New union president facing challenges of COVID-19, education head-on

Vicki Kidwell to serve out final two years of Rena Lee Paiva’s term at CCEA

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CLAY COUNTY – It’s a tough time for education, but the teacher union’s new president is facing the challenges head-on.

Famed Clay County Education Association president Rena Lee Paiva retired this year after years of service in the union, and Vicki Kidwell was selected to finish out the remaining two years of Paiva’s term. Kidwell accepted the position knowing what she was getting into, knowing how large Paiva’s shoes are to fill, and she’s bringing years of passion to the job.

“It was daunting to step into those shoes,” Kidwell said. “Rena Lee was really a force to be reckoned with and in her time here, she did amazing things for our county, our school and our teachers. I came into this knowing it was going to be a challenge, knowing I have to do it my own way. I don’t think I have any less passion. I just hope to be as effective as she was.”

Kidwell’s history with the county’s education system goes back to more than 20 years ago when she began teaching first grade students at Charles E. Bennett Elementary. She held that position for eight years before teaching at Argyle Elementary, where she taught for another 12 years. She had been a part of the teacher’s union throughout many of those years when she learned how important it was for education bureaucrats to learn what it’s like at the ground-level of education.

Her time at Argyle came to a close with this past school year when she was asked to finish the remaining two years in Paiva’s presidential term. She feels confident if she was an effective leader, she’ll throw her hat into the ring during the next CCEA presidential election. She’s got her sights on the classrooms and the teachers and students.

One of the biggest problems facing the school district right is COVID-19 and the deeper problems it’s highlighting within district classrooms.

“We have overcrowding in classrooms,” Kidwell said. “We’re pushing hard in the district to get them [bureaucrats] to understand that in order to nullify these issues, we might need to take a bite out of the budget. You just can’t socially distance when there’s 26 to 30 kids in a classroom.”

The classroom capacity is 18 for kindergarten through third grade, 22 for fourth through eighth grade and 25 for ninth through 10th grade. Kidwell said if the classroom capacities were what they’re supposed to be, socially distancing might be more possible. But the state legislature has, over the years, stretched those numbers out by allowing more lenient interpretations of the capacity mandates.

An example would be taking into account a district’s classroom capacity average as opposed to the individual classroom capacity. A district’s capacity average might be 18 but that doesn’t mean there aren’t classrooms with many more students.

The higher the capacity, the less social distancing that occurs and that poses a greater risk to teachers and students, Kidwell said. The district is doing what they can – the mandatory use of masks, social distancing and increased sanitization – but at a certain point, hands are tied due to state legislature activity.

This trickles into another one of the district’s major problems: a teacher shortage. Kidwell said the district is always short a handful of teachers each year but this year, the district has 21 positions that need to be filled.

“It’s always a struggle we face each year but it’s more important now than ever to get those numbers down in brick and mortar schools,” Kidwell said. “That’s our push with the union right now.”

Teachers are retiring early or taking leave because teaching this year is not worth the risk. With teachers leaving posts like that and many would-be teachers scared to return to classrooms, Kidwell said the district is working frantically to get positions filled.

Kidwell said the federal government and President Donald Trump have deemed teachers essential workers, although it’s up to each individual state. She said the federal government hasn’t provided the resources teachers need to safely and effectively do their job during a pandemic.

A teacher is allowed 10 days for the year that they can use to isolate should they be exposed to the virus. This comes by way of the CARES Act. Should a teacher come down with COVID-19, they must then use sick days. Kidwell pointed out that 14 days is what’s recommended for quarantining and with only 10 days of paid isolation given, teachers will need to dip into sick days should they want to get paid. If they do get sick though, now they’re already down four sick days.

“You can see the dilemma we’re facing,” Kidwell said.

Kidwell said she hopes COVID-19 comes to an end long before her two-year tenure ends, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more problems on the horizon. Teachers and public schools still need funding from the legislature. Teachers still need better pay. Schools still need millions in maintenance.

“The needs of our teachers are the needs of our kids,” Kidwell said. “Their teaching environment is the kids’ learning environment.

“I am absolutely daunted by the challenge of what education is facing right now but I’m committed to the work and I’m committed to do right by this union, this district, our teachers and of course, our children.”

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