social workers for help for your students and their families.

On Friday when the health department issued a directed health measure to delay all team sports in the city, we’re the only city in the state that’s doing that. That has not sat well with our parents as we are hearing about why are we the only district or the only city that’s doing that. It is really about us being a community partner, and if that’s a way to try to slow the spread, we want to try to do that.

One thing we are struggling with is the number of teachers in quarantine. It is not just the rate of positive COVID-19 cases among staff, but the number of staff who are identified as close high-risk contacts with a positive case, inside or outside of school, that must quarantine for 14 days. We appreciate the staff that have stepped up and provided class coverage. It is evident that our teachers and our staff deeply care about kids. We’ve moved five programs to remote or canceled classes throughout LPS because we’ve had too many staff members in quarantine. It’s something we will see more of to help relieve some of the pressures on staff doing class coverage.

There is a misconception that we have a sub shortage, but we actually have 715 in our pool, that’s 20 more than last year at this time. The issue is that subs are not accepting jobs. In a normal year we are at 90% fill rate, right now we are at 77%. We completely understand the frustration and the pressure that absences are putting on buildings, so we’re monitoring our unfilled rates at the buildings multiple times a day. We’re doing it twice in the morning and at least once in the afternoon to try to get resources out to buildings. We are looking at long-term strategies to help us address this issue which include:

  • Incentive pay for subs if they take more than 15 days in a month, we give them another additional day of pay.
  • There were concerns about subs handling the technology piece. We’ve worked with computing services to put together training modules for subs.
  • Subs are paid a stipend to take the training.
  • Recruiting more subs from the community.
  • We are hiring teacher associates. This is someone who is put on permanent contract to fill in where needed around the district.
  • Staff from district office are going out and helping buildings where there are extreme shortages.

We have lots of notes and some things that we can take back tonight and give consideration to – no suggestion is a bad suggestion. These suggestions may not be doable, but we’re going to try to find ways to provide as much support as we can to teachers, our students and our families. It’s hard to find words of inspiration in a pandemic, because so much of this is “how do we get through this?” and “when does this end?”. But I will tell you, we’re providing a valuable service. When it’s all said and done, you’re going to be the heroes for a lot of these students and their families who are relying on you every single day for the one consistency that they might have in their lives. And that’s happening because of relationships with you – that’s what teaching is. In so many ways, I’ve never been prouder of the work that we’re doing. I just want you to know from the bottom of my heart and from the bottom of a lot of people’s hearts, you’re appreciated and we can’t say thank you enough.

Update from Board President Kathy Danek

I just wanted to say thank you for keeping us informed. I’ve been visiting schools, some of you may or may not have seen me popping in and out of classrooms. By the end of this calendar year, I will have been in every school, talking to principals and asking about how the teachers are doing, and making sure that you’re feeling supported even though we know you’re dog-tired. But as a credit to each of you as professionals, I saw you teaching and in classrooms where your kids were thrilled to be. If there’s one byproduct of a pandemic, kids are happy to be in school, and it’s a credit to each of you whether you know it or not. So thank you for all the work you do. I know the Board greatly appreciates it. If we could do anything else, please let us know.

Questions and Concerns

Concern: Chronic non-participation by remote learners, coupled with lack of support from parents for these students, is a serious concern.

Answer: We remind parents that they chose remote learning. Reminders are sent through family messages about the importance of students having their cameras on and engaging in class. We went into this whole plan with the idea that we were going to be flexible and provide options for families. So by virtue of the fact that families selected remote, they’ve taken on the responsibility of ensuring that their students can be engaged. The bottom line is we do the best we can – you contact the parent, you send an email, you make the phone call. So as long as we continue to encourage the student and the parents are well informed that their child is not engaging, then we’ve done our part to try to do the best we can. We don’t expect teachers to referee this. We turn it back on the parents who chose this option for their child.

Question: What is the possibility of having Zoom only teachers who are specifically focused on remote learning students?

Answer: It has been thoroughly vetted, studied, explored and looked at in terms of the possibilities to convert the whole district to include dedicated remote teachers. At a minimum, for the second semester it would cost approximately $400,000 at the elementary level, about a million at the middle school level, and about a million and a half at the high school level, or roughly $3 million. That $3 million doesn’t exist at this point.

