New Orleans Public School’s decision to start the school year virtually came as a major source of relief for teachers and parents who saw returning to the classroom as dangerous. But for teachers who are also parents, the announcement has had significant consequences.
While students will be learning remotely until at least the end of August, some schools are requiring their teachers to work from their classrooms. Teachers with kids must now figure out how to return to their jobs when their children are still at home.
Estelle Moody has two children and teaches English at Edna Karr High School, an InspireNOLA charter school in the Algiers neighborhood. She said her school gave her the option to return to work in-person or go on unpaid leave.
“I feel bullied,” Moody said. “It felt like I was being told, ‘You do this or you don’t have a job.’ It wasn’t specified how long they would hold your position until you felt comfortable coming in.”
Prior to the district’s announcement that the school year would start virtually for students, InspireNOLA faculty and staff received an email from Chief Executive Officer Jamar McKneely asking if they wanted to “voluntarily delay” their start date.
“Maybe based on the current state of our city and your personal situation, you’ve decided you want to remain part of the InspireNOLA family but for now it is best for you and your family to volunteer to delay your start date,” McKneely wrote. “If you delay your start date we will keep your insurance active at current rates for a duration to be determined but your pay will be paused for the duration of the delay.”
Moody said she was surprised by the email. She had thought with COVID-19 cases on the rise, she’d be given the option to teach remotely. Instead, she’s back in the classroom getting ready for the start of the school year, while her husband stays at home with their two-year-old and three-month-old.
“That’s the only choice that we have,” Moody said. “We just gotta roll with it. It’s not comfortable at all for any of us.”
Her family can’t get by without her salary, Moody said, so taking unpaid leave wasn’t an option. The couple isn’t comfortable sending their children to daycare until cases are under control. And while Moody’s mother would normally help take care of the kids, right now she’s worried about her own health.
Superintendent Dr. Henderson Lewis Jr. acknowledged that teachers who are also parents would likely be most impacted by the decision to keep schools open and said he expected schools to work with their teachers to come up with childcare solutions.
But shortly after the announcement was made at last week’s press conference, it became clear that individual charter operators were taking dramatically different approaches.
A teacher formerly with Crescent City Schools, a New Orleans charter school network, says she was fired after criticizing her school’s decision to require teachers to conduct remote lessons from their classrooms. Her school has disputed her description of events.
As of Tuesday morning, more than 600 people have signed a petition calling on Lewis and the Orleans Parish School Board to ensure that in-person attendance is optional for teachers, support staff and paraprofessionals as long as children are learning remotely.
While every school building will need to have some staff in attendance to carry out “critical services” like meal distribution and provide services that students can’t access remotely, some operators are requiring all teachers to report to the building. Others have given their staff the option to remain entirely remote.
Moody said that while her school has been patient with remote learning and supportive of teachers, returning to the classroom has been difficult.
“My mind is always on a hamster wheel. My husband will look at me and say, ‘Why are you staring off into space?’ because I’ll be thinking about all the different scenarios that could happen. It’s brought on a lot of anxiety,” Moody said.
Since coming back to the building, Moody said she’s been impressed with the safety standards in place. Now her biggest concerns have to do with what is going on at home and whether their current situation is sustainable.
She says her husband is on his own with the kids until she gets home at 4 p.m. While her husband is self-employed and can set his own hours, by starting the work day late, he’s working fewer hours and bringing in less money than he would under normal conditions.
Moody said her school is looking into childcare solutions for teachers and sent her a survey about it last week, but that it didn’t ask about parents with very young children like herself. She’s worried she’ll have to come up with another solution on her own.
She’s thinking about putting her toddler in daycare and persuading her mother to watch the baby so that her husband can get an earlier start.
“How am I supposed to teach effectively with this level of anxiety that I’m having?” Moody said. “I’m just gonna have to figure it out.”
For parents teaching at schools with far more flexible policies, some of their concerns have been resolved — at least temporarily.
Genevieve Rice and her husband Jasper both teach at Morris Jeff Community School where their daughter is also a student. This fall she’ll be entering the first-grade. Their school is giving teachers the option to work from home, which allows the couple to stay at home with their daughter.
Rice said she’s relieved that both she and her husband can work from home for the time being, which allows them to help their daughter with her schoolwork.
“I don’t know if it was just me with her, how I would have been able to manage,” Rice said thinking back to last spring when the family was thrown into remote learning and teaching for the first time.
For young children, remote learning can be impossible without an actively involved parent. Tasks that may already be challenging for older students — like navigating online portals, staying on task and keeping track of deadlines — are significantly more difficult for children who are just starting school and may not yet know how to read.
Moody, the English teacher at Edna Karr High School, said she’s already worried about her two-year-old falling behind.
“My toddler was in daycare and was reading,” Moody said. “You don’t think that as his mother, I don’t want to keep him on track? I just can’t balance it.”
Rice said her biggest concern is that when schools reopen, she’ll no longer be able to keep her daughter at home.
“I would continue to choose to do distance learning for her, but I have to teach and so does my husband,” Rice said. “If we go back into in-person learning, I'm going to have to send her to school.”