Recent comments about Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employee survey data by a member of the Board of Education who is pushing for a reopening of schools are not sitting well with local educators.
Many of those educators are weighing in on a new informal survey created by education advocates to gauge employee sentiment about a potential return to in-person instruction during the COVID pandemic. The results of that survey will be shared at Tuesday’s board meeting, where educators plan to address the board to share their personal stories and feelings about the topic.
On July 7, employees of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools received a non-binding Intent to Return survey designed to inform district plans around staffing for school year 2020-21.
The survey allowed employees to indicate their preference between the following options:
• Remain in current school assignment and report in-person to work as directed by my principal or supervisor
• I have applied or intend to apply for a leave of absence related to COVID-19
• I am requesting an alternative work arrangement, e.g. working remotely, if available for my position, for reasons related to COVID-19
The “alternative work arrangement” option was available only to employees who qualified as high risk:
High-risk categories include individuals 65 years or older or those with underlying medical conditions such as the following:
• People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
• People who have serious heart conditions or who are immunocompromised
• People with diabetes, chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis or renal failure or liver disease
• People with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)
It’s worth noting that ‘pregnant or planning to become pregnant’ is absent from the high-risk list, despite increasing indications that pregnant women are more likely to suffer severe cases of COVID than other women their age and evidence that the virus can be passed in utero.
For educators like myself who took this survey, the choices essentially boiled down to “have a job” or “not be able to feed your kids.”
Indeed, of the 12,073 responses registered on the survey, 10,651 selected Remain in current school assignment and report in-person to work as directed by my principal or supervisor.
Board members were informed of the Intent to Return survey results the morning of July 15, the same day an emergency meeting was scheduled where the board planned to vote on whether to open schools under moderate social distancing guidelines (Plan B) or fully remote (Plan C). (The board would vote 7-1 at that meeting in favor of a slightly different model in which students and staff would report to school for two weeks of socially distant in-person onboarding before returning to remote instruction. Only District 6 board member Sean Strain voted against the plan, arguing that students needed to be in school.)
In informing board members about the survey data, Human Resources Director Christine Pejot cautioned there could be what she termed “false positives” among responses indicating employees intended to report on-site. She advised board members to be aware that intentions could change based on a number of factors including increases in COVID cases in Mecklenburg County.
In a July 18 WFAE story, Sean Strain was quoted as having said in a text message “Kids are being kept from their best educational environment because 10% of the teachers are afraid to work in the schools,” ostensibly referring to the relatively high percentage of staff who had indicated they would remain in their current school assignment on the Intent to Return survey.
Many CMS educators were not happy with having their survey responses characterized that way, noting that the questionnaire didn’t ask anyone about their feelings.
Veteran West Charlotte High School teacher Erlene Lyde said, “I am petrified at the thought of entering a school building with students and other adults. Being in a space where I know the viral load is increasing exponentially by the second makes me anxious, worried and afraid. No question on that intent form was designed to capture that fear.”
Melissa Easley, a teacher at McClintock Middle School, added, “No one should have to choose between their job and the safety of themselves and their families.”
In response to social media outrage, Strain initially posted “I have NEVER said that 12% are afraid to return” and referred to claims to the contrary as “a false narrative.” He later said he didn’t recall having sent the text before eventually acknowledging that he had–and that WFAE reporter Steve Harrison had represented it accurately.
A group of local education advocates has now created a survey to collect some actual data on the feelings of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employees about the prospect of returning to in-person classes. The survey results will be presented during the public comments portion of Tuesday evening’s meeting of the Board of Education.
At the time of this writing, with over 3,000 responses, only 21.6% indicated they felt “confident” about returning to the school building for Plan B (moderate social distancing), with more than 78% saying they were either “hesitant” or “not confident.”
Those numbers closely mirror Senator Natasha Marcus’s recent data collection, which found that 76.7% of public school employees thought schools should do remote instruction only until COVID numbers improved.
You can tune in to tonight’s school board meeting on Facebook Live at 6 pm here.