DENHAM SPRINGS -- Jessica Cobb welcomes her second-graders to class each day a little after 7 a.m.
Over the next eight hours, they’re together for all but 30 minutes, confined to the same space. The students eat breakfast in the classroom before Cobb starts the day’s lessons. They eat lunch in the classroom before Cobb continues teaching. She waves goodbye to them when the bell rings around 3:15 p.m.
But the day of instruction isn’t over yet.
Once her in-person students walk out the door, Cobb turns her attention to her virtual learners, spending her after-school hours in zoom meetings, uploading worksheets, creating instructional videos, and trying to reteach all she already taught earlier that day.
She still has to squeeze in time for her normal after-school teaching duties, such as grading papers, creating lesson plans, and speaking with parents and students. Somewhere in the middle, she finds time for her family.
This was Cobb’s schedule when the Livingston Parish Public Schools system began the 2020-21 school year in Phase Two of its reopening plan amid the coronavirus pandemic. It remained her schedule when the district advanced to Phase Three.
And with the governor’s admission that the state likely won’t advance any further until some sort of vaccine is made and distributed, there’s no telling how long Phase Three will last — or how long she can keep this up.
“Phase Three provided zero change,” said Cobb, a teacher for 14 years, including 11 in Livingston Parish. “It’s still double the work.”
Cobb isn’t the only Livingston Parish teacher to raise concerns this year about the “overwhelming” and “impossible” workload that virtual instruction has created, and a group of them gave voice to that during a planned “day of action.”
The “sick out” day was announced late Monday night following a vote from members of the Livingston Federation of Teachers, who said they would not report to work on Wednesday.
In the statement, the union claimed that teachers’ concerns regarding the district’s reopening plans, virtual learning model, and an increased workload have not been addressed, citing an unresponsive School Board and central office administration.
Along with LFT members, teachers from the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana (A+PEL) took part in the protest, as did other non-union teachers.
Despite the protest, Superintendent Joe Murphy promised in a press conference Tuesday that school would go on “as planned,” and it did, with several schools posting they were staying open and that all their faculty was in class on Wednesday.
In the press conference, Murphy said he recognized “every employees’ legal right to take part in this proposed sick out as well as their right to speak out on issues affecting them and this district.”
“We respect that right,” he said. “With that said, our district will always hold fast to our No. 1 priority and that is to educate the children of Livingston Parish every day, including [Wednesday].”
The number of teachers who participated in the protest varies, depending on who you ask.
Several teachers and union reps who participated said there were as many as 300 of the district’s 1,500 or so teachers taking part in the “sick out.”
The school system reported that number to be somewhere between 85-100, a figure determined by those who called out without finding a substitute, according to LPPS spokesperson Delia Taylor.
Taylor added that all principals in the parish made arrangements to cover absences and that some central office staff helped teach students.
Meanwhile, a few dozen teachers gathered in Denham Springs to discuss a range of topics pertaining to the current school year, one unlike any other during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much of the focus centered on the district’s implementation of the virtual learning model and the effect on virtual students, the lack of teacher input in the district’s decision-making process, and what they felt was a misrepresentation of their concerns during Tuesday’s press conference.
“Our main problem is we want help and we want to be a part of the decisions made for our schools and for our children,” said Tamara Cupit, a teacher for 23 years and LFT president. “It is all based on our students receiving the best possible education.”
‘Virtual school can work, but… not the way we are doing it right now’
According to teachers at the meeting, the problems go back to mid-July when the district released its “LPPS Start Strong” reopening plan, based on the phase Gov. John Bel Edwards has set for the state.
Under Phase Two of that plan, students would be placed in one of four groups: Groups A and B, which received a combination of traditional and online instruction; Group C, which received 100 percent virtual instruction; and Group D, which received five-days-a-week on-campus instruction.
Teachers at Wednesday’s "sick out" meeting claim they were responsible for all four groups, a frustration that A+PEL executive director Dr. Keith Courville said he’s heard from countless other Livingston Parish teachers throughout this school year.
