By Heather Smith Craig
The Oct. 21 meeting of the CHCCS Board of Education (BOE) opened with emotional words from Brian Link, President of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Association of Educators and a civics teacher at East Chapel Hill High School. When Mr. Link speaks at BOE meetings, he typically praises the school board, the superintendent and the district’s hard-working staff. This night, however, he spoke instead about what it is like to be a teacher now. “This week,’ he said, “we have had to face … threats of weapons on campus, to see vandalism with racial and other slurs, … to have staff verbally harassed, … and to have our own leader be physically assaulted. We are asked to do so much every single day — we are asked to counsel, provide medical and safety supervision, we are asked to monitor halls, we are asked to learn and to teach… We [students and staff] need a break.”
Mr. Link was referring to a number of disturbing incidents that occurred in CHCCS schools during the preceding week, which ended with a small fire at Carrboro High School that is being investigated by the fire department.
Following Mr. Link’s comments, Superintendent Dr. Nyah Hamlett presented a report on the district’s response to the feedback gathered from staff and students in a survey conducted Sept. 29. The survey asked staff two questions:
- “How can school and district leaders model the behavior we expect to see, connect with you and involve you in decision-making as much as possible?”
- “What can we take off educators’ plates, even if it’s just temporarily, that will allow us to address unfinished learning, safety, wellness and our three vision components for the year, which are 1) keeping equity at the center; 2) nurturing a data-driven culture as a means to close gaps; and 3) using strategic planning to inform our work.”
The survey also asked staff to “share what else you want us to know, including solutions to any issues or concerns.”
Staff provided over 200 comments in one week. The district’s most immediate response to the comments — changes that Dr. Hamlett described as “quick wins” — include providing retention bonuses and changing the school calendar to provide additional vacation days (“mental health breaks”).
Specifically, the BOE supported using a grant from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to provide a $1,000 retention bonus for current staff who haven’t yet received a bonus and committed to providing a bonus of at least $500 next year. The additional vacation days include giving students the entire week of Thanksgiving off and giving staff the opportunity to also take the entire week off (Monday Nov. 22 will be an optional teacher work day). Feb. 14 will now also be a “wellness day,” i.e. there will be no school that day.
Students who completed the survey expressed a desire to return to normal lunch periods —they currently have only 25 minutes — in order to have enough time not only to eat but also to meet with teachers for support and to attend clubs for socializing. Longer lunch periods would also allow teachers time to eat their own lunches. Students also asked for a resumption of in-person school events, as has occurred in some neighboring school districts, greater priority given to student mental health, and a reduced emphasis on homework.
Issues around mental health dominated the subsequent discussion, such as how volunteers and substitutes can help to relieve teachers of some of the extra burdens currently placed on them, and how to examine whether the amount of assigned homework should be reduced to promote student mental health.
“Some of the kindness shifts this year didn’t change the [amount of] learning [that occurred] but did change the amount of pressure,” board member Mary Ann Wolf said regarding the effects of decreasing the amount of homework. Ms. Wolf and board member Rani Dasi both supported enlisting the help of volunteers in the schools and recommended surveying substitute teachers regarding their pay, employee orientation and integration processes and how else they could be supported in schools. Board members also discussed allowing job-sharing as way to recruit substitutes that have restricted availability.
Board member Ashton Powell, who ran on a platform of promoting mental health for students and staff, reminded the audience that the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing mental health challenges. He suggested that, just as the district assesses the impact of proposed changes on racial equity, the district could assess the impact of proposed changes on student and staff mental health. “We need to pull back as much as possible,” he said.
Board chairperson Jillian LaSerna suggested that some school policies, such as those that address late homework, might be adding to the pressure students feel, beyond the challenges of the academic work itself.
The board members unianimously approved the recommendations put forth by Dr. Hamlett regarding the use of volunteers in schools, provision of retention bonuses and changes to the school calendar to build in longer breaks for staff and students.
Dr. Hamlett also reported:
- Vaccinated volunteers will be allowed back in schools, following COVID protocols, to support student growth, starting in early November;
- In an effort to recruit more substitute teachers, the district hosted two substitute recruitment events and will host a third Oct 28;
- Vaccination clinics will be held in November to support the anticipated ability to vaccinate children ages 5-11, and for those who need boosters.
The next BOE meeting will take place Nov. 4.