MONCKS CORNER — Teachers and advocacy groups from across the state descended on the Berkeley County School Board on Tuesday night to voice their frustrations at the district’s reopening model.
Under the district’s current plan, many teachers are required to juggle instruction to students both in person and those who are learning online at the same time. The model requires educators to teach one group of students face to face while also engaging a second group of online students, who usually sign on via video call.
A petition demanding school officials and board members allow teachers to choose one “learning pathway,” either in person or virtual, was started in late September. As of Tuesday, the petition had more than 1,820 signatures.
Teachers and groups from as far away as Columbia and Rock Hill traveled to Moncks Corner to speak to the board. Former Berkeley County teacher Melissa Soule helped organize the petition and was one of a half-dozen people to express their concerns.
Soule, who now works as a teacher for VirtualSC, the state’s online learning platform, said after the meeting that she’s not optimistic the board will change the district’s pathway model.
“I think they heard us, but do I think anything will change? I don’t think there is any hope for that,” Soule said after the meeting. “They don’t seem to be giving the teachers’ voices any concerns whatsoever.”
Soule said there were about 50 parents and teachers on hand to speak to the board members but that most were not allowed in the district headquarters due to social distancing protocols.
“They don’t enforce mask rules, but they enforce social distancing rules at the board meetings,” she said. “The teachers and parents wanted to talk, but their voices were not heard and that’s not right.”
The district did not follow the recommendations of the S.C. Department of Education’s school reopening task force, which strongly discouraged the so-called “dual teaching” model.
Toni Chewning, director of the Association Activities at the Palmetto State Teachers Association, echoed the concerns of most of the speakers, saying the district’s current plan is detrimental to both teachers and students.
“They are expected to teach face to face and virtual instruction simultaneously,” Chewning said. “Not only is this in direct violation of recommendations from the task force, but it is also contributing to loss in instruction time and placing an unnecessary stress on teachers and students. Monitoring student learning in this model is nearly impossible.”
No board members spoke in response to the complaints, and district Superintendent Eddie Ingram did not directly address the concerns. Instead, he borrowed from a speech given by former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena” in 1910.
“I appreciate everyone who has been bloodied in the arena, yet they come to work every day determined to make our district better for the sake of our children,” Ingram said. “I appreciate all of our teachers, even the ones who oppose because we are all bloodied in the arena, and I would encourage us all to work together.”
The district reopened Sept. 8 with five days of in-person instruction a week. Students also had the option to enroll in the “blended pathway,” where they learn online and receive livestreamed instruction daily from their teachers.
Ingram released a memo a week ago that addressed issues including employees’ social media use, communication with the press and controversial classroom assignments.
The district has received “numerous complaints” in the past few months from parents and employees surrounding these behaviors, Ingram wrote.
“The underlying conduct leading to these complaints often has a tendency to disrupt the learning environment and threaten the public trust that is vitally important to the district’s operations of our schools,” he wrote.
Several of the speakers took exception to the memo and said Ingram is more concerned about public criticisms from teachers than their safety.
“Berkeley County is the only district in the state that has received two separate letters criticizing their district operations,” Chewning said. “Why is Berkeley County district administration more focused on issuing memos stifling teachers’ voices than acknowledging and correcting concerns that are being shared? The teachers and students deserve more from the leaders of this district.”
Ingram said the school district has slightly more than half of its students involved in traditional in-person learning with 18,385. Another 17,192 students are considered blended students. There are 987 students learning remotely.