However, Courville said he hasn’t heard that same complaint from teachers in other districts, saying most systems throughout the state have given their teachers “less groups to juggle.”
“The consensus across the state has been to have some teachers teach online and others do it in person,” Courville said. “Each teacher in Livingston Parish is having three or four [groups], whereas in other districts, they have maybe two.”
“If you just think in terms of the math,” he said later, “they’re expecting a single teacher to do three times the work, and they don’t simply have the time.”
Despite the anticipated difficulties with the reopening plan, teachers at Wednesday’s meeting said they did what they’ve always done — they tried to make it work.
“That’s what teachers always do,” Cobb said. “We’ve been making it work for the students and our personal lives from the get go. But we thought it would be a temporary solution. We thought Phase Three would provide us some relief, but for me, nothing has changed.”
More questions arose as the school year approached, teachers at the meeting said, but few answers.
Kimberly Cleveland, a middle school ELA, non-union teacher and former Teacher of the Year, said she attended “every curriculum meeting the school board offered” to prepare for the upcoming year.
She recalled constantly asking questions about how virtual instruction would be taught and executed, since she knew she’d have a mixture of in-person and distance students and would be responsible for both sets of learners.
For the majority of the summer, those questions went unanswered.
“The district wasn’t clear,” she said. “Even up to the first week of school, we had no clear guidance on how to teach virtual. They gave us the tools and training, but those consisted of just videos that were posted online that we watched on our own time.”
The timing of those training sessions was also an issue, teachers said.
In his press conference and in front of the School Board last week, Murphy explained that the district offered 60 training sessions to prepare teachers for the opening of schools in the last week of July.
Teachers said those sessions came during Tech Week, which ran virtually from July 27-31. The school year began on Aug. 7, one week after the final day of Tech Week.
(A few teachers said Tech Week was supposed to run in the beginning of June but, for unknown reasons, was pushed back).
Several teachers also disputed the claim that the trainings were “provided,” saying that teachers were the ones who created the videos and performed in them for their colleagues.
“We were given the platforms… the training, however, we don’t feel like we were adequately prepared to use those platforms to the degree that we were used to teaching,” Cleveland said. “There were 60 different trainings available to teachers, but the trainings we watched on videos were performed by teachers on their own time, we had to watch during our own time, and we were not compensated.”
With the move to Phase Three and the district allowing students from all grades levels back on campus for traditional learning, the number of virtual students has shrunk mightily since the school year started.
Once at a peak of nearly 3,000, Murphy said the number of virtual learners has dwindled to 1,868, about seven percent of the district’s 26,000 students.
But though the total number of virtual students has lessened, the workload on teachers for their remaining virtual students hasn’t, they said.
“Whether you have one [virtual student] or 20, it doesn’t matter,” Cupit said. “It’s double the work to provide the same educational experience to those virtual children. That’s what we’ve been trying to do, because these kids deserve the same education, but it’s not working.”
Since Murphy said virtual instruction is “the new normal” and here to stay, teachers are hoping for a long-term solution. Many said they don’t disapprove with virtual teaching itself, just the way it’s been implemented. They believe a few changes could 'make a huge difference’ for teachers.
One suggested assigning one teacher per subject or grade level to handle virtual students while dividing the in-person students among the remaining teachers. That way, virtual teachers could focus solely on their virtual students, while others focused on their in-class students, all during the normal school day.
Another suggested expanding Livingston Virtual, the district’s online program targeting homeschool and current charter or virtual school students, to all grade levels and making it easier to enroll. Some teachers said they tried enrolling their own children in the program, but ran into several problems.
Others suggested using the monies that were to be allocated to schools to hire virtual teachers to be used for just that — hiring virtual teachers, not placing an extra burden on existing teachers atop their regular duties.
“We have so many solutions to make it what it needs to be, but we aren’t being heard,” Cupit said. “Virtual school can work, but it cannot work the way we are doing it right now. It needs to be improved and expanded and we need individual teachers to do this job.”
‘There’s a huge communication gap’
As A+PEL executive director, Courville regularly talks to district leaders, administrators, and teachers across the state.
