How the community’s response to decisions regarding the return to school has impacted decision makers, students, families, and educators.
The decision about whether or not to go back to school, and how to do so, is unlike any issue previously presented to the ORCSD School Board. This has been a hot topic among the Oyster River community since the summer, and continues to be discussed as we are in the second semester of the year. Through public comment at meetings, emails, phone calls, and social media threads, members of the Oyster River community continue to react to these decisions, leaving school board members, administrators, and teachers to evaluate all of these opinions. While much of the feedback is respectful and constructive, some head towards personal attacks against decision makers. Within this story, we will dive into how the different responses, and ways they have been presented, affect our community and the way this pandemic is being dealt with.
This article will be focusing on the community’s response, as of mid-January 2021. More information on models presented and past decisions can be found on the School Board’s Agenda and Minutes page on the ORCSD website.
In March of 2020, the ORCSD made the decision to make the switch to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it began as just a three week break from in-person learning, the district ended up staying remote until the end of the 2019/2020 school year.
Over the summer, conversations began on whether or not students would continue with remote learning, go to school in a hybrid model, or attend school fully in-person while maintaining COVID-19 regulations. Currently, there are some targeted learners coming into the building multiple days a week for in-person instruction. However, the majority of students are learning from home the majority of the time. As the School Board began discussing whether students would be returning to school come September, community members began to speak up and voice their various opinions during the public comments section of Board meetings. Some believe that students should be in school due to a variety of factors such as social-emotional wellness and academic health, while others feel that the safest option is to maintain a remote learning environment. Additionally, there are many who are somewhere in-between. Whether or not students are in the building for learning has led to strong reactions from the community, creating tension between parents, teachers, and administrators.
We would like to preface this section by saying we will not be able to express every viewpoint that people may have. We hope to cover the most common opinions that have been expressed to the Board and the ORCSD administration.
There has been a vocal group who has urged the Board to reopen schools. Most of those who have expressed this opinion feel there needs to be a choice. They understand that some people don’t feel comfortable, but for those that do, they feel they are not being accommodated. At the November 4th Board meeting, Jason Piparo stated: “I completely understand and support those who choose remote learning in order to mitigate the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 […] The mission of the ORCSD is to ‘engage every learner.’ I’m here tonight to tell this Board that we are failing in that mission if we continue to deny our students a chance to attend in-person classes. Providing for those families that continue to be remote can not mean that my children will be held hostage by a minority opinion, so long as there is compelling evidence that in-person is viable, preferred, and more effective.”
While the most vocal group at School Board meetings has seemed to be those in favor of returning to school, there is also a group of individuals who do not feel comfortable having their children return to in-person learning. Parents against going back to school have a few key points, including the opinion that there are other ways to enrich students outside of the classroom, and it is not safe to return right now. During the public comments section of the January 6th School Board meeting, Gianna Gelsy read a letter with multiple signatories to the Board expressing this perspective. “While we can all agree that the ideal situation is for our students to be in person for learning, it is not possible for students to learn if they, their caregivers and family, and their teachers are ill. The simple desire to have our children in school is not a justification to do so.”
Loren Selig, ORCSD parent of two, shared similar hesitation to Gelsy, and said, “personally, I’m not comfortable having my kids come back to the building. Until we know that every student is being tested regularly, every staff member, every faculty member, I’m not comfortable. I see the pictures of other kids and other parents out on social media at big group gatherings […] I don’t want to be put in the position where I either have to homeschool my child, or find another alternative. I really hope we continue to do what’s absolutely in the safest interest of our children, not just trying to meet the needs of potentially a vocal few.”
Piparo mentioned not returning to school was a “minority opinion,” Tom Newkirk, School Board Chairman, expressed that in actuality, “when you’re on an edge, you probably are more vocal than if you’re in the middle. There is a big middle group that does not want to go back unless things are really safe, who have found that maybe remote learning has not been perfect, or maybe not been good for all, but has worked better than you would think from the public comments.” Board members expressed that they receive emails, letters, and phone calls behind the scenes from all perspectives, including those in the middle, who do not feel strongly either way. However, all the public sees is those on either end of the spectrum because those on the extreme ends tend to be the people who feel strong and comfortable enough to vocalize their opinions on the issue.
Selig mentioned that she hopes the Board does not act in the interest of one group of people. Dr. James Morse, ORCSD Superintendent, shared that he will continue to consider all individuals and circumstances. “I had an email from a father who said “I’m willing to put my child at risk, and I’m willing to be put at risk. I want school to open.” But I don’t work for that one family. I work for the collective community. I can’t respond to one person’s interest, I have to respond to the collective interest.”
