Mayor Steve Schewel expressed confidence in Durham Public Schools teachers Monday as they began welcoming some children back to their classrooms for the first time in a year, but he said he was concerned about threats against school board members who voted — over the objections of teachers and parents worried about COVID-19 risks — to reopen the schools.
“Our teachers in Durham are so dedicated, and they are going to work their hardest to make this a fantastic experience for their students,” Schewel said in an interview. “Still, this is very difficult to have a classroom where you have to teach both in-person and remotely. It is really hard. It is still going to be an imperfect spring of schooling in Durham and across the country.”
The difficulties of balancing remote and in-person teaching caused hesitation over the decision to reopen. Happi Adams, a Jordan High School teacher, said she was disappointed that high schools will let students return to in-person learning this semester, rather than finish the year with online-only instruction.
“I don’t think in-person is going to a particularly meaningful or warm and connected experience because of the way we have to do things under the COVID safety protocols,” Adams said. “A few of my students from my classes will be in the building with me, and then the majority of the students that I’m teaching will still be interacting with us via Zoom.”
According to the DPS website, all schools will hold only-online asynchronous learning on “Wellness Wednesdays.” Elementary students will be in person for the other four days a week. Middle and high school students will attend on Mondays-Tuesdays or Thursdays-Fridays, in three rotating cohorts.
Elementary schools reopened their classrooms Monday. The four small specialty high schools (City of Medicine Academy, J.D. Clement Early College High School, Middle College at Durham Tech, and New Tech High School) will reopen for a cohort of students Thursday, while the remaining high schools and middle schools will reopen April 8.
Some teachers and board members had argued that the schools should not reopen until all DPS employees had been fully vaccinated.
Board members threatened
Disagreement over reopening has led to threats against DPS board members. Mike Lee, the DPS board vice chair, said during a board meeting on March 2 that teachers had threatened him and his family members. Schewel denounced the “vitriolic attacks and even threats” in a statement released last week.
Local law enforcement is investigating one threat from a parent, he said.
“One parent wrote on social media, ‘If my child is that one in a thousand that gets it and develops serious symptoms … I’ll shoot down every member of the DPS school board,’ ” Schewel wrote. “This is horrifying and scary. I denounce this language in the strongest possible terms.”
Schewel expressed concern about the “particularly profound” nature of threats leveled against Black and Brown board members. The school board’s vote to start reopening this week was 4-3, with all four Black members of the board in the majority. The board’s one Hispanic and two white members favored reopening at a later date.
“A threat like this is so much more threatening to a Black person than to white people because — even if it’s the exact same threat — Black people have so much more often been the victims of people who carry out threats like this,” Schewel said. “We have to acknowledge that, but the threats against anybody are not OK. The anger level that has built up around this is not helpful to our community.”
Schewel says he hopes Durham residents will “lower the temperature” on their anger and focus their political energy towards progressive fights. In Raleigh, he said, the General Assembly is “undermining public education at every turn” by underfunding schools and underpaying teachers.
“Durham is a city with a widely shared progressive vision,” Schewel said. “As I expressed in the letter I wrote, 20 miles from here in Raleigh in the General Assembly there are all kinds of things going on which are antithetical to the progressive consensus that we share in Durham. We need to be focusing our political energy not on angry attacks on each other but on doing the work that we need to do to get the state policy that we all agree on here in Durham.”
9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: Mayor Schewel: “The threats against anybody are not OK. The anger level that has built up around this is not helpful to our community.” File photo.