CORONAVIRUS

Cedar Rapids teachers say coronavirus driving 60-hour weeks

Calling parents, creating online classes, juggling more students

Ann Heubner stands Thursday for the Pledge of Allegiance with her first-graders as she teaches from her home office in R
Ann Heubner stands Thursday for the Pledge of Allegiance with her first-graders as she teaches from her home office in Robins. Heubner has 38 students from four schools she is teaching online. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids Community School District first-grade teacher Ann Heubner said she has never worked more overtime in her 30 years of teaching than she is this year in a pandemic.

Heubner is virtually teaching 38 first-graders from four different Cedar Rapids schools — double the size of most in-person classes this year.

From her basement office, Heubner teaches live, converts curriculum designed for in-person instruction to an online class, plans assignments, grades homework and communicates with parents.

“I feel like we’re building a plane while we’re flying it,” Heubner said, who volunteered to teach online classes because she knew the district needed online teachers “very badly.”

“I’m barely tech savvy, and I feel like we’re being treated like second-class citizens.”

The Cedar Rapids Education Association, a teachers union representing 720 members in the Cedar Rapids district, said teachers reported spending 20 hours on average a week working outside of contract time.

The association sent a survey to all 720 members, and received 300 responses back. Of those who responded, 86 percent said they were working much more than in previous years.

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During public comment at a school board meeting this past week, Syndy Richey, with the Cedar Rapids Education Association, said a lot of the time is being spent conducting family engagement phone calls.

Every teacher is assigned students whose parent or guardian they must communicate with each month for at least 15 minutes. For Heubner, that’s almost 10 hours a month for her 38 students, not including the time it takes to schedule the calls and follow up on those unanswered.

Heubner said she wants to be solutions-focused. She suggested the district hire more teachers on temporary contracts to teach virtually and reduce class sizes. She also suggested teachers be paid outside of contract time to design curriculum for virtual instruction.

“The best part of my job is the time I teach with my kids,” Heubner said. “That is why I’m putting in all these hours, because I want them to learn and have the best opportunity. I need help and support.”

Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said the district is creating more time for teachers during the work day to make family engagement phone calls, during professional learning days.

“We know it’s a heavy workload, but we also know these family engagement pieces and the connections we’re making are going to pay large dividends for students in the future,” Kooiker said.

Teachers who responded to the survey said mask wearing is not being enforced and teachers are feeling anxious about their own safety and the safety of their students, said the association’s Richey.

Kooiker said she’s heard of two cases where students refused to wear masks and were removed from the classroom.

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“It’s not because we don’t want to educate them, because of course we do. We have to keep people safe and healthy,” Kooiker said.

To promote family choice, the district is allowing students to switch from in-person or online learning before the end of the trimester.

The deadline to switch was last Monday, and students will begin in the new learning plan they chose next Monday.

Almost 500 students made the choice to switch from online learning to in-person.

While this makes online class sizes smaller — six of Heubner’s 38 students are moving to in-person instruction — in-person teachers are concerned about being able to social distance in classrooms, Richey said.

“Currently, is there 6 feet? No and we recognize that from the start, and in some classes there’s more space than others. But I think if we continue to make sure we spread out as much as possible and students and staff wear their masks because it’s an important safety measure,” Kooiker said.

Teachers in both the in-person and online settings said introducing new students to their classes now will make it feel like they’re starting the year over, helping them settle into a new routine and get used to a different teacher, Richey said.

Chris Rolwes, a Jefferson High teacher who is teaching online now because the building was damaged in the Aug. 10 derecho, is concerned about transitioning students to in-person instruction next month after the school building is repaired.

“I’m seeing rising levels of engagement in my classes,” Rolwes said during the school board meeting Monday. “I hosted a class discussion over Google Meets with students participating verbally as they would in a face-to-face setting.

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Rolwes said he doesn’t believe families and students understand the limitations of attending school in-person during the pandemic.

“There will be no group work, students will be kept 6 feet apart, and I’ll be wearing a mask and face shield at all times. Students will not get within 6 feet of me at any time during the school day if I can help it.

“Unlike what students are currently experiencing now in the virtual environment, students won’t be able to see or hear me speak clearly,” Rolwes continued. “Outside of the classroom, the student experience will be very different as there will be little opportunity to socialize in our hallways or at lunch.”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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