Mike Lee says he has voted with Durham’s teachers consistently during his seven years on the Durham Public Schools board. But after he and other board members voted to reopen school classrooms that have been closed since March 2020, he says, he was barraged with vitriol, bullying and personal threats from teachers.
“After my vote to open up school on March 15, the hatred, the threats to myself and the mention of my children in a few different comments showed me everything I needed to know,” Lee, the board’s vice chair, said at a school board meeting Tuesday. “Because it was all coming from staff. It was all coming from teachers.”
He said he weighed the health concerns of resuming in-person instruction and sought expert advice before casting his vote, but he was still met with accusations that he “wants our teachers to die.”
“In almost every situation, it has been, ‘With the proper protocols, schools can open,’” Lee said. “But having that opinion apparently calls for hate and threats. That’s where we are here in Durham: ‘You disagree with us, you’re dead to me.’”
In a 4-3 vote Tuesday, the DPS board reaffirmed an earlier decision to begin bringing students and teachers back into their classrooms on March 15, a year after the schools were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some board members wanted to postpone the reopening until April 8, to allow more time for teachers to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
Teachers became eligible for the vaccine on Feb. 24, and the school district has been working with Durham County and Duke Health to vaccinate 1,000 school personnel per week.
Board member Matt Sears said teachers had been blindsided by the decision to reopen, and he feared that it would undermine the trust that the DPS board has established with Durham teachers. Delaying the reopening would help teachers, he said.
“For me, this is as much about trust with our staff as it is about the safety factor,” Sears said. “I do believe we can open safely relatively soon. When I look at this district and this trust issue, I see a district that has worked for more than a decade to build something special with our staff and with our teachers. We wanted to be different from the top-down districts that we see around North Carolina.”
The back-and-forth over a start date for reopening has caused anguish among both parents and teachers. Many parents were frustrated because they had already cancelled child care after the board originally decided to begin returning to in-person instruction on March 15.
“I am very disappointed to hear that the board is considering changing the return to school YET AGAIN,” Katie Rudd of Carlton Crossing Drive said in an email comment to the DPS board. “My family was so hopeful to return to school March 15 after nearly a year at home. This is not a game. Parents and children need follow-through on the existing plan, not a political stunt.”
Lee said he made his decision to reopen as both a board member and a parent. He has witnessed firsthand the toll that online learning can have on DPS students because he has a daughter in eighth grade who is “only a frame” of what she used to be.
“Do I vote against the interest of my child, who I know needs to be in school? I can’t do that,” Lee said. “As a board member, I look across this district, and I see thousands of students and families who are in the same situation that I am.”
A lack of input around kids’ welfare and mental health during conversations about reopening has left Lee concerned that teachers seem to only be prioritizing themselves, he said.
“When I met with the teachers before the emergency meeting, not one word was said about the health and wellness of our students,” Lee said. “It was about what the teachers want.”
Michelle Burton, the president of the Durham Association of Educators (DAE) and the librarian at Spring Valley Elementary, said teachers are not prioritizing their health for only their benefit.
“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions, so if teachers are not healthy then they can’t come to work, which means they are not educating kids,” Burton said in an interview Saturday. “So that means you have to keep your workforce healthy, in order to educate students in a consistent way.”
Lee said teachers have tried to shame parents away from returning their children to in-person instruction.
“Threatening families, threatening board members, attacking them for their opinion and their beliefs,” he said. “That is not organizing.”
Lee did not identify any specific teachers or provide details about threats. He did not respond to the 9th Street Journal’s requests for comment.
Burton said she was disheartened by Lee’s remarks and did not know which teachers he was referring to.
“The DAE does not condone bullying of our school board members or any elected officials,” Burton said. “But I don’t know which educators that he speaks of, because he was speaking more in a general, broad sense. I will say that educators have a right to advocate for their students, and they have a right to advocate for their working conditions, but it should be done in a respectful manner.”
Sears, Natalie Beyer and Alexandra Valladares voted to postpone reopening until April 8, but the majority decided to continue with the original March 15 plan. Board chair Bettina Umstead cast the deciding vote and said it was “the most challenging decision” she has made in her life.
Preparations for return
Elementary school students will return to class March 15. Middle and high school students will begin returning April 8.
According to February 25 results of the parent survey about choosing to return their child to in-person schooling or continue with online, 51% of parents said they would remain with virtual learning, 39% of parents said they would return their children to in-person instruction, and 10% did not respond to the survey.
DPS is providing cloth masks and face shields, disposable surgical and KN95 masks upon request, spokesman Chip Sudderth said. They are implementing physical distancing signage and other floor markings at six-foot intervals, providing frequent handwashing breaks and hand sanitizer, collaborating with the health department on contact tracing, and disinfecting high-touch areas throughout the day.
School buses will be disinfected between routes. The staff is being trained on the proper use of personal protective equipment.
9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: “Not one word was said about the health and wellness of our students,” DPS board member Mike Lee said. “It was about what the teachers want.”