Charlotte teachers ‘blindsided’ by virtual plan


Sun Port Charlotte | by Anna Bryson | September 23, 2020

Charlotte County Public Schools devised a new “innovative” virtual education plan that was rolled out last week, but teachers are still in the dark about what the plan entails.

Charlotte County’s teachers, through their union, asked the district to come to the bargaining table for months to forge an innovative model that would meet the state’s requirements and give options to families and school staff. At every turn, the Charlotte Florida Education Association was told, “the district is not interested,” according to the union.

The new option rolled out last week, dubbed the Charlotte Innovative E-Learning Model, was announced to Charlotte Virtual School families Thursday evening, and announced to teachers Wednesday evening through an email from Superintendent Steve Dionisio.

However, the email did not explain how the plan would work — it only announced the new program and told teachers to contact their principals if they had questions.

“My teachers are all about getting our kids taken care of, seeing them succeed, and being able to teach them whatever we have to,” CFEA President John Jordan told the Sun. “But it’s really hard to do that if you’re not allowed to be part of the scenario.”

At the start of the school year, Charlotte County Public Schools provided its students with two options from the district: brick-and-mortar school or Charlotte Virtual School, which is a self-paced, rigorous course that is 100% online.

These are the two options that have been provided for years, far before the coronavirus pandemic. The district contends that it offered a third option — homeschooling — but that is not taught or provided by the district. Homeschooling has also always been an option for families.

The Charlotte County school district was the last of Florida’s 67 counties to get its reopening plan approved by the Department of Education — after its schools had already reopened.

A DOE spokesperson said that the district initially did not submit a plan because it didn’t have one — it was opening as usual despite the pandemic.

With the new “innovative” option, students can transition to an E-Learning option and re-enroll back to their brick-and-mortar school within a virtual format. Charlotte Virtual School parents had a week to decide if they want to enroll their child in the new program.

For students who are currently in their brick-and-mortar school, parents can elect for them to enroll in the new virtual program between the window of Oct. 12-16.

The new program is scheduled to kick off the first week of October — but details about it are still unclear.

Many surrounding districts, such as Sarasota County, have an innovative option that includes webcam instruction that shows live footage of a teacher in their brick-and-mortar classroom, teaching both students in the room and students at home on their computers.

“My question was, if Sarasota can get this for their people, why can’t we get this for our people?” Jordan said.

District spokesman Mike Riley did not answer questions regarding the plan but released this statement Wednesday: “We created the new model the best we could within the time frame we had. There are many decisions made throughout the school year. Some of them are made with union members sitting at the table and some are not.”

Charlotte Virtual School

About 2,600 students enrolled in Charlotte Virtual School this year, according to the district. Only 61 students were enrolled last year, according to DOE data.

Now, some teachers say they are being forced out of their brick-and-mortar schools and transferred to Charlotte Virtual School, where they teach more students and get paid less money.

Jen Rhodes, a first-grade teacher at Meadow Park Elementary, said she is being forced out of her school. Throughout multiple attempts, the district will not allow her to fight it.

“I’m going to resign,” Rhodes said. “My kids are my passion; I love them and it just breaks my heart. They’ve developed relationships with me and they’re going to be ripped apart and sent to other classes.”

Rhodes said that she tried to fight the involuntary transition, to no avail. She feels “blindsided,” she told the Sun.

Teachers didn’t find out about the new E-learning plan until Sept. 16, and the principal told teachers that none of them would be affected, Rhodes said. But the next day, Rhodes was told that she was being transferred to Charlotte Virtual.

“When I signed onto Charlotte County, I never in a million years thought this would be possible, or that it would be OK to tear these 15 kids apart,” she said.

Parents of Rhodes’ students are also upset.

“She is an outstanding educator, and someone like that should be teaching in a classroom setting,” said parent Shanie Liptan. “When they do make her transition, the students in her class are going to be uprooted again… This is a very confusing time for us adults — imagine how our children must feel.”

Some teachers have taken retirement earlier than they had intended, have left the district for more flexible teaching options elsewhere, have taken unpaid leaves of absence or availed themselves of options under the Family Medical Leave Act, according to the union.

Photo: Mark Valero/Staff