Teachers Demand Changes From Pittsylvania County School Board

By Amie Knowles

January 15, 2021

Teachers from around the district vented at this week’s school board meeting, saying change is needed.

CHATHAM – Teachers are in an abusive relationship, Jennifer Watson said. The social studies teacher, who’s worked at Dry Fork’s Tunstall High for 25 years, realizes that sounds dramatic. 

“Sounds dramatic, but it’s true,” she said. 

And the problems, Watson said, aren’t due to infection from COVID-19. From political agendas to districts’ upper level decisions to trash talk from frustrated parents and peers online, teachers face a gamut of issues.

“What my students and families see every single day: I show up,” Watson said. “I show up with a smile. [I] show up with a positive attitude. I show up because this isn’t their fault. [I] show up because I love them.”

However, there’s a darker side to the smiles Watson exudes.

“What they don’t see: I ugly cry almost every day. I don’t sleep. I forget to eat, even though I don’t look like it. And when I do, I eat comfort food. I feel defeated,” Watson said. “I work tirelessly to plan, research new strategies and figure out how to make this difficult situation developmentally and emotionally appropriate, successful and still make it as fun as possible.”

RELATED: Northam Says It’s Time to Bring Students Back to School

Speaking Up 

Watson and other teachers poured their heart out Tuesday at the Pittsylvania County School Board meeting. Watson called the current climate against teachers toxic, exhausting and unacceptable, especially coupled with constant changes to the 2020-21 instructional plan.

“I have no voice, but I have to keep smiling and find a way to make it work, despite knowing that it will upset parents. Despite the fact it will be confusing to my students. [Despite] knowing it is not always developmentally appropriate,” Watson said. “Despite knowing I am jeopardizing my safety, the safety of my family and the safety of students, I will find a way.”

Watson said she thought about resigning and walking away from the career. She also considered standing up for herself, responding to negative social media comments and demanding more. She hasn’t because of her students.

“But then I log in and I see their faces. I hear their laughs and their ‘I love you’s. I see their hard work and the progress that we’re making. And I know I cannot walk away from them yet,” Watson said. “They are my reason, the reason I chose this profession. The reason I will cry on the way to school, but never on camera. The reason I will block the hate.’”

Watson ended her remarks with a warning.

“I promise unless something is going to change in a big way, 2021’s going to start a teacher shortage that’s going to be bigger than COVID ever was,” Watson said. “We are going to have a problem with retention because we know our worth and we won’t forget the way this has treated us.”

A Plea for Transparency

Meanwhile, Tara Mills just wanted some transparency. A history teacher at Tunstall High, she pointed out if a student tests positive for COVID-19, faculty have trouble getting helpful information.

“So we wait, we wait two days. We ask administration not the student’s names, not what block. We know HIPAA. [We] simply want to know if that student tested positive or negative so we can take extra precautions,” Mills said. “And to be told, ‘You are not allowed to know that.’ Do you know the absurd level of fear you have in that moment? What kind of strategy involves no information?”

Mills challenged the school board to switch to virtual learning until all teachers who choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine receive both doses.

Ashley Stanley, a gifted resource teacher in Pittsylvania County, highlighted still other issues in the district. Stanley said she and her colleagues do not have access to the tools they need to properly do their jobs, like work laptops.

“Continuously, I and my colleagues have been denied by PCS. In some cases, including my own, an administrator at a base site inquired about a dedicated desktop computer. That request has not been granted either. It is inefficient having to seek daily an unoccupied computer at a different worksite,” Stanley said. “Like many of my students, I grew up below the poverty line with limited access to technology, through the completion of college. From my experience as an employee in your school division, I feel I’m being told I do not deserve equal access to all of the information and resources needed to do my job.”

A Questionable Protocol 

Alice Willingham also had a lot to say.

Willingham serves as the Virginia Education Association’s UniServ director for Territory 6 and in that role acts as the representative for Pittsylvania County. She noted the rise in COVID-19 cases, stated instances of ignored doctor’s orders and mentioned that PCS did not have a COVID dashboard.

She also challenged the district’s infectious disease protocols.

“Your district allows staff members who are awaiting test results to return to work if they are fever-free for a day. Other districts, the wait time is 72-hours,” Willingham said. “At one of your schools, a staff member was directed to return after being fever-free for 24 hours, even though the employee was awaiting COVID test results. The test was positive and this person was in the building for a day and a half.”

The same school allegedly directed another employee to come into work, even though their spouse awaited COVID test results.

“Apparently children who came into contact with this person have now tested positive for COVID,” Willingham said.

Benchmarks needed

Eva Cassada, an English teacher at Dan River High School, served as the final teacher representative of the evening.

She addressed the board empathetically, noting that she would not like to be in their current position.

“There are no easy solutions right now. In fact, there are not even any good ones,” Cassada said. “This is the very definition of a dilemma.”

Cassada suggested creating loose boundaries for benchmarks to meet for virtual and in-person learning in relation to COVID positivity numbers.

“These guidelines need not be set in stone, but they would remove any sense of ambiguity or guesswork or wishful thinking,” Cassada said. “Furthermore, set standards and goals might put some of the onus for keeping schools open on [inaudible], or it might encourage the community to do its part for the sake of our children and staff.”

She also spoke in favor of returning to a virtual format.

Seemingly, the teachers’ pleas did not impact the board’s decisions, as they didn’t respond or alter in-person instruction.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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