Board approves calendar change

Published 8:04 pm Friday, October 15, 2021

The impact of COVID-19 has cut deeply into planning and professional development time for teachers and instructional staff in Suffolk Public Schools.

That and concerns about burnout among them fueled a proposal from Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon to give them time for those things by dismissing students early every other Wednesday beginning Nov. 10 through the end of the school year. The School Board, by a 6-1 vote at its Oct. 14 meeting, approved the plan.

The early release dates are as follows: Nov. 10, Dec. 8, Jan. 12, Jan. 26, Feb. 9, Feb. 23, March 9, April 6, April 27, May 11, May 25 and June 8.

Gordon said in a memo that teachers and instructional staff “have lost valuable planning and professional development time as a result of the impact of COVID-19 absences and coverage needs, quarantine instructional support requirements and other circumstances,” and is concerned about lessons suffering because staff members do not have the dedicated time to plan.

He said this would give time for parents to find childcare options on those days, and the division is looking to partner with AlphaBest, the Boys and Girls Club, the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to provide options for families. For AlphaBest, discounted vouchers would potentially be available, while the arts center, he said, is looking at offering programming for elementary children on those afternoons.

Patricia Holloman, during the first public comment period, liked the proposal, but suggested early dismissals every Friday would be better. She said teachers, if they know they have dedicated planning time on Fridays, they would not be absent as much, and on that day, Holloman said it would be easier for parents to find childcare for their children.

She said her biggest concern was the proposed schedule change only affecting even days, and is concerned that staff meetings that get scheduled Wednesdays could get pushed up into the time period designated for planning. Gordon said, however, that it would affect both even and odd days.

“Regardless of what happens, regardless of what you decide tonight,” Holloman said, “thank you so much. So many of my closest and dearest friends are teachers, and they need you. They are struggling so bad right now.”

Gordon, referencing Holloman’s comments, said it would not just affect even days. For the half-days, he said eight of them will fall on even days, and six on odd days.

He also said Fridays were not chosen for the planning time because the division’s data indicates it is the day with the most staff absences. The calendar change will not work, he said, unless staff is present, and he expressed concern about staff burnout among those covering more classes, and the desire to have teachers feeling refreshed. He also said it would negatively impact busing for athletics on early release days.

He also said having staff days every Friday would push the division below the mandatory number of hours at both the elementary and secondary levels. The approved proposal provides 1,016 hours for elementary students and 1,045 hours for secondary students.

“So if we were to go any other days, we would really risk being below the code of Virginia and the state threshold,” Gordon said, “especially if we had any inclement weather.”

He said he and the board have received numerous emails, and he regularly speaks with the Education Association of Suffolk, all expressing concerns about teacher burnout. He said the division-wide email he sent earlier in the week was very well received, judging from the high volume of replies. He said when staff members bring concerns to their principals and to central office staff, they listen and act.

“If the planning time is not there, then student achievement will suffer, classroom management issues will go up, teacher burnout is there, you name it,” Gordon said.

The staff planning time will also be used to do additional cleaning and disinfecting of high volume student areas, he said in the division-wide email.

Sherri Story was the only board member to vote against the change. She expressed support for the plan, but said more should be done to provide relief for teachers.

Staffing shortfalls have been an issue for school divisions in Western Tidewater, Hampton Roads and across the state as there have been shortages of teachers, substitutes, bus drivers and other support staff.

A look at the SPS employment portal lists 67 teaching vacancies as of Oct. 15 — 26 in elementary schools, 20 in middle schools, 15 in high schools, four at the College and Career Academy at Pruden and two English Language Learner teachers — and another 25 teaching assistant vacancies. There are also vacancies in other departments. Most listings were posted this year, but several still listed in the portal date back to 2020 and 2019. It has also sought to hire bus drivers, as well as retired elementary school teachers to teach virtually.

Since the beginning of the school year, there have been 228 COVID-19 cases, according to the division’s dashboard, though it notes that one case does not necessarily equal one person, since one person could have been in multiple locations.

Gordon, referencing a question that arose during the initial public comment period, said part of the reason that the SPS dashboard is updated once per week is because that is when the information is released from the Western Tidewater Health District. He also said the division does not post the number of students in quarantine because the number of them is so small at some schools that it would make them easily identifiable.