SALT LAKE CITY — Holding bright pink and neon green signs asking drivers to honk, waving their arms and shouting through a mini-megaphone, a few dozen teachers and community supporters rallied Friday near the Davis School District building to support educators.
The crowd at 45 E. State St. in Farmington did all they could to attract attention, hoping those passing by would extend a courtesy they feel Davis School District has not — listening.
“We feel like the district is not listening to the voice of teachers,” said Davis Connect teacher Tracy Townsend, who joined the rally. “We just want to be heard, we want a seat at the table when these decisions are being made. And we just want it to be safe. Right now, having a classroom full of 20 or 30 kindergartners is not safe.”
On Wednesday, the Davis School District Board of Education voted 6-1 to return elementary students to classrooms four days a week and keep a hybrid schedule in place at secondary schools.
Earlier this summer, the district’s return to school plan called for a traditional school schedule of five days of in-person instruction with increased sanitization, mask-wearing and social distancing where possible.
It then pivoted to a hybrid schedule in which students attend school in person two days a week on an alternating schedule and have online instruction on Fridays.
Some educators maintain they have worked hard to develop lessons for students that are offered live and online.
“It’s definitely frustrating having to deal with people saying we don’t want to work hard when we’re basically working, you know, 12-, 14-hour days every day. It gets exhausting. Trying to build lesson plans for a hybrid model is a lot of work,” said mathematics teacher Devin Goddard, who attended the rally. “Certainly there are downsides to it, and it is not the ideal situation for student learning at all, but I would put safety over necessarily the ideal conditions for learning when it puts people’s health at risk.”
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is “boomeranging back and forth,” as district leaders have altered school schedules as more is learned about COVID-19 and public input rolls in, said Jennifer Baker, union steward for the American Federation of Teachers. AFT is a union that represents some Davis District teachers and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
“It has been very, very difficult. We were originally told to expect to do this through December. So this sudden change, it’s particularly hard for elementary folks” who learned a week ago of the board’s plans for in-person instruction four days a week, which was reaffirmed for elementary schools on Wednesday, Baker said.
The Davis Education Association, the larger of the two groups that represents teachers, was not a sponsor of Friday’s rally.
DEA President Yvonne Speckman said the issues are divisive among community members and educators. Some want more face-to-face days in the classroom because they believe students learn better in school. Others prefer the hybrid schedule because class sizes are smaller, social distancing is more workable, students get more individualized attention and it is safer for students and teachers alike. Still others want a consistent school schedule.
“As you can tell, it’s a very polarized issue,” she said.
Rumors persist about a teacher strike or some other job action. Utah is a right to work state and there can be repercussions for calling a strike, Speckman said.
“We can face termination should we decide to strike. Those kinds of questions are being talked about, obviously. People want job actions, people want things to happen. Right now we just continue to work with the district as they’re adjusting to changing conditions and needs,” she said.
Even showing up to a rally like Friday’s could be a potential black mark against teachers.
“They fear retaliation for coming (to the rally),” said Brad Asay, the state president for the American Federation of Teachers Union. “That happens all the time when we get things together like this. They fear being seen. They fear that their employers will retaliate against them. There is that sense of fear.”
The division among teachers and parents was evident at Wednesday night’s school board meeting.
Third-grade teacher Raul Sanchez, who teaches at Lincoln Elementary School, a Title I school, urged the board to keep the hybrid schedule intact because his classroom is too small to properly social distance with all of his student there in person, and he worries that students of color whose communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 will be particularly imperiled. He is likewise concerned about bringing illness home to his 2-month-old baby.
“As an educator and a father I fear more for the people around me and my family than I do for myself. We do not have the proper equipment, social distancing and PPE for Monday the 28th, when I have to begin the schedule. That is basic protocol at a local bank, grocery store or fast food restaurant. … Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — physiological safety and emotional needs need to be met for any learning to occur,” he said.
But Cameron Halversen, a special educator, said he was grateful the board voted for students and teachers to return to school four days a week earlier this month.
“Students are already behind. … The hybrid system doesn’t work for elementary-age students, and for students that I teach in special education, students are not completing their work at home. They are struggling to get technology to function properly and many are simply treating it as a day to play with friends,” Halversen said.
Some teachers at the rally said they feel like they’re caught in an impossible situation: either lose their jobs and protect themselves and their families, or keep their jobs and potentially lose their lives.
“You get to the point if the officials and your employer doesn’t protect you, it’s up to us the employees to do that and take care of ourselves,” Asay said. “That’s why people have quit. People have quit early. … Granite School District charges $1,000 if you leave out of your contract early, and there were several — many — teachers that left and paid the $1,000 because they value their family and their health more than their jobs.”