Reimagining Public Education in Anne Arundel County

1220
Anne Arundel County Board of Ed.

We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature. (1) – Sonya Renee Taylor, writer-activist

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. (2) – Arundhati Roy, writer

As of Oct. 13th, 2020, Anne Arundel County has a total of 10,915 documented infections and a death toll of 246 lives (3) as a result of the ensuing pandemic. Meanwhile, just about a week ago, the Board of Education of Anne Arundel County voted to implement a hybrid reopening plan during the middle of the first semester with teachers and elementary school students returning to school buildings in November. This means
that Anne Arundel County is currently the only large urban local school district to make the decision to return to widespread in-person instruction during the middle of the first semester. Anne Arundel County’s push to reopen school buildings is part of growing efforts to return communities back to “normalcy.”

As long-time public school educators, we urge the Anne Arundel community members and decision-makers to reflect and critically consider the implications of the current reopening plan. This pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the inequities already inherent in our systems, further disadvantaging black and brown communities, English language learners, students with intense academic and social-emotional needs, and low-income families. Meaningful intervention to combat these inequities should
center and prioritize high-needs students while minimizing community risk by keeping most students at home while reducing the number of employees having to return to buildings for in-person instruction. As the school system rushes to reopen, we wonder: what needs are we actually prioritizing with the current reopening plan and what efforts are being taken to minimize further destabilization and risk for spreading the virus?

1 https://www.instagram.com/p/B-fc3ejAlvd/
2 https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
3 https://aahealth.org/covid19data/

Unfortunately, the current plan will lead to significant upheaval in the middle of the semester as families and classroom teachers decide whether or not they will return to in-person instruction. As a result of these decisions, there is potential for teachers and students to be shuffled around mid-semester in order to match students and teachers who will be participating in the same model of instruction. Moreover, this move also
brings students and educators back to old buildings that are reaching or have exceeded capacity, making safe physical-distancing difficult to achieve. The classrooms that students and educators will share for over six hours a day often lack windows and have poor ventilation systems. All of this is being done at a time in which many students are actually doing well with the current virtual environment in which educators have worked
tirelessly to build positive classroom communities.

In addition to considering students, the needs of educators must be addressed in the reopening conversations. Unfortunately, at this point educators feel largely neglected by the school board. Even before the pandemic, teachers had been experiencing increasing workload and decreasing compensation and respect. This has only been exacerbated since the shutdown. We ask the school board to reflect and ask themselves two questions. First, how are we considering our educators as valued
decision-makers and collaborators who have critical and unique insights into the education of our county’s students? Additionally, how are we supporting them as human beings with health risks, loved ones who are immunocompromised, and individuals with our own physical and mental needs for safety regardless of the status of our health?

The pandemic has also surfaced problematic dynamics between the Board of Education and the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County (TAAAC), the union that includes classroom teachers and other certificated staff. Superintendent Dr. Artotto has made public claims that he has been working with TAAAC; however, this is a mischaracterization of the situation. Over the summer, TAAAC was only given a total of four seats on the 14 reopening planning committees. While the school board has engaged in reopening conversations with TAAAC leadership, they have refused to
formally negotiate any written agreement on working conditions or safety protocols despite their legal obligation to do so. Only once TAAAC held a press conference on Sept. 24 did the board finally agree to formal negotiations. At the same time, Dr. Arlotto was already finalizing his hybrid learning plan without getting input from the union; informing TAAAC about the plan on the same day that the public release came out on Thursday, Oct. 1st which was a mere four days before he publicly presented the plan to the school board.

This disregard for educators’ input has made the uncertainty and anxiety even worse during this pandemic; however, it is not just from our employer that we have felt unheard and undersupported. It is with great difficulty that we share that our trusted union is also in the midst of its own reckoning. During this time of having to make challenging and complex decisions on behalf of AACPS employees, our union has struggled to be as responsive, assertive, and proactive as is necessary. We want to
acknowledge that there was a time when TAAAC had significant successes in negotiating contracts and that TAAAC has worked to build a strong foundation for itself as an organization. However during this period, members became reliant on TAAAC leadership, entrusting in them the decision-making power and responsibility to advocate on our behalf. Simultaneously, members’ collective power largely transferred to union
leadership, ultimately relying less on members advocating for their own interests.

