Pa. teachers are still teaching, and our students are still learning | Opinion

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By Timothy P. Williams

Our educators are freeloading, if you believe the sentiments of public school detractors, even of some legislators.

In a recent letter to state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, questioned what teachers are doing during the pandemic and reminded Rivera that “Teachers, administrators and staff are all being paid. All medical benefits are covered.”

Turzai is right, of course, about one thing; educators continue to be paid as is required by Act 13 of 2020, which passed in both chambers without a single dissenting vote. What he may not know is that teachers continue to work.

We all expect to be paid for the fruits of our labors, and when that option is removed from us we all would expect to receive unemployment compensation. So let us dispense with the divisiveness that some would like to foster between those who are working and those who have the misfortune of not working. Instead, let us focus on the issue before us — public education.

Public school educators have been, and will continue to be, the cornerstone of American prosperity, as illustrated in The Nation at Risk report from 1983.

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Effective learning is instrumental for the continuation of the American Way, and public education has been the foundation on which the United States has become the greatest nation on Earth.

From my microcosm of the York Suburban School District, our educators continue to do their part. They consistently have demonstrated ingenuity in adapting to the pandemic closures. We asked our teaching staff — so effective at delivering face-to-face instruction — to transition to an electronic environment. They eagerly took on that challenge and developed instructional delivery that we are calling Forward Learning.

York Suburban educators borrowed some elements of online learning and added a dose of ingenuity to develop Forward Learning. And, they did all of that within a two week timeframe while still providing grab-and-go meals for students and their families.

Anyone who assumes that schools have been idle during the pandemic either is not paying attention or does not have the opportunity to see behind the scenes. I will assume the latter is true of Turzai.

Consequently, it is good that Turzai posed some questions, and I am happy to provide answers to them from my perspective at York Suburban:

Q: Under COVID-19, are our students getting full day curriculums? Are they having interactions with teachers and administrators and staff?

A: Yes. We call it Forward Learning, and all of our teachers and paraprofessionals are engaged with their students every day.

Q: Please tell me that teachers are calling some number of their students each day. Is a teacher or at least a staff person calling through each student with intellectual or physical disability and his or her family on at least a weekly basis?

A: We do not call them, we video conference with them. We only use phone calls as a last resort.

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Q: How much instruction are our students getting each day? In grade school? Middle and high school?

A: Our K-12 students are getting a full day of instruction. You may see some additional information about Forward Learning at http://www.yssd.org/forward-learning.

Q: Are students self-teaching?

A: No, unless you view asynchronous learning as “self-teaching.” Our teachers use a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous activities. Asynchronous learning activities require a student to move at his or her own pace, which promotes  exactly what we want our students to become — self-motivated and seeking to engage learning with a high level of self-efficacy.

Q: Are parents teaching?

A: No. However, we value when parents become partners in their childrens’ education, whether it is during traditional schooling or during Forward Learning.

Q: Is there value added from the educational establishment?

A: Our teachers provide added value whether they are in traditional classrooms or in Forward Learning. The value add during the pandemic is that we are experiencing resiliency in such a way that would not have been possible just a few months ago.

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Q: What measurables have you put in place?

A: We have modeled our measures on those used by cyber charter schools but with greater accountability. Cyber charters only require a daily sign-on. We often deliver instruction synchronously so that students are more accountable, which translates to a higher level of accountability than cyber charters.

Q: Do you not know the burden that you are placing and have placed on families? Pennsylvanians have an expectation, appropriately given the science and data, to expect a return to normalcy, although concededly a new normal. Do you know the burden you are placing on folks who will want to return to the workforce in the fall?

A: We certainly do understand the impact as many of our educators are contending with teaching their students while also monitoring their family members’ participation in similar educational activities. For the coming year, we are trying to figure out options to help families if it becomes necessary to continue with Forward Learning. Since child care is not the function of public schools, perhaps the legislature could develop a “can do” posture to help us figure out a solution or at least avoid being an impediment to educators in doing so.

We are proud of what we have been able to deliver for our students, and we are making preparations to continue Forward Learning if it becomes necessary at any time during the 2020-21 school year. York Suburban has passionately adopted a “can do” approach to the pandemic; I am proud of our educators, who have embraced this new challenge with the same determinedness they have always had.

In addition to our stellar human resources, York Suburban is fortunate to have other resources readily available to quickly develop Forward Learning. Undoubtedly, many districts in urban and rural areas face technical and connectivity challenges, making it more difficult to contend with this new normal. The pandemic has exposed resource inequities across the Commonwealth, prompting educators to get more creative in their approach to teaching and learning.

Educators are accustomed to challenges. Most teachers would tell you that their first year of teaching was the most difficult because they were trying to figure out the best way to deliver instruction. The pandemic has forced our York Suburban teachers to relive those first year challenges to get Forward Learning up and running.

They certainly are earning their pay and delivering instruction under extremely difficult circumstances. Educators at York Suburban, and at other districts with which I am familiar, are excelling. And, yes, they are getting paid to do so. They deserve payment for services rendered AND our gratitude.

Timothy P. Williams is the superintendent of the York Suburban School District in York County, Pa.