Deluged with complaints from parents eager to send their kids to school full time this fall, the Zachary Community School Board agreed Tuesday to consider bringing younger students back for a traditional, five-day school week sooner than originally planned.
After a monthlong transition period during which students will alternate days of in-person classes with virtual, at-home lessons, the board will review coronavirus case data at its Sept. 1 meeting and decide then whether it’s feasible to reintroduce a normal school schedule for those in prekindergarten to sixth grades.
The board had decided earlier in July that full-time face-to-face schooling would resume for all grade levels after Labor Day only if Louisiana had advanced to Phase 3 of reopening; the hybrid approach would have remained in place under Phase 2. Tuesday’s decision means the board will now take up the possibility of sending younger children to school daily, even if the state is still in Phase 2, when it meets Sept. 1.
School starts Aug. 10, including for the roughly 2,500 students who’ve enrolled in a 100% online curriculum the district is offering. Zachary’s total student population is about 5,600.
Tuesday’s decision came on a 6-3 vote shortly after 9 p.m. — more than three hours into a meeting in a Zachary High School auditorium that got tense at times as parents, school employees and board members aired their frustrations about the situation. Some of the comments came from working parents who said they’ll struggle to reconcile their schedules with those of their children under the hybrid plan.
When board member Brandy Westmoreland raised the possibility of returning pre-K to sixth graders to full-time school earlier, Rollins Place Elementary School Principal Jennifer Marangos interjected from the audience.
“Do you want spacing between them?” Marangos asked Westmoreland.
Under Phase 2 guidelines from government officials, classrooms can have up to 24 students at a time. But school leaders have voiced concerns about maintaining the recommended 6 feet of “social distancing” with that many kids in a room — a problem remedied to an extent by the hybrid plan, in which only part of a class is present at a time because of the alternating “A day” and “B day” groups.
Marangos later went to a microphone set up for public comments to explain the difficulties of sufficiently spacing kids out at the maximum Phase 2 capacity. In that situation, teachers would have to keep students at their desks all day, she said — meaning they wouldn’t get to do things like sit on the carpet together for story time.
“I understand the work situation. … But at the same time, we also want to provide school that feels like school for kids,” Marangos said.
A parade of parents then took the mic, describing challenges they’d face with just two days of face-to-face classes a week, such as having to pay for hard-to-find daycare spots on the three other days.
“For the moms like me who have to go to work everyday, we really need some five-day-a-week instruction from our teachers,” said Nikki Gautreaux, an OB-GYN at Lane Regional Medical Center in Zachary.
She and Amanda Talbot, a local pediatrician, went on to explain that a low number of children have been affected by the coronavirus. They said worries that kids will infect their teachers and other adults have been overblown.
“You’re at less risk than you think. This virus is less scary than the world has made you think,” Gautreaux said to applause from the audience.
Talbot said she worries more about the stress, depression and lack of social contact that many kids will experience without daily school. She’s also concerned about those with disabilities who rely on services they get at school, low-income kids who eat school meals and children who have abusive home environments.
“You guys have bent over backward” for those who are worried about the virus, parent Ben Cavin told the board. “You didn’t give that option to those of us that want our kids to go back to school because we’re concerned about their mental wellbeing.”
He asked a group of about 30 people who support a return to five days a week of school to stand up.
“We can’t be silent any more,” said Cavin, the president and CEO of Landmark Bank and a former Zachary City Council member. He said they’re displeased with the two choices they’ve been given, which he views as “do you not want to go to school, or do you not want to go to school most of the time?”
“You guys don’t live in a bubble. These walls were built by our tax dollars,” Cavin said. If parents can’t go to work because they have to stay home with kids attending virtual classes, some people could end up losing their jobs and homes. Business performance and tax collections would suffer as a result, he said.
But an earlier return to normalcy could create staffing problems at schools. In a recent survey of 433 Zachary teachers, librarians, administrators and other educators on staff, 55 respondents said they would retire or resign if they had to hold in-person classes five days a week. That number dropped to 37 when asked about the hybrid plan and just seven if school was 100% virtual for all kids, according to human resources director Yolanda Williams.
“If 50 to 60 leave, your kids are going to be taught by substitutes — if we find them,” Superintendent Scott Devillier said in response to comments from board member David Dayton that some kids’ learning styles mean they need to physically be in a classroom with their teachers to get a high-quality education.
Dayton countered that if traditional schooling isn’t provided soon in Zachary, many more children could leave for private schools.
With school starting in less than two weeks, the prospect of last-minute changes is stressing teachers out, said DeAnna Okert, who teaches fourth grade.
“Where were you three weeks ago?” she asked the parents.