We Need Teacher Perspectives in the Reopening Equation

In Missoula County Public Schools, it's critical that teacher voice be considered when making decisions about reopening schools during COVID-19.

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Ali discovered the power of journalism through work in her community. As co-editor of her school paper, she encourages students to read the news by prioritizing a strong digital presence. She's passionate about politics and civic engagement, and founded a project to interview candidates for local office on the issues youth care about. She's also a leader on and off the field, as captain of her school's JV soccer team and a member of the Varsity swim team. When she's not advocating for social justice or writing to amplify silenced voices, you can find her baking or dancing to Taylor Swift songs.

Last week, I sat in the newspaper classroom of my high school, Hellgate High, for a two and a half hour class period—masks on, chairs spaced apart, and hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes on the table by the entrance. Our staff had shrunk to seven people, as some students chose to enroll in a separate online academy and others faced scheduling issues.

About 90 minutes in, our advisor pulled up a chair and vented to me about my school district’s lack of planning and communication, a deviation from her normally poised demeanor. 

My school district, Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS), spent the summer looking at the logistics of how to serve the thousands of students enrolled during the COVID-19 pandemic and decided there was no way the schools could pull off online school. Instead of going remote, they shortened the school year for grades 9-12 from 1080 hours to 360 hours. 

High school students attend a shortened school day twice a week. They sit through two class periods, each two and a half hours long. Then they return home for a five day weekend, usually with big presentations, reading assignments, and writing projects due upon their return. 

This plan was formulated with relatively little input from students and blatantly ignores teachers’ comments and input. Even worse, current feedback submitted by teachers is being shut down by the school district and administration. 

Teachers are trying to explain their concerns to the district. Many are frustrated with the new online academy. They feel the new curriculum purchased for it is insufficient. Some teachers are worried because the school has sunk so much time and money into hiring for the online academy while not even attempting to hire new teachers to replace the ones who’ve quit or switched to online. This year, most teachers have needed to take on an extra class period to accommodate having a smaller staff.

According to our advisor, MCPS has practically ignored the teachers’ feedback. Not long ago, the superintendent sent an email to families explaining how the schedule was going to work for one complicated upcoming week. This information was sent out before the teachers even knew how the week would work. Teachers who are also parents ended up sharing this information with their fellow educators.

The administration is also making decisions and releasing information so last minute that teachers may only have a weekend to shift their plans, which is particularly unfair in a time where teachers are already taking on more risk and work. Teachers don’t know what is coming next, and as a result, they don’t know how to support their students.

Many teachers feel pushed against a brick wall. 

Teachers have one of the most important jobs—to shape the minds of America’s future generations—and it’s well past time for them to be fairly appreciated and compensated for the work they do. My district’s disorganized, insufficient, and non-inclusive response to the pandemic is driving teachers away from this profession. It was already hard to retain incredible teachers pre-pandemic. Now in these times, without sufficient respect or support, many teachers are finally throwing in the towel.

Two beloved teachers in my school retired early this year, one merely weeks before school was set to begin. I have no doubt the lack of guidance from my school pushed them to leave early. I mourned the loss of two wonderful teachers and pitied future students who would never get to take their classes.

Teachers cannot teach this way. Students cannot learn this way. To solve these problems, the administration needs to stand up for their staff. Their concerns should not be brushed aside, they should be amplified and discussed.

One way to achieve this would be to have a clear platform for feedback to be submitted and addressed. MCPS is dealing with a lot right now, and it would be beneficial to have a dedicated space for this. It would allow educators to bring up concerns in a non-confrontational way, while enabling the district to hear and organize their feedback and efficiently respond.

It’s also important for students to stand up for their teachers, and understand that they are just people, too. Many students have their own opinions about the problems with the new school system, and by working with school staff these problems have a better shot at being fixed.

If the people actually experiencing the day to day effects of the school’s plans are not allowed to provide input or have any real impact on the decisions made, there is something seriously wrong. Schools need to amend this by better supporting their staff and taking their concerns into consideration, allowing them to have a voice in the conversations. We cannot afford to continue to lose the best teachers for our failure to recognize, appreciate, and assist them.