What he’s seen in other districts — but not in Livingston Parish — is ongoing dialogue among all three groups.
“I will say that other districts have been much more responsive to the issues coming up and being supportive of teachers and listening to them,” he said. “I don’t think people are really appreciative of the magnitude of the issues that teachers are having to face.
“I haven’t talked to a single teacher that feels great about how this year has gone in Livingston parish. Not one.”
Courville, who began his career in education in Livingston Parish, has spoken at the last two School Board meetings and was there when teachers stormed out following a vote that negated a proposed COVID committee to include teacher and parent input.
All but two board members (Devin Gregoire, District 9, and Kellee Dickerson, District 2) supported the vote.
In the most recent meeting Sept. 17, Courville told board members he was “shocked” and “disheartened” at the lack of dialogue the issue received, saying the board missed a chance to “show the teacher how much you loved and cared for them.”
“There’s a huge communication gap in Livingston Parish,” he said. “They just don’t seem to listen to their own teachers.”
Many teachers believe they should’ve had a voice from the beginning on the Start Strong Committee, which formed over the summer and originally consisted of seven principals elected by the Livingston Parish Principals Association.
Along with the principals, which represented all grade levels, the original committee also had parents and students.
This committee, according to Murphy on Tuesday, determined how schools reopened and structured campuses, implemented learning schedules in adherence to occupancy and distancing limits, how schools handled cleaning and disinfecting of campuses and buses, and implemented distance learning.
After much outcry from teachers and parents, that committee was recently expanded to include 10 teachers, two parents, one school board representative, and six central office personnel alongside the principals.
However, at least seven of the 10 teachers work under the principals already on the committee, which the protesting teachers claim is “not equitable.”
LFT members believe their proposed Superintendent’s Advisory Council would be a good start “to make things more even.”
This permanent council would consist of one teacher from each school — elected by the teachers at that school — and meet monthly with the superintendent and School Board.
The first job of the committee would be to address issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Later, the council would continue to meet to address teacher concerns, school improvement strategies, curriculum decisions, professional development selection, “and anything else that is pertinent to the educational experience of students.”
“The point of the [Advisory Council] is so that we can be heard and be part of the decision-making process and create a long-term plan,” Cobb said. “We know what’s best for the students because we are in the classroom with them everyday.”
‘We are not being heard’
According to the teachers who protested, they felt that Tuesday’s press conference “misrepresented” what they were actually standing up for and didn’t truly address their concerns.
Several pointed to the mentioning of a pay raise. Teachers admitted to wanting a raise — “what teacher doesn’t think they deserve to be paid more,” one said — especially since their insurance rates will rise by 10 percent over the next two years.
But they said a pay raise wasn’t the reason behind the protest, nor was it listed in LFT’s statement released to the media announcing the strike.
“We are not being heard — we’re being misrepresented,” Cupit said.
Teachers said there were many reasons for the strike, but it all boils down to one — the students, specifically those in distance learning.
Many who spoke fear that when those children come back to campus for testing, their lack of adequate instruction will be reflected in their scores — which in turn, will be reflected on the teachers.
“I will continue to provide my students with the best that I can give them, but I’m asking for relief” Cleveland said. “Livingston Parish has always tried to best serve all of our students 100 percent, and that’s what we’re asking for. We want the best for our kids.”
“The kids at home are not getting the same instructional minutes,” she said later. “That’s what it boils down to.”
Teachers who took part in the “sick out” said they were “grateful” for the teachers who reported to school on Wednesday and said they would be back on campus on Thursday.
They also wanted it to be clear that their issues aren’t with their principals — many said their principals have been “fully supportive” this year, including some on the day of the strike — but with the district’s top decision-makers who they feel aren’t listening to what they believe is best for all of their students, virtual and in-person.
“We are here for our students and not for ourselves,” Cobb said. “Today I am not laid up on my couch taking a sick day. I am here because my students deserve better than a tired, frazzled, exhausted teacher.
“My virtual students deserve better than worksheets scanned into the computer, because at this point, that’s all I can do.”