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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Year in Review: Education moved closer to normal but still comes with plenty of stress

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The K-12 education scene looked much closer to normal in 2021 than it did in 2020, but along with that came other struggles, namely for teachers and staff who grappled with teaching through a pandemic, lobbying for better pay and sometimes dealing with angry parents.

At the start of the school year in August, the Recorder spoke to teachers and administrators about adjusting back to a mostly in-person learning environment. Only some K-12 students were eligible to be vaccinated at the time, and not every district had a mask mandate.

David Johnson III, a math teacher at Lynhurst 7th and 8th Grade Center in Wayne Township, said the school year started smoother than he anticipated, but he and many others still couldn’t shake the thought that going virtual again was still an option — something that could happen abruptly.

Everyone seemed to have built up more resilience by that point, though.

“If it does happen, the kids are used to it,” Johnson said. “My colleagues, we’re used to it.”

Aside from rising case counts, part of the benefit of mask mandates in schools was it loosened the parameters of who should be considered a close contact, who would need to quarantine and, ultimately, how likely a full shutdown was.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, said social distancing could be lessened from 3 feet to 6 feet for staff and students if everyone was masked, even if they weren’t vaccinated.

By the end of the year, anyone 5 and older could get vaccinated, meaning virtually everyone in K-12 was eligible.

The Recorder spoke to a brother and sister who got their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in November. Asked why he decided to endure the little pinch and get a shot, 10-year-old Brody Hermmann said, “I hate COVID.”

About 58% of everyone 5 and older in Marion County has received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the state health department.

On the outskirts of Marion County and elsewhere through the state, many teachers, administrators and school board members dealt with parents who believe their children are being taught critical race theory, an advanced academic concept that isn’t part of K-12 curriculum. They also had parents and even some doctors who tried to downplay the severity of COVID-19 in opposition to wearing masks.

In many cases, critical race theory is conflated with anything to do with diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as social emotional learning. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita got involved by releasing a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that ranged from telling parents how to request public records to answering questions about critical race theory.

The more prominent issue in some Marion County districts was pay and a shortage of teachers and staff.

The Pike Classroom Teachers Association, representing educators in the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township, needed a state mediator after it couldn’t reach an agreement with the district. Teachers were especially concerned about pay for “middle-year” teachers, generally defined as those with eight to 22 years of experience.

Teachers and staff packed some school board meetings, and tensions occasionally flared during the public comment period. The union eventually agreed to a one-year deal that includes a base salary of no less than $45,000.

Before the agreement, one teacher told the Recorder it was difficult going from one day to the next without knowing for sure if school would be virtual or in person, as call-offs from teachers and bus drivers occasionally left the district with too few staff for in-person learning.

“I don’t feel disrespected,” said Keisha Nickolson, a fifth grade teacher. “I just feel like I’m not being heard.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853 or by email at tylerf@indyrecorder.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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