MHS teachers complain of stress, overcrowding in first 72 hours back on campus

Emotional talking about teachers, Torri Anderson addresses Jim Jordan (right) and the rest of the board Sept. 23. Photo by Merenzi Young / Eye of Odin Studios

Three days after students returned to campus at Maricopa High School, some teachers were pushing back hard against the school board.

The staff members wrote comments to the Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board to be read during a call to the public at Wednesday’s regular meeting. The high school and middle schools brought students back to campus Monday, a week after elementary grades returned.

The delays were due to COVID-19.

More than one teacher said the board made a “poor choice” to bring back secondary students instead of waiting until after fall break at the earliest.

“Under these conditions, students cannot socially distance,” said teacher James Fry, tech integration. “Teacher and student stress is through the roof.”

Earlier this month, the board voted 3-2 to open classrooms to secondary students Sept. 21, though Superintendent Tracey Lopeman, MHS Principal Deana McNamee and Maricopa Wells Middle School Principal Carlos Alvarado had recommended starting in mid-October. Families still had the option to keep their children at home.

Fry said the early days were “very rough.”

With some teachers in class and others teaching online, some are teaching in-person and online concurrently. Class sizes and the concurrent teaching were points of frustration to those who contacted the board.

English teacher Rebecca Gaul, who teaches online, said three of her classes have nearly 50 students. Overall, she has more than 200.

“I have never had this many students before and worry about my ability to deliver effective, rigorous instruction,” she said.

She said she is “sick with worry” for her colleagues on campus who are teaching in overcrowded classrooms. She said there were not enough desks or chairs.

Teacher Kathryn Noga affirmed there were 50-plus class sizes. She said in-person classes numbered in the 40s and 50s while online classes were in the 50s and 60s. She said the district overpromised and underperformed.

“There are teachers who are sitting at their desk all day because otherwise their online students cannot hear them,” she said. “There are teachers who are trying to interact with their in-person students, which causes their online students to fall behind. And there are teachers who are still trying to do it both, giving 100% to 50% of the class at any given moment.”

Talitha Martin was not the only teacher who told board members they were throwing administrative staff “under the bus.”

“These huge class sizes are not sustainable,” she said. “Attempting concurrent for every situation is not sustainable. Lack of technology and training to teach concurrently is not sustainable. You promised the world and used us to pay, and that is 100% not sustainable.”

Martin said the stress was going to cost the district its best teachers.

“You will never have A-rated schools with unqualified staff, and your currently very qualified staff has had nearly enough,” she said. “The high school alone has lost two amazing teachers last week, and you need to fix this thing now before we lose more.”

Teachers also worried over trying to stretch the supply of personal protective equipment like hand wipes and disinfectant.

Art teacher Lauren Wong said no one is happy with the rollout at the high school and there has been no “meaningful benefit” for the students. She warned it could lead to “unprecedented attrition.”

During the meeting, the board approved stipends for overload and extra work to 18 staff members.

“We’ve worked so hard to retain our teachers,” said board member Torri Anderson, who had voted against the Sept. 21 return. “This board made a decision that is affecting our students, and I just want us to think about that.”

Patti Coutré, a board member who voted to come back Monday, said she volunteered at the high school the first day.

“Although I hear the frustration of the teachers and I feel for them, I empathize with them. I gotta give a huge shoutout and a huge thank you to every staff member that has worked so hard to get us to this point.”

She said staff were able to sort out scheduling issues during first hour for students who came in for help. She asked parents to have patience.

“I have been there many, many first days. With everything they’ve had to face and overcome, I thought it was a pretty smooth day coming in,” Coutré said. “I’ve been there when we’ve had the entire library packed with kids all day long and into the following day. I know there’s going to be some adjustment in class sizes, but that was going to happen no matter when we came back.”

Board President AnnaMarie Knorr, who also supported bringing students back to campus, said her heart breaks for the stressed teachers. She said frontline workers who are parents in the district were begging her to open the schools.

“I do have to plead with the community not to make this political,” Knorr said. “Nothing I have done in regards to this issue has been political. I voted to open the schools back up because I thought that was what was best for our students.

“As a board member I commit to doing everything I can to right the ship, to fix the wrongs, to get the supplies. Whatever’s needed, I’m willing to make it work.” she added.