As a parent in the Central Bucks County School District, I became worried about my children’s future as I watched them struggle with remote learning after the district closed down due to Covid-19. When the local public health director came out with new guidance in the summer saying that kids could safely attend school in-person, I was elated, as were hundreds of other parents.
But then the superintendent backtracked and said schools wouldn’t reopen in the fall. Controversy erupted. The health director was maligned in the press, and families were left wondering when or if things would ever return to normal.
So, rather than sitting on the sidelines, I put in a Right To Know request with the school district, requesting emails pertaining to the reopening discussion they’d had. What I received revealed the ability of the teachers’ union to pressure the superintendent and many others to keep schools closed, even though this was clearly not in the best interest of our children.
What struck me first was that teachers had raised concerns that the district was not prepared to adequately teach children remotely. It was reassuring to know that teachers want the best for their students. But the local teachers’ union president, Erin Corrigan, directed teachers to not express their concerns publicly.
“It will serve no one in our group to continue a public narrative that kids will not be served well,” Corrigan wrote in an email on August 27. “Certainly if a parent in the community asks you about the challenges… it’s OK to answer honestly in a verbal manner, but social media etc. is a bad idea.”
Corrigan was responding to an email from a teacher who said he did not think teachers had the materials necessary to teach effectively in a remote setting. He said the district was “projecting a toxic positivity” among teachers and parents.
To my surprise, I was the subject of a few of the email exchanges. Apparently I was on the union’s radar after I asked questions about why students couldn’t attend school in person. And even more surprising was that I learned that staff had been told not to respond to me.
“This is an email from a parent from the parent group on Facebook,” wrote a school nurse. “This has already been forwarded to Cheryl and we were directed not to respond.”
“It looks like this message is from Jamie Walker, the parent who is part of the PAC that is trying to rile things up… I received a similar message, though not solely about quarantine, that I reported to PSEA,” Corrigan responded.
I am riled up. I am frustrated that our children were not allowed to return to school full-time in the fall, and that district policies meant many students frequently had to go into quarantine at home, even though the local public health director, Dr. David Damsker, said this was unnecessary.
I am riled up. I am frustrated that our children were not allowed to return to school full-time in the fall, and that district policies meant many students frequently had to go into quarantine at home…
Dr. Damsker said in the summer of 2020 that it was safe for children to return to school, that they could sit three feet apart in classrooms, and that they didn’t have to quarantine at home if they were wearing a mask while seated near a child who tested positive for Covid-19. Based on that advice from Damsker, the district superintendent, John Kopicki, initially said students would go back to school full-time in the fall.
But teachers’ union officials responded to Dr. Damsker’s sensible approach with panic. A district report released in September warned that “PSEA has become very involved in this issue. PSEA leaders are actively encouraging that grievances be filed anytime a school district allows the use of a modified quarantine.”
Local parents became distressed when we saw negative depictions of Dr. Damsker in articles in the Bucks County Courier-Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. A regional president for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) wrote an opinion piece in the Courier-Times criticizing Dr. Damsker’s recommendations as dangerous. The Inquirer ran a piece critical of Dr. Damsker’s approach to managing Covid-19 in Bucks County, including his recommendation to keep schools open.
But Dr. Damsker wasn’t alone in facing the unions’ ire. I also have emails from the teachers’ union complaining that the district’s human resources director, Andrea DiDio-Hauber, was too harsh when she merely told teachers that they would be asked to return to in-person instruction if they published posts on social media showing them out on the town for happy hour or away on vacation.
In one email, teachers’ union officials discussed teachers who said DiDio-Hauber should be fired for sending that common sense warning.
As pressure from the union mounted, the school board and district leaders backtracked and instead of following the science and reopening, our children were left struggling at home, away from friends and teachers. Students didn’t all have the option to return to full-time in-person learning until February. In the end, research from the Centers for Disease Control proved this drastic approach to be wrong. And Dr. Damsker’s recommendations based on the three-foot rule and the use of modified quarantine used in places like Ohio were correct all along.
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I’m still fighting the district for all of the emails they are supposed to send me. In order to delay release of the information I am legally entitled to, the district took the case to the state’s Office of Open Records. After the open records office ruled in my favor, the district took me to court. One can only wonder why they are putting so much effort into keeping a handful of emails from going public.
School district policies are still negatively affecting our children -– including by forcing some of them to eat while sitting on the floor in school hallways. Middle and high school students don’t even get to eat lunch during the school day. It’s time to stop the hysteria and follow the scientific research and to allow our children to go to school in as normal a fashion as possible, while still maintaining their safety and the safety of teachers and staff. Hopefully the teachers’ union will stop standing in the way.
Jamie Walker is a Bucks County mother of three and a former teacher who is dedicated to getting kids back to school.