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Why I disagree with Sam’s views on ‘risk’ in the workplace

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Peter Osborne
DBT Editor

I’m going to keep this fairly short because I think Sen. Laura Sturgeon makes a great case for remote learning in her column across the page. But I had a visceral reaction to Sam’s column when I first read it and told him I might write a counterpoint.

Like many, I was stunned at the callous suggestion by the Brandywine School Board member who told fifth-grade teacher Abby Sipress – a decorated 18-year teaching veteran – that she should “find a new career” if she couldn’t handle the “risk” of returning to the classroom if told to by the district (and her taxpayer-employers).

Ralph Ackerman deserves censure, not Sam’s observation that he could have been more tactful.  This guy is the current president of the Delaware School Boards Association and a former Brandywine School Board president. He should consider whether he’s so out of touch with the challenges and the differences between trained front-line health care workers and teachers that it’s time for him to resign from both boards and find a different way to serve his community.

I have five reasons for this view:

  1. At least 97,000 children tested positive for the coronavirus during the last two weeks of July, according to a new review of state-level data by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association. The increase represents a 40% surge in the nation’s cumulative total of child cases.
  2. Sipress is her school’s Teacher of the Year. I doubt that the Brandywine School District has any desire to lose her to any other school in the state that would love to have someone with that much passion, courage, or skill.
  3. The district did not try “to dodge getting involved in that no-win controversy,” as Sam puts it. They were actually overly tactful in saying his email “represents one opinion from one member of our school board,” but they clearly separated themselves from his misguided point of view. Other organizations that have justifiably slammed Ackerman are right on target.
  4. It is the employer’s responsibility to make sure that the workplace is safe. Ackerman himself works as a project manager for one of the state’s largest financial institutions, which has given no indication that its work-from-home (WFH) policy is nearing an end and which has bent over backward to protect those employees who deal face-to-face with customers.
  5. These are children we’re talking about and some are likely to have siblings or parents who are ignoring mask and social-distancing requirements. You’re asking for trouble if you leave it to teachers and staff to police this without proper personal protective equipment.

The reality is that we’d all prefer our children be in the classroom if it’s safe. But we don’t know if it is. Remote learning is going to be a challenge for parents who continue to work from home and have to deal with this additional distraction but we will.

School districts should be sensitive to teachers who are uncomfortable with being in a classroom during this time because of their family situations. Yes, Sam, most of us go to grocery stories and pick up prescriptions, but hopefully we’re wearing masks and practicing proper social distancing. Those who don’t are deserving of our contempt.

Maybe those teachers can lead online classes or develop curriculum for their peers if the school is using a hybrid model.

But let’s be clear. There are an increasing number of major employers who recognize their employees’ concerns and have announced long – and in some cases permanent – delays in returning to the office. We should not be talking about math equations when it comes to the workplace … or with our kids.

As you’ve seen in this issue, we’re writing Future Of … stories that look at the post-COVID opportunities for employers. I’ve become increasingly interested in this whole idea of collaboration with WFH extending into its sixth month and the challenges that arts organizations are having..

Arts leaders see a huge difference between collaboration and consolidation. Collaboration is growing, but they see mergers as less likely because they have “unique missions” and because of geographic barriers. I believe funders may ask them to look more closely at this issue or risk losing money to organizations serving basic needs.

But the arts sector has been pretty good at finding the natural opportunities for collaboration and cost-sharing. OperaDelaware and the Delaware Symphony Orchestra use the same ticketing platform, so they invested in ticket scanner equipment that they share with each other.

David Stradley from Delaware Shakes says he’s seeing more organizations finding ways to collaborate.

“We have never done anything with Winterthur before, but we’ll be doing an outdoor Halloween event this year. I’m talking to the Delaware Art Museum about their sculpture garden. This year’s Solioquy Walks were new. And we’re experimenting with video for people who can’t get to these smaller events,” he said.

Mark Fields has been at The Grand for 14 years and has seen a “geometric increase in collaboration and that will only continue. The Grand is home to five different artistic companies that fulfill their missions by being housed here. I wouldn’t credit that to the pandemic; it’s an ongoing evolution of the conversation. People are looking for ways to get the most value out of the resources that they have.”

That said, Fields doesn’t think that collaboration will extend between Delaware counties despite the small size of the state because of what he called The Rule of 45.

“Real effective partnership takes more time and you have to add in distance and travel for planning meetings because you still need to look at the place where you’re doing the event. As for the Rule of 45, the vast majority of your audience lives within 45 miles or minutes, which is what makes cross-county collaboration more difficult,” he said.

But the true value of collaboration – whether it comes by Zoom or in person – was highlighted  by Ray Rhodes at Christiana Cultural Arts Center in Wilmington, who said his organization is extending its hand to the Wilmington Music School, Latin American Community Center, and the Delaware Theater Company on topics around racial equality and inclusion.

“We’re working together to [facilitate] difficult conversations,” he said. “Over the next six months, humanity will be the word of the day. I think the economy will turn, the arts will return, and people will continue to go out and embrace these events.”


Peter Osborne


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