In elementary, we looked at taking every single remote student in the district and worked on reassigning them and combining them into Zoom-only classrooms. We looked at how many additional teachers it would take to do that because it just doesn’t work out to be a one-to-one match for what we currently have. We had a retired administrator do the exact same exercise at the middle school level. We had a high school AP who is responsible for scheduling do the same thing and rework the second semester schedule at one of our high schools to see what it would take to make that work and still allow students to have all their curricular offerings. It’s just not possible.

What we are doing is encouraging individual buildings to do it, where they can make it work within their buildings. We have a number of elementary schools that have multiple sections of a grade level with large numbers of remote students. If they shift students around it is feasible. It gets a little harder once you get past sixth grade because of the nature of students having so many different courses they take. We’ve encouraged secondary teachers to have conversations with their principals in the case of large courses. So for example, English 9 or first-year Algebra, where you’ve got multiple sections across multiple periods, it may be possible to rearrange second semester schedules for students and make that be a possibility.

Question: The question that came up at our building was that we don’t have very many Zoomers, so would for example one teacher be able to take all the Zoom kids from, for example, fourth and fifth grade?

Answer: That would be challenging. Just by the nature of our curriculum, it would be challenging to be able to meet the needs of two different grade levels in that fashion.

Question: How will class combining work during a pandemic?

Answer: We’re looking at all of the ways that we can provide coverage for when teachers are out, and we have a number of options. The first priority is getting a substitute teacher, but that has proven to be difficult. Second is the class coverage approach, but that creates stress and disruption for our staff and students. We were approached by teachers and administrators that asked about utilizing class combines as an option. We investigated the idea in collaboration with the health department to see how it could be done safely.

You can’t have more than five or six students join another room, and they can’t join another room unless there’s physical space and seats available in that room to do it. And you can’t do it unless the teachers on the team all agree that this is an option they want to explore. So there are an awful lot of hoops to go through before we would implement this particular option. We would also make sure that the subgroups of students would always be assigned to the same teachers so that we can keep track of it and continue to do contact tracing, if that’s necessary. And from a safety standpoint, it’s no different than when we have intervention groups and the same group of students go to another classroom for that intervention space. Regardless of being combined into the other classrooms, students would still sit with their same cohort during lunch, they would still stay in their same zone with the students from their own classroom during recess, and then in most cases, we would have them attend specials with their homeroom. So those, those safety precautions that we have on a day to day basis would still be in place.

Here is a simplified example of how it might work:
If you have four third-grade teachers in a building and one is out, it might be possible that the remaining three teachers could each take five of the in-person students from that one teacher’s class into their room. Students are getting the benefit of grade-level teachers so the instruction is more effective, and we don’t have any prep time because those grade-level teachers are already teaching that content. Specialists do not have to give up their plan time to cover, and administrators are available to assist in other classrooms.

Question: Teachers are worried about meeting curriculum expectations, specifically Junior Achievement.

Answer: Junior Achievement is a voluntary program. If a teacher feels like it’s adding too much to their workload because we can’t bring volunteers from outside into a classroom, they can choose not to do Junior Achievement. We only encourage people to participate if they can and they have time. If you need to let something go, you let that go.

The curriculum department and other areas continue to make adjustments to expectations. There will be some announcements that will soon be made with respect to some assessments in elementary reading. The elementary math team put out a list lesson by lesson and grade by grade of activities and tasks that could be skipped in the interest of time. Issues continue to be addressed by the curriculum department. Teachers (and it’s part of their professionalism) feel like they have to cover it all because their kids need it, but you have permission to let go of things. We will continue to put out additional guidance on more topics and content that you can let go of. Please encourage your colleagues to realize that we’re trying to focus on what’s more essential as we move forward.

Question: What extra cleaning is taking place?

Answer: The electrostatic cleaners are the same backpack spray cleaners that you see featured in news. We originally ordered them for our buses for once a week use based on a recommendation from the health department. We found that they were also a good solution to support our custodial staff in buildings. For the past month, the electrostatic cleaners are used overnight as needed in buildings where there are positive cases of COVID-19 identified. More have been ordered for custodial to use on a routine basis.

Question: Is there any consideration to move other high schools to block scheduling during the pandemic or if we go full remote?

