This article was updated Aug. 31 with new comments from the superintendent of schools.
David Jeck, superintendent of Fauquier County Public Schools, posted a video update for parents on Aug. 27. With COVID-19 case numbers still rising in the county, he addressed the large number of students who have been quarantined after only two weeks of school and how staffing shortages have affected transportation and instruction.
His most heartfelt remarks – about how some parents are treating school employees -- came at the end of the brief address.
Jeck said, “Something that's been on my mind the last week that's very troubling to me, and I want to talk to you about it. … We've had folks who have been really disrespectful towards our staff and have been verbally abusive towards staff members.”
He said that teachers, administrators, secretaries, members of the central office staff and school board members have been on the receiving end of some harsh language. “And it really needs to stop. Now, granted, I know, I'm only talking to a very, very small percentage of folks who are frustrated and feel like the appropriate thing to do is lash out at staff. … And so, we'll do what we have to do to put an end to it. ... You know, we're better than that.”
Clearly disturbed by the behavior of some parents, Jeck said, “When things like that happen. I always think about my own kids and would I want my kids to see me behaving like that in a school or, you know, over the phone … and the answer is, of course, no, I wouldn't.
“So, I appreciate … the vast majority of folks who treat staff with respect and dignity. ... We expect our staff to treat stakeholders and parents with the same degree of respect. It's important; it's what we're about. It's what our school community should be about.
“I've been here eight years, and something I've always appreciated about the school community is our ability and our willingness to be respectful towards each other. And that's taken a bit of a hit here recently, and it's very concerning, and it really needs to stop.
“Staff, on any level, they're there to help you. … And, yes, I understand that we're all in a tough place right now. We all get that. And so, it's important that we are able to empathize with each other.”
Teacher, staff shortages
Jeck also addressed workforce challenges that the school district is currently facing.
He said the school division is wrestling with a shortage of bus drivers, custodians and school nutrition workers. He said, “I would like to tell you that we're going to fix this and it's going to get better sometime soon, but I really can't promise you that. We've had to do quite a bit of out-of-the-box thinking and try to be creative with filling in some holes, personnel wise.”
With 20 bus driver vacancies, he said, many drivers are making double runs, which means some buses arrive late to school. “I think we've avoided some really major late bus issues. … So, we're doing the best we can. We need more bus drivers” as well as custodians and nutrition workers.
On Tuesday, Jeck elaborated that the staff shortages aren’t so much about COVID-19 as they are about the shortage of teachers and staff generally. The school division started the school year short 40 teachers and 20 bus drivers. Prince William County was 200 teachers and 100 bus drivers short as of Aug. 20, according to the Prince William Times. Jeck agreed that all nearby districts are having the same issues.
In some cases when the school division was short a teacher, Jeck said, a full-time substitute was available to handle an extra classroom.
Jeck said Tuesday that elementary schools in particular may have some larger classes as a result of the teacher shortage. “Instead of four third grades, we have three, so those classes all have more kids,” he gave as an example.
What about required social distancing in the bigger classes? Jeck said that state’s goal is to have all schools open with all children learning in-person. “They have said that if having all the kids in school means you are prevented from social distancing in some instances, they understand that. It’s happening in every school everywhere. With schools full, it’s too crowded to social distance in every situation.”
In the high schools, he said, the school division is paying teachers to teach an extra class. “If a math teacher teaches algebra for three blocks, we’ll pay them a portion of their salary to take a fourth block.”
On Aug. 26, Helkowski announced that 565 children and 11 staff members were under quarantine. “No one was expecting to have this many students quarantine this quickly, and it caught us off guard,” Jeck said in Friday’s video address.
Jeck said Tuesday that he’d like the state health department requirements on quarantining to be more flexible. He pointed out that 95% of children who are quarantined end up with a negative COVID test. “I wish the state would be a little less restrictive,” pointing out that it is very difficult for both teachers and students when so many children are missing from the classroom.
He also reminded parents that fewer kids have to quarantine if everyone in the classroom has been wearing a mask when a case is reported, according to the state health department’s quarantine protocols.
He promised in the video that in the school division’s next newsletter, more information would be forthcoming about instruction for students who are quarantined. Jeck said, “We want to make sure that we're giving those kids who are quarantined meaningful instruction so that they … don't get behind. And we're going to continue to work at that. We're going to make it better.
“That is one area I can promise you we will make better. So, our Department of Instruction staff has worked very hard with our principals to come up with a plan that works and is doable and will help families, especially those who have children who have been quarantined.”
He said Tuesday that teachers are offering more after-school hours to help children who are absent from the classrooms and doing asynchronistic learning through assignments and worksheets. And he is asking teachers who have kids quarantining to turn on their cameras so that children can follow along from home. “There is no concurrent learning during the school day with those children, but kids can watch what is happening in the classroom.”
He asked parents to look for the school division’s weekly newsletter for comprehensive information on building access, free meals for students, opportunities for discounted internet service and community activities of interest to local families.
Reach Robin Earl at email@example.com