What Sets This Response Apart
For years prior to the pandemic, the ORCSD School Board has dealt with many issues, where many different opposing viewpoints came into play, however never to this extent. For example, Morse referenced the later start time conversation from a few years ago, and how different the current returning to school conversation is. “Historically in this district, when people disagree with me it’s a pretty intellectual conversation, meaning that they’re challenging my assumptions or my research […] This has been far different. The pandemic has been very, very stressful on families. It’s one thing to talk about a late start. That may have been a big deal for some and less of a big deal for others, but the pandemic is cutting right to the heart of a home […] If you have little people at home, and you’re thinking about ‘how am I going to supervise my child? I have to go to work,’ that cuts to the core of family structure and the support the schools provide.”
One person who has received the majority of this negative feedback is Morse. “In my experience in the past nine years in this district, all of the discord has been civil. It’s been ‘I disagree with you and this is why,’ or they’d write me a lengthy email saying ‘I wish that the district would go in this direction’ and give me all kinds of research about why I should take the district in a different direction. This is different. People really have been agitated, they’ve been angry, and they have shared that anger.”
Dunbar is one vocal individual who has shared their anger. During the public comments section of the December 16th School Board meeting, Dunbar said, “everyone out there that’s watching. Please do not give up on this fight to do what’s right for your kid. You can stop funding the PTO. The second call to action: you can actually write to the individuals in the school board who have voted against this back in October. The four of them, you can ask for their resignations. Please do that. I also need another group of people to start a GoFundMe page, so that we can get legal representation […] If these school board members will not resign, we will force them to resign. We will not be held captive any more and the kids’ health are at stake.”
While Morse says that he is happy to receive feedback based on his decisions, non-constructive attacks only take up time and don’t move anything forward. “It is a problem in the sense that it’s taking up an enormous amount of time because I do want to be respectful of people’s opinions and respond to them. On the other hand, it’s not going to go away because anything short of bringing everybody back isn’t going to satisfy some people,” said Morse.
While Dunbar expressing the desire to take legal action is among the more extreme responses, as Day stressed, the majority of feedback has been civil. While there has been hate and negativity, it’s important to put that negativity in context. “The vast majority [of people] have absolutely been civil, even if they’ve spoken very strongly. We’ve had a couple that have kind of crossed that line into not-so-helpful, and somewhat negative […] We have different opinions at times, but it’s important if we’re going to have constructive dialogue about that so that we do maintain civility,” said Day.
Public comments aren’t the only approach people take to expressing their opinions regarding the Board’s decisions. Board members and administrators have received emails, letters, phone calls, from all types of people, and have listened to the community members speak during the public comments section of Board meetings. Most of these responses have been civil, respectful, and the majority of parents express their appreciation for the work all are doing, even if they disagree. As for the overly negative responses, some feel they have gotten out of hand.
“I think with some people [there needs to be a bit more civility,] when people say to us “if you voted this way, you should resign.” I’m not too upset with people talking about their kids, if they’re really upset and if they feel bad for their kids. It’s hard to hear that, but that’s the reality. When people say things like ‘basically you’re just caving into this group’ or ‘you’re not reading the research,’ we are. I think part of it is just cumulative negativity is hard. […] People are upset with what’s happening with their kid, they have a right to say that. We’re public officials, we’re adults, we can take it,” said Newkirk.
As Newkirk mentioned, these individuals are public officials, who have a job to do. Kara Sullivan, ORHS English teacher stressed this, and said, “I definitely think people have a right to public comment, but they also have a responsibility to make sure their public comments aren’t hurtful to others. People are just trying to do their job. The School Board is trying to do their job, the administration is trying to do their job, and I don’t think the public comments are fair,” said Sullivan about the public comments that are hurtful, and overly negative.
A Teacher’s Perspective
While much of the response from community members has been civil and constructive, some decision makers, including Morse specifically, have seen some responses turn negative, as many parents and other community members are filled with anger during this time of heightened emotions.
School administrators and Board members aren’t the only people who have been receiving negativity during this time: teachers also have. At this time, teachers don’t have much more, if any, information than what is available to the general public. However, they have felt pressure from the community to have answers. “I’ve been balancing this teacher-parent thing for a long time, but I don’t think it’s ever been this difficult for me. Anywhere I go, someone asks me about when we’re going to be back in school, as if I know, but I don’t know,” said Sullivan, parent to two sons in the district.
Additionally, there is a perception that teachers do not want to return to school at this time. “Yes, we are in a crisis, but it is a manageable crisis. The rights of the children supersede this. What we’re having here is we’re having a battle of the wills. The teachers won’t teach. The parents want their kids in school,” said Michelle Dunbar, parent of 4.
Sullivan gave an educator’s perspective on this statement, and said, “People generally know this, but there has been this growing perception that teachers don’t want to go back to school, and that that perception is way off. As a parent, and as an educator, I know how difficult this has all been. I would much rather be teaching in my classroom to my students, but we’re weighing a lot of options and trying to do the best we can for our students.”
Since last summer, a task force at ORHS has been meeting regularly to support teachers and families with the different plans approved by the Board, as well as to help Suzanee Filippone, ORHS Principal, with plans that she presents at meetings.
