Teacher reactions mixed to Hamilton County Schools recommendation to reschedule spring break

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / One of the portable classrooms is decorated for a class at Barger Academy Thursday, December 5, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Several portables sit behind the main school building.

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Hours after Hamilton County Schools officials announced that schools would be closed until March 30, many teachers were speaking out against the plan.

The district currently plans to close school for the week of March 16 to 20 and then request the Hamilton County school board to move spring break from the week of April 4, to the week of March 23 in an effort to stem the potential for a coronavirus outbreak to spread in the local community.

But dozens of teachers are contacting their school board members and asking them to vote against the recommendation, citing non-refundable travel or other previously scheduled trips or plans such as doctor's appointments, surgeries and even weddings.

The Hamilton County Education Association (HCEA), the local teachers union, circulated a survey Thursday night which found that more than 60% of teachers who responded to the survey have already paid for spring break plans and cannot get a refund, according to HCEA President Jeanette Omarkhail.

"Changing the dates of spring break at this late date brings a mixture of opinions from schools in the district," Omarkhail said."Over 90% believe that the building environment will not be conducive to learning if that many teachers are out of the building that week and it will negatively affect the climate and culture of our buildings for some teachers to be able to go on 'vacation' while others are left behind to work with substitutes and attempt to teach."

Some teachers have surgeries they purposefully scheduled for when they would be out of school and one family even postponed a funeral for a family member, Omarkhail said.

But she also said she believed it was a wise decision to close schools next week, especially after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee declared a state of emergency Thursday and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases doubled overnight to 18.

"It would be irresponsible to continue as the coronavirus continues to spread across the state. Safety is of the utmost importance to us all," Omarkhail added.

School board members have reported receiving dozens of emails, messages and phone calls. Board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, said he's received 80 emails and more than 40 phone calls. Board member Kathy Lennon, of District 2, said she's received more than 60.

One teacher who emailed McClendon asked him to vote against the recommendation at the board's scheduled meeting on Monday. The teacher cited pre-planned, nonrefundable trips to Montego Bay and San Francisco.

"I've been surprised by the backlash from the teacher. We are in unprecedented times and there is not a game plan or playbook for what happens," McClendon said. "We need first and foremost to make sure we are doing everything we can as a district to help promote social distancing in the county and the state."


- Monday, March 16: Agenda session at 5 p.m. to discuss facilities next steps and calendar adjustments considerations- Thursday, March 19: Budget work session at 4:30 p.m. followed by regularly scheduled monthly meeting at 5:30 p.m.All meetings will be held in the Hamilton County Department of Education board room at 3074 Hickory Valley Rd.

Vicki Edwards, a gifted teacher who rotates between several schools, said teachers have also received mixed information about their responsibilities while schools are closed.

Some have been told to report to their school building on Monday, March 16 and to be available throughout the week via phone or email. Many are also being asked to prepare digital instructional materials with little instruction or guidance.

"The district's expectations are unrealistic," Edwards said. "It seems that the county wants us to continue having school during the time we are off. ... When we got the news initially that we were going to be out, that means you're out, but no it doesn't mean that at all. We are in a state of emergency so this is all not necessary."

Jaime Kerns, an educator in Red Bank, agreed with the decision to close schools, but also doesn't think spring break should be rescheduled. Instead, Kerns would rather see school closed even longer like some local private schools and colleges have done.

"I don't think spring break should be moved," Kerns said. "I believe we should be out until then, like some of the private schools are doing locally. ... We won't be through the pandemic in two weeks, and probably not four."

She acknowledged that these are complex decisions though. Kerns has a 15-year-old child at home who has a compromised immune system and wants to work from home to minimize exposure risk, but she also understands the impact closing school has on many families.

"But I know that the school closures will greatly impact families who rely on their children to be at school and an extended one will be an even bigger strain," she said.

Hamilton County United, a teacher advocacy organization formed in the past year, said it shared teachers "frustration and disappointment with the district email regarding the possibility of moving spring break," in a post on Facebook. But the group also encouraged people to consider other concerns as well.

"We feel strongly that two weeks is not long enough for this situation to resolve. Other districts are already petitioning the state for testing and makeup day exemptions. We should be doing the same," the post said. "In the meantime, we'd like to be proactive in helping our community in any way we can. Do our most at risk students have food? Are our classified staff being paid? What about their families? Are the elderly members of our community in need? How can we help?"

Lennon said people need to take a step back.

"I really think we have to step back and realize that this has never happened before and we have to be kind and very graceful," she said. "We don't know what's going to happen in April."

Lennon said she isn't in favor of rescheduling spring break though. She doesn't think it's in the best interest for teaching and learning.

"We can't tell people that what they have planned is not important. I don't think we need to change spring break and cause an uproar," Lennon said. "I think we need to close until [March] 30 and then reassess."

Board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, said she had also heard from an East Ridge student who felt the change wasn't fair.

"He made a good point," Thurman said. "He said 'how can we trade that for spring break when we're going to have work to do the whole time?'"

Once school districts use up the extra days added to the calendar for school closures, it is typically expected that missed class time will be made up through extending the school year, school days, etc.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.