CHESTERFIELD, Va. — Falling Creek Middle School teacher Emma Clark refused to teach in person when called back to the classroom. For weeks her job was in limbo and her paycheck withheld.
Now she's back in the virtual classroom, where she wanted to be all along and hoping to create a safe space for other Chesterfield County Public School teachers to share their stories.
For Clark, it started as nearly 34,000 Chesterfield County middle and high school students headed back into the classroom on Nov. 9; she stayed home, preparing to teach her English classes virtually, even though she had not been approved to do so.
Clark's virtual teaching only lasted about 15 minutes, before her video connection to her students was cut off and she received a text from her principal directing her to "cease your virtual instruction immediately."
At that moment, Clark lost access to her school email account, online grading system and curriculum, and all official communication with her students and colleagues was cut off.
What came next were three weeks of confusion and mostly silence from the school administration. From Nov. 9 through Nov. 24, Clark received four letters of reprimand from Falling Creek Middle Principal Sheryl Doswell, each citing Clark's "failure to report for work." She did not receive a paycheck for the Nov. 30 pay period and has received notice she can expect her one to two next paychecks will be decreased.
In September, Chesterfield embarked on an aggressive return-to-school plan, bringing cohorts of students back every few weeks — approximately 62,600 students in all. Comparatively, the Richmond and Henrico County public school systems began the year and remain virtual, though Henrico was poised to begin bringing some students back at the end of November. It later changed plans. Locally, only Hanover County started its school year with in-person classes for students and parents who wished to return.
And in Chesterfield, when the health committee charged with deciding when students should return voted for all middle and high school pupils to head back into the classroom (also known as Cohort 4), they went against their own health metrics to do so. That decision did not sit well with Clark, as well as other Chesterfield teachers who have expressed their concerns at School Board meetings, through a Chesterfield Education Association survey and in anonymous correspondence with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Some parents in Chesterfield and Henrico have expressed concern about the emotional stresses on children imposed by virtual learning and questioned whether students are learning effectively online.
Two weeks into her limbo, Clark received an email that she was officially on leave without pay.
"You are not suspended and have exhausted all paid leave and are currently on leave without pay. You are still encouraged to return to the building to work on Monday, November 30, 2020," Doswell wrote in a Nov. 24 email to Clark, obtained by The Times-Dispatch.
However, the next day Chesterfield school officials announced the district was reverting back to virtual learning for all students, besides select K-12 special education students. The district closed its doors after the county's seven-day average of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people surpassed the threshold of 25 cases. The remaining students are virtual until at least Jan. 29.
Clark received the all-clear to begin teaching virtually Nov. 30, and her payroll status was restored.
Clark's displeasure with returning to in-person instruction while the pandemic still rages was not news to the county. On Nov. 4, the Friday before Cohort 4 — her cohort — went back to school, Clark and two other Chesterfield teachers held a news conference organized by Chesterfield Educators United, a local chapter of the educational grassroots group Virginia Educators United.
The purpose of the news conference was to draw attention to teachers' concerns about returning to in-person instruction.
"I believe that as a human being in a pandemic, I have the right to follow what the experts are telling me I should do to stay safe as a government employee. I would think I would be mandated to," said Clark, 30, during last month's news conference. "But what's happening right now is that my government employer is mandating that I go against what my government experts (are) telling me I need to do to stay safe and to keep others safe, where I lose my job."
Now, understanding that there are other Chesterfield teachers out there who want to speak out with their concerns but are afraid to do so, the same group wants to create a Chesterfield Educators United Facebook group to provide an outlet for those teachers to share the stories that are rarely heard.
At least 611 school employees had resigned or retired this calendar year alone as of Sept. 21, the most recent numbers available. Superintendent Merv Daugherty previously said that nearly 400 of the resignations over the summer occurred "due to the COVID issue."
In the Facebook group, teachers and other school staff could share stories anonymously through the group and have the information be visible to parents, Clark said.
"People need to understand how endangered and disorganized the schools are, like how many teachers we've lost for no reason when we could have gone virtual," Clark said in an interview. "The education you're getting now is worse than it would have been if your kids were all virtual."
Any post would be reviewed and fact-checked before being made public to the Facebook group, Clark said.
Austin Good, an English teacher at Meadowbrook High and member of Chesterfield Educators United, said teachers had very little input with the district's reopening process.
"If we are employed by CCPS, our voices should be listened to (concerning school reopening). Parents' voices are being lifted up a bit more than teacher voices," Good said in an interview.
Chesterfield Educators United is a group that can respond quickly to the school system, especially around organization and actions, Good said.
When the school system announced it would follow health metrics, send students back in waves and have a health committee, it all made sense to Clark. However, as the process unfolded, Clark saw something completely different.
"What I didn't see was that the public health panel was going to be a complete sham. And that their goal was to push us (teachers) back in as soon as humanly possible, and that the numbers and the metrics were not going to be followed. Those are the things I didn't see coming," Clark said.