Answer: It’s very difficult in the middle of a semester to move to a block schedule as students would essentially have to potentially give up one of their classes or have a hole in their schedule depending on how that was organized. If we do go to 100% remote, then yes, we would consider going to a block schedule at the high school level at the start of a particular grading period that would make that feasible. Right now, after Thanksgiving we’ve got about three weeks and a couple days to go, so making that sort of major schedule change doesn’t make sense.

Question: Is there any consideration to de-densifying middle schools?

Answer: Yes. We operate under the health department protocols and we have conversations once a week with them to make adjustments. Because we’re not seeing significant spread in our middle schools, they’ve encouraged us to continue to have middle schools at full population. Remember, not all of our middle schools are crowded. We do have some concerns there with regard to crowding to a couple of buildings, but again, we’re going to rely on the health department to guide us on that.

Question: What is the survey going out to families about Remote Learning next year?

Answer: We don’t know what next year will look like yet, but we want to be proactive and plan. Whatever decisions we need to make, we need to have plenty of lead time. Our initial step towards exploring what might be possible and what parents may be interested in is to conduct a survey about a virtual school offering. An extraordinarily brief survey was sent to families in an attempt to give a very brief description of what a dedicated virtual school might look like. This would essentially be a separate school where all the remote learners would be and they’d have dedicated remote teachers and that virtual school would not be connected to their home school. Families would be making a long-term commitment and have at least a semester to attend that dedicated virtual school. There would have to be fewer curricular offerings in the virtual school. You’re not going to be able to have AP American history and the plethora of courses we offer in a comprehensive high school. There are also questions about activity access since they’re not really in one of our existing buildings. We’ve looked at how they’re typically organized around the country if there’s a dedicated virtual school.

We have certainly heard from teachers that many of you would prefer the dedicated approach. There are a variety of reasons why we didn’t do it this year in the middle of the pandemic. We could approach this through our regular staffing process, if that decision were made. We’re gonna have to look at it in terms of staffing needs, and we have to look at it in terms of budget, we’ll have to look at it in terms of what makes the most educational sense. Ultimately, as we move forward, if some decision were made to continue in a form of remote learning, we would collect feedback from teachers and principals, as well. This is just the first step.

We are really curious to see what those results are because one of the concerns that we have that’s related to this is our enrollment dropped for the first time in recent history. We lost about 600 students, which is significant and it’s going to have a significant budgetary impact on us. 500 of those 600 became homeschoolers. What we heard anecdotally from a number of them is they didn’t want to do remote learning and home-schooling was going to be more manageable for them because they had a parent that was going to be home. We don’t know what the impact of this pandemic has been on how families view education. Is it going to be a V-shaped recovery, where we spring right back to where we were? Or are there going to be some people that question if they want to be a part of a public school district or maybe do something different? So it’s really important for us to know, is virtual learning something that families are now acclimated to, and something that they want to commit to? We hope the answer is no, but we also know that there’s going to be a major statewide push for charters and vouchers and taking dollars from public education and moving it over to the private sector. School districts across the country are trying to put themselves in the best position to be able to accommodate whatever the new normal is when we come out of this pandemic.

Question: Has there been any discussion on capping the number of moves for students in and out of remote learning?

Answer: Yes. There has been extensive conversation and consideration about this. The vast majority of students at this point in time who are moving in and out of remote learning are doing so for quarantine reasons. We have at any given time, several hundred students who are quarantined because of being identified as close contacts. That’s a major reason why we have the remote model we have this year while we’re in the middle of the pandemic, because we knew students would have to be quarantined. If you were to staff a separate, dedicated virtual school, you would not have the flexibility and staff to move kids back and forth constantly in and out of quarantine. That’s one of the reasons why we took the simultaneous hybrid approach, because it provides for better continuity of learning for students who are quarantined. That’s the bulk of the movement in and out.

We’ve looked at the possibility and we’ll be making an announcement before the start of second semester if we determine that it is the right thing to do: “you only get so many moves that are not related to a medical reason”. We’re working on how we can define what’s an acceptable way to exceed a limit and what isn’t.

Concern: Big announcements are made without proper notification or communication with staff.

