No changes made as some Union Co. teachers call for fully virtual learning at school board meeting

Published: Aug. 4, 2020 at 11:18 PM EDT
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UNION COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - Union County teachers are going back to school for their first teacher work days this week and some are fearful to walk through the doors.

On Tuesday at the Union County Board of Education meeting, some teachers spoke their mind calling for the school district to go completely virtual, or Plan C.

They started a petition with more than 2,700 signatures calling for Plan C, but there wasn’t any discussion at the meeting to switch plans for Union County.

“83% of staff want Plan C, you won’t even consider it. You won’t consider it?” asked Brittany Gendron, who is a Union County Public School employee.

She broke down in tears at the end of the meeting after only two board members addressed teacher’s concerns who came to the meeting to speak.

“83% staff, where’s the team,” Gendron asked before being escorted out by security.

She is one employee who is leading the charge to get UCPS to change their reopening plans to a fully virtual start until COVID-19 cases are below 5% for percent-positive.

“We say we’re a team but what kind of a team ignores the concerns of thousands of employees,” she asked her colleagues.

Gendron said if things don’t change and if she’s not allowed to work from home, she will resign from her position.

“That is the Russian roulette game you play with our lives,” said Sophia Stephenson.

Gendron and Stephenson are two women who say they are representing hundreds of teachers and staff at UCPS who have concerns and fear about returning to school.

They say many will not come forward publicly because they’re afraid to lose their jobs, or suffer consequences from the district.

Stephenson says she’s frustrated because she believes teachers weren’t asked about best practices to reopen schools, even though they will be the ones at the school.

She’s asking for the school district to meet them halfway.

“We want the ability to work with the board and the superintendent. That’s the goal. We are EduAdvocates because first and foremost we want the seat at the table,” said Stephenson.

“We understand that some people are comfortable with moving back to Plan A, even,” said Gendron. “However we need to create a solution for everyone, we can create an opt in instead of an opt out.”

Superintendent Dr. Houlihan was quiet during the meeting. He refused to do an interview with WBTV and was walked to his car by security.

But he did say there needs to be a flexibility when it comes to teachers who are concerned about coming back to work.

“We need to make sure that where there are teacher have concerns, to the best extent possible, that we can accommodate them as best we can. We ask they work with their supervisor and HR with their requests,” said Dr. Houlihan.

In several previous statements from UCPS regarding stories on teacher’s concerns about going back, the communications team for UCPS said alternate working plans were available for teachers and they needed to contact HR.

Some teachers who have requested those plans have not yet heard if they will be able to work remotely or not.

“We do not take this decision lightly. It was the decision handed down by the governor for plan B,” said Board member Melissa Merrell.

Merrell says even if Union County wanted to go fully virtual, the district doesn’t have the equipment to make sure hundreds of students in rural areas of Union County would have access to education. She says the education of students need to take priority.

“You have to understand that many of our employees and students don’t have consistent connectivity. So Plan C would not work for those people and that student population. Nor would it work for our EC students,” she said.

Merrell continued to say that looking at other school districts in rural counties, similar to Union County, those schools are doing a similar plan with going back to school at least one day a week.

“We are doing the best job we can,” she said. “We are going to be helping students who need help and that’s what I believe we’re all here to do is to provide a sound education,” said Merrell.

Also in this meeting, they discussed the back to school plans and how Union County is preparing to reopen.

Planning calls for custodians to work more in the day rather than at night, so they can thoroughly clean at least five times a day. A nurse will now be at every school.

The district also had enough personal protection equipment, including masks, for a full two months and are actively working on getting more.

The district also discussed the plan about what happens if a student or teacher tests positive.

A representative for the district said everything would be determined on a case by case basis but said depending on who tests positive and who that person had been in contact with, entire classrooms or schools could have to shut down.

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