Northampton School Board OKs Extra Planning Time for Teachers

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By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton school board on Oct. 28 unanimously approved giving teachers extra time every month to take a break from the classroom and catch up on administrative tasks such as planning and grading student work and calling, emailing, or meeting with parents.

That extra time will take the form of a two-hour early dismissal for students on the second Wednesday of every month, starting in December.

“For the teachers who are in the room, believe me, we understand how hard you’re working and sacrificing,” said Superintendent Eddie Lawrence.

“For the last two-and-a-half years, I could not have asked for a better staff, and I know you’re frustrated at times, but I think this is at least a step in (the right) direction.”

The school board will revisit the matter in January to determine if two early dismissals every month will be feasible.

Lawrence, who recommended the early dismissal idea, wanted to implement it in November but decided starting it in December would give parents time to make childcare arrangements for the early dismissal days.

Laura Lembke, a veteran middle school science teacher, expressed her gratitude to Lawrence for his recommendation, which is expected to help curb teacher burnout.

“My baby teachers … all the teachers that are younger than me, are taking sick days, and they’re not taking sick days because they’re sick. They’re taking sick days because they need to catch up. They need to plan, they need to grade, they need to make those parent contacts,” she explained.

New and veteran teachers alike have been unaccustomed to teaching full classes of students in person, five days a week. Last year, they saw most of their students in the classroom twice a week and taught them remotely twice a week. One day a week was reserved for custodians to do deep cleaning, and teachers used that time for the administrative tasks on which they are now falling behind.

Considering that “plus a new curriculum, plus new pacing, plus new materials … my baby teachers are struggling,” Lembke said.

Sheri Noll, a high school English teacher, added that teachers also are adjusting to new block schedules.

Felicia Matthews, a parent of two Northampton students, said, “Our teachers are getting burned out and they’re not feeling supported by administration.” She was concerned that if the problem is not resolved, good teachers will quit.

Stephanie Zodun, another concerned parent, submitted written comments that were read into the record.

“I beg you to come up with a plan to give our teachers some breathing room this year. We will not just lose new teachers at our county, we will lose them from the profession. Our veteran teachers will leave as well. We can’t let that happen,” she wrote.

Zodun recommended reverting to a four-day school week for students, which would give teachers a whole day every week for planning lessons and contacting parents.

But Lawrence noted that would not be possible, as the Virginia Department of Education has been “adamant” about its requirement that the school year must include at least 180 days or 990 hours, and Northampton’s school year already has been shortened due to construction at Kiptopeke Elementary School.

Students need to be in class as much as possible to recover the learning losses they have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.

School board members were willing to approve the early dismissals if teachers would be free to use the extra time for whatever they need to do, not for professional development – which is already scheduled at other times.

Lawrence agreed. “I want the teachers to have their time. It should be a full work day, but they should have some time. … I think it’s time that could be well spent and put to use.”

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