Celeste Best, ORHS science teacher and technology integrator, said, “[The task force] is trying to come up with the best option in a bad situation. All of us know that this isn’t what we want to be doing… Our task has been to try to acknowledge all stakeholders and find something that works, even just a little bit, for them,” said Best.
Some teachers, like Sullivan, would like to share their experiences, and potentially clear up any misconceptions, with the public. However, many are uncomfortable putting themself in a place to speak on the issue. “I think in the big picture, you [students] are all dealing with a pandemic, and [my sons] are doing pretty well with that, and so I’ve wanted people to hear that from my perspective as a parent. But, there has been a tremendous amount of anger, and I think really strong, and sometimes inappropriate kinds of engagement in public comment, and I just did not want to put myself in that position,” said Sullivan.
Many teachers have not faced negativity from parents directly, however are upset to see those who have. “It was just really hard to hear because [Morse] is being very brutally attacked. I’m all about differences in opinions, but when it becomes a personal attack, that’s really hard to hear. All of my administrators are someone I really admire, and I could not do their job,” said Best.
How Crisis Builds Conflict
“People are going to react [to crisis] in three ways. They’re going to kind of retreat or isolate, they’re going to go with the flow and be neutral, or they’re going to fight. It scientifically makes sense that we have a population that is in the fight mode of a response to feeling unsafe or in a crisis,” said Kimberly Felch, ORCSD Counseling Director.
As Felch mentioned, there is a group currently who is fighting: an anticipated response. While the negative response has been hard to hear at times, Morse understands that this is unlike any other issue and affects people greatly. “This impacts people on a very fundamental level. It’s about child care, it’s about education, it’s about the things that we all care about, it’s about food security, and some of our families are struggling economically. When people are screaming at me, or pointing their finger, I try to remember that this isn’t the way they normally behave. This is a person in crisis,” said Morse.
Filippone views the backlash as a reaction to overwhelming emotion. “This is really emotionally charged, and any time that you have anything that’s emotionally charged you tend to see those extremes […] It’s really hard to moderate yourself during a crisis, and I think that tends to be why you see those extreme emotions.” She continued on to say, “a pandemic is very much being in a crisis for an extended period of time and when you’re in a state of crisis, people have a tendency to respond differently than they would otherwise. I think that it’s, in some ways, not surprising that people would be so emotionally charged during this time because of everything that’s going on.”
Felch offered some advice for those feeling especially frustrated, and said, “I think the extreme response is normal for some folks. What’s not healthy is to hang on to it when you have no control over it. It’s really about focusing on what you control, focusing on, as an adult, being a role model for your children, that when things are hard, and don’t go the way we want, we have to come up with ways with how we are going to cope.”
While Felch, Filippone, and Morse are not surprised by this response, some of these responses have crossed a line from emotional statements to personal attacks on decision makers and can not be excused, regardless of how difficult this time is for all.
A look to the future
In the meantime, while decisions continue to be made, one way the School Board is working to alleviate some of the stress and tensions between community members is to look at the numbers, or metrics, alone, without taking opinions into account. “It’s easy to kind of go off into emotions and I think it’s important to look at what the facts are,” said Denise Day, School Board member. In order to do this, the School Board adopted a set of metrics relating to COVID-19 that take certain factors, including positivity rate, hospitalization rate, cases per 100,000, and testing availability, into account. “We as a Board adopted this metric to help guide our decision, and I think that helps to take some of the emotion out of the decision and ground it more in facts. Not to say it is 100% based on these metrics, because I think in a situation like this, it is always a balancing act of trying to understand that there is a cost to staying remote, even if it is the safest thing to do,” explained Day.
Additionally, the School Board values feedback from all, and encourages more students to speak during the public comments section of their meetings, as they are the ones experiencing the results of their decisions. “I love it when students let us know what they think. Students sometimes are hesitant, and I very much appreciate it when students either write us letters, or come to the School Board meeting, and speak during public comment. I would definitely encourage any students that want to let us know what you think, please do so,” said Day.
As we reflect on these responses, it’s important to remember to put this negativity in context. The majority of those who have spoken up have been respectful and civil, regardless of a difference in opinion, which is always appreciated by decision makers. We hope this story gave you some more insight into the various community responses to the district’s decisions regarding the return to school thus far. This issue is constantly evolving. We have reported on the responses as of January 2021, and as COVID-19 numbers shift and ORCSD’s schooling models continue to change, there will surely be more response from the Oyster River community.
After writing this article and hearing opinions from all sides, our main takeaway is that this is a very emotionally charged issue. Many are not surprised that there has been an extreme response, due to the strain the pandemic has put on every family in a unique way. Through conversations with administrators, teachers, and community members, we’ve learned it’s okay for people to have a response, but it is important that everyone maintains civility for the sake of coming together during this crisis. As students at the high school, we’ve seen the impact of this division on our teachers, peers, and families, and hope that moving forward, everyone remembers to consider all sides of this issue and how others are positively and negatively impacted by these responses.
-Holly Reid and Emily Hamilton
Image taken from February 3rd School Board Meeting