It was the effects of both the Great Recession followed by the election of fiscal conservative Steve Schuh as county executive that began to change these dynamics. Fiscal constraints first by economic necessity and then by political decision-makers led to stagnant salary scales and salary inequities amongst members. Members rightfully angry and frustrated began raising their voices and questioning union leadership but cast their blame solely on TAAAC while union leadership understanding the fiscal and political complexities of the situation became defensive as their character and intentions were called into question. The era of simply entrusting decisions to the union leadership was over; however, members have not yet reimagined an alternative approach that the union could take to advocate for their interests.

We challenge TAAAC leadership and its members to ask themselves: what are we as a union currently doing well or what can we improve on to exemplify democracy, collective care, co-liberation, and loving solidarity? It is in this reflective spirit that we have decided to organize a progressive caucus of rank-and-file educators in order to help reimagine our union. We must embrace members’ renewed energy which can be politically-leveraged to achieve our goals. We invite Anne Arundel educators to join us, the co-founders of the Caucus of Anne Arundel Rank-and-file Educators (CAARE), in reflecting on current practices. We want to take care to avoid perpetuating the same disregard and harm that we are experiencing from the Board of Education. Let’s ask ourselves: in what ways are we showing up for one another in the ways that we show up for our students? In what ways are we modeling growth-mindset, community-building, and social-emotional intelligence during a crisis when we need it the most? None of this is easy and we have all the reasons to be righteously outraged and afraid yet what would we be encouraging our own students to do when they have every reason to be upset and scared? How do we lean on community and our own skills and strategies for grounding ourselves in
mindfulness so that we can show up for meaningful action towards reimagining our public education experiences?

Even in the midst of questioning our union’s practices, we want to acknowledge and celebrate that TAAAC organized its most successful demonstration in decades on Oct. 7th: a caravan of hundreds of cars that coincided with the first in-person Board of Education meeting since the shutdown. This protest uplifted and empowered our educator members who were able to draw attention to our demands and regain some agency. We did this in solidarity with concerned community members who also
envisioned better from our public school system. Through this action, we showed both TAAAC leadership and the school board that educators and community members will mobilize to stand up for the well-being of all.

We are grateful and encouraged to have the support of community members who all have a stake in the decisions made by the school board as school buildings are community hubs and public education has direct consequences on community well- being. All must advocate for the implementation of policies that support the humanization of school staff delivering the multitude of services to meet the needs of the whole child.And we must be clear that the schools and educators cannot bear the
consequences of society’s systemic inequalities nor do they bear full responsibility alone for addressing them: it is impossible. Moreover, some of the antiquated and unexamined policies and programs embedded throughout public education are also problematic and continue to exacerbate inequities as the Kirwan Commission has illuminated.

So how do we collectively–superintendent and Board of Education, TAAAC
leadership and members, other school staff, Anne Arundel residents reimagine public education beyond the immediate needs timeline of a pandemic to ensure a more equitable, sustainable, generative and humanizing model of learning and being in community with one another? Because ALL really must mean ALL through our actions. We can start with overriding Governor Hogan’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, legislation which will provide robust school funding, as our starting point for the transformation of our schools into the vision of what they can be for our students and our communities.

We must not go back to normal. Normal was underfunded, underappreciated, overworked, and over-burdened. Instead, let’s approach this work inspired by a transformative justice framework: doing our best to minimize harm even as we acknowledge that we are humans who will make mistakes which inevitably will cause harm but we are committed to take the time to repair this harm in order to heal together while holding each other accountable with compassion.

This pandemic is a portal, a gateway. Let’s walk through it together and reimagine a better public school system for Anne Arundel County.

Caucus of Anne Arundel Rank-and-file Educators: CAARE
Minna Kim, teacher at North Glen Elementary
Kristina Korona, teacher at Meade High School
Jorge Córdoba, teacher at Arundel High School

Comments? Please see our Facebook post. https://www.arundelpatriot.org/2020/10/15/reimagining-public-education-in-anne-arundel-county/?fbclid=IwAR1ZSO9iAHtUcE-nOH4lTL7PZzAekWE3l0ySZ_1PdZZ9PzJHz9G5L5Qb6J8

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