By Jef Rietsma
Vicksburg Community Schools Board of Education fielded COVID-19-related concerns from staff members at its Oct. 12 meeting.
The board’s first in-person meeting since spring was simulcast on YouTube.
Vicksburg Education Association representative Kelly MacDonnell told board members the staff is frustrated and mentally exhausted to the point that some long-time district employees are resigning.
“The high level of vigilance your teachers and your already-overworked custodians are operating under to help protect our students and one another every day is so mentally taxing, it is almost indescribable,” she said. “We beg you to recognize the need for more counselors and now more custodians. We need action for the safety of our students and our staff, not just a smile, not just some hollow words of thanks from time to time.”
She said it’s the consensus of the district’s teachers that they do not feel safe in the current work environment. “The simple act of asking if your leadership represents those you lead is such a simple yet effective leadership strategy,” she said.
High school teacher Jennifer Rodas, Vicksburg Education Association president, noted that the few people who addressed the board were speaking for the majority. She said union members do their homework, communicate with each other, make sure their position is clear and that their concerns are real.
“Even though you may only hear a few of us speaking, it’s because we’re protected under our positions … there are others who wish they could speak up but they cannot for fear of punishment,” she said. “Please don’t take that there are only a few of us speaking on behalf of the VEA every time doesn’t mean that we’re not speaking on behalf of the entire association.”
Rodas elaborated on the demands she and her peers face as a result of in-person teaching this fall. For starters, she said she uses her prep hour to change the activities taught in person over to virtual.
She continued, adding that there are “so many moving parts to this VCS virtual that are challenging and frustrating.”
“I’m logging into Google meetings trying to share my screen, make sure I’m unmuted, make sure that I have the right screen going, make sure I’m logged in to the right Google meeting, make sure that I’m cleaning my desks, making sure students are wearing their masks, making sure that they’re social distancing,” she said. “These are things that we’re struggling with every single day. Our job is normally an eight-hour day plus we’re working at home grading … it’s just not sustainable.”
She said not until the board has “real discussion,” and recognizes the challenges and struggles teachers are facing will teachers feel valued and that they’re being heard.
Rodas said she was at a point in the school year where she had started entering grades. Some virtual students who had not logged in for a number of weeks suddenly realized they are failing. Rodas said she now has to prioritize assisting those students.
“Our virtual teachers at the elementary – one of which … has resigned because the working conditions are unsustainable. We’re losing teachers,” she said. “We lost three in the last week and a half … we’re overworked, we’re getting burned out early.”
Rodas asked the board to consider hiring more virtual teachers at the elementary level, recognize the compromised working conditions, and treat teachers with kindness, patience and respect.
Two additional people spoke and expressed similar concerns about working conditions.
Superintendent Keevin O’Neill disputed the claim that not everyone has protection to speak candidly before the board.
“Everyone has the same protection regardless of your position,” he said. “To hear the word retribution, again, when no one has ever experienced retribution for stating their opinions or concerns … I’m still concerned why that comes out. We truly understand the struggles, we’ve been recognizing those.”