Fairfield teachers, school board reach agreement on virtual learning

The Fairfield Education Association and the Board of Education reached an agreement regarding scheduling and asynchronous learning through arbitration last month.

The Fairfield Education Association and the Board of Education reached an agreement regarding scheduling and asynchronous learning through arbitration last month.

/ Josh LaBella

FAIRFIELD — A dispute over scheduling and learning requirements between the Board of Education and the Fairfield Education Association has been resolved, according to town documents.

Teachers’ concerns about how younger students were virtually learning prompted the two groups to sit down and create a memorandum of understanding, outlining the schedule, subjects and teachers’ responsibilities.

“This is really related to this asynchronous part of the day,” said Bob Smoler, president of the FEA. “It really wasn’t working out well to have young kids try to teach themselves that curriculum by themselves. They’re just too young to self-learn like that.”

BOE Chairwoman Christine Vitale declined to comment, saying the board cannot discuss strategy and negotiations it has with collective bargaining units.

“Out of those negotiations, the board reached an agreement with the FEA as outlined in the MOU, both parties requested the MOU serve as the arbitration award,” she said.

The MOU, submitted to town clerk Betsy Browne on Nov. 27, stipulated that the same schedule would take place until winter break — with a few changes — until a new schedule is implemented on Jan. 4.

First, elementary school teachers would not be required to teach social studies or health. Second, the school administration would continue to provide teachers with Number Corner and Word Work curriculum lessons, which teachers would be required to post online and give asynchronous help to students.

At the elementary level, Smoler said, the three most important topics to cover are math, reading and writing — the core curriculum for elementary students. In a school year when every plan must be considered in light of the coronavirus pandemic, he said the decision was made that they would break the kids into a morning or afternoon cohort to make sure they were covering those three topics in person.

But, Smoler said, elementary students are also taught important topics like social studies, science and health as well as extra activities for math and reading — programs known as Number Corner and Word Work. He said the early education model for this school year saw students teach themselves those topics through asynchronous learning.

“The teachers would put together materials and then hand them over to students,” he said, noting topics like music, art and world language also fell under this system. “On their own time, they would try to learn that material without, really, any teacher instruction. The instruction would all be in a written or video kind of format rather than face-to-face teacher instruction.”

Smoler said the arbitration was the result of the FEA trying to find a way for those extra topics to be incorporated in the regular, in-person schedule. The MOU lays out a plan, he said, for a new schedule that would move away from asynchronous learning and begin to include social studies, science, health, Number Corner and Word Work in a synchronous school day.

He pointed out elementary school teachers were not slated to teach social studies in this time period anyway because the age group alters between it and science throughout the year.

The MOU also laid out that math and science teachers, which Smoler called coaches, were released from their duty to prepare district provided “grab and go” lessons on Nov. 23, 24 and 25. Elementary school teachers would be required to post the lessons and, again, provide asynchronous support to students.

If not finished by Nov. 25, these teachers would have to continue to create them until they are completed.

Additionally, the MOU requires the new schedule to have three additional 50-minute preparation periods at the end of the school day over a six-day cycle.

The agreement also required the district informally discuss plans about the new schedule with the FEA, but the final decision would still be the administration’s. The administration would also have to meet with the FEA two weeks after the plan is implemented for another informal meeting.

The MOU states the plan would go start Jan. 4, but the plan released last week by the district, shows that date pushed back to Jan. 19. Smoler said the delay is the result of an increase of coronavirus cases in the area.

“In any case, we would be moving to a new schedule. The MOU dealt with the month of December, really between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said, later adding that the district adopting a new schedule made the agreement fall into place more easily. “The students will work through the asynchronous part in December and will start fresh in January.”

Smoler said both sides were comfortable with the outcome. He said the FEA was looking forward to getting all the elementary students back in school full-time in January.

“It was a very collegial relationship,” he said. “We have a great relationship with the district and I think the biggest issue was we just needed to get on the same page of what was in the best interest of students. Teachers just didn’t feel like having young students teach themselves was an effective way of learning, and I think the district was trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com