Answer: When a decision is made in collaboration with the health department, we have a communications process we like to follow. We would like staff to know first, so we notify our administrators followed by the rest of our staff. That way they can help answer questions. Then we like to notify families. Here is an example of what we are dealing with: last week a decision was made about the class combine. We notified the elementary principals Wednesday at their meeting, and principals were told they could go back and tell their staff. Within an hour, it was already on social media. LPS Communications had three reporters calling about the information before we had a chance to tell our families in the weekly Friday email. We also had families submitting questions about misinformation through the LPS website. So ideally, we would have told our administrators on Wednesday, they would have told their staff Wednesday and Thursday, and then we would have told our families on Friday as part of the weekly update. We didn’t even get that chance because it was already on social media within an hour or two. So we try our best to communicate as quickly as we can with staff when those big decisions are made, but we also know we have to follow up with our families as soon as we tell our 8,000 staff members.

We also have had questions about the announcement at the press conference about Thanksgiving week and then the email didn’t come until later. We’re working with School Messenger on that because there was a delay in delivering those communications. So it went immediately to student inboxes and to any LPS staff members who have signed up as parents to receive their communication through their LPS email, but it was delayed in delivering to other email accounts. So sometimes we are limited by our technology but we try our best to get that information out in a timely manner. Unfortunately, sometimes technology works against us, especially when we’re in a hurry and trying to get the information out. We are open to any suggestions about how we can improve this process.

Social media is really great at getting information out, but it’s also really challenging with the spread of rumors and information shared out too soon before we’ve actually had details flushed out and decided.

Question: Are you aware that CLC are closed on PLC days? Is there any way that teachers could be allowed to work from home on those days?

Answer: We’re continuing to talk about that and look at possible solutions. We realize that is a problem for not only our teachers, but all of our families. There are some concerns about work from remote in terms of equity. Because of that, we’re not going to allow working from home on those early release days, just like we would not on a normal PLC day. Not all CLCs are closed on those days. Please check with your CLC supervisor if you’re at a site with a CLC, or if you’re in a non-CLC school that just has after-school care, check with that provider. Some are able to provide those services.

Question: I’m a first-grade teacher and we are really struggling trying to fit the kids in our classroom into guided reading groups. There’s such a fluctuation of guided reading levels not being able to switch the kids around. Is it possible to allow them to switch classrooms for guided reading? Or is it just not possible this year?

Answer: We’re taking a look at that. One of the things we’re working on right now is what would be the parameters under which that practice would be permissible. It would be much like how combining classes is done, under a certain set of conditions. We’re working on figuring out what the conditions would be that would make some movement for guided reading groups be acceptable and safe. We’re working to try to make instruction as effective as we can in the middle of a pandemic.

Question: What mental health supports are there for staff?

Answer: Continuum continues to be a great service for us. We have had conversations with them about increasing the number of visits they would allow, and we’re having further conversations with them about if there are employees who need to seek that.

Question: Will the school district work with employees now that we are in the red and didn’t know we were going to continue teaching in person?

Answer: Please contact your human resources supervisor. We’re going to work with everybody, and we’re going to consider accommodations. If there are things that teachers need in order for us to further support them, we’re here to be alongside them as we navigate this, so we want to make sure that you know that Human Resources is there to help you navigate if you feel the need.

Question: Is FCCRA leave full pay, or are there instances when it is not full pay?

Answer: The Family First Coronavirus Response Act rules are set by the U.S. Department of Labor. LPS does not have control over if a staff member receives full or partial pay under the FCCRA leave.

Full pay

An employee is entitled to take up to 10 days of leave related to COVID-19 if the employee is unable to work, including unable to telework, because the employee themselves:

  • Are subject to a Federal, State, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19
  • Has been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine related to COVID-19
  • Is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking a medical diagnosis

⅔ pay

An employee is entitled to take up to 10 days of leave related to COVID-19 if the employee is unable to work, including unable to telework, because the employee:

  • Is caring for an individual who is subject to Federal, State or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19
  • Is caring for an individual who has been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine related to COVID-19
  • Is experiencing any other substantially-similar condition specified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • An employee may also qualify for up to 12 weeks of paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave paid if they are caring for their child whose school or place of care is closed (or child care provider is unavailable) due to COVID-19 related reasons

For specific questions related to FFCRA leave, please contact