'It was a mistake’: Teacher in viral video apologizes for comments about Henrico back to learning survey

'It was a mistake’: Teacher in viral video apologizes for comments about Henrico back to learning survey

HENRICO, Va. (WWBT) - The Henrico County Schools Superintendent is reacting to a short video clip showing HCPS teachers allegedly discussing the potential to “skew” a survey sent out this week regarding back to learning options for the second nine weeks of class.

In July, the Henrico County School Board voted to start the first nine weeks of school online following a survey sent to parents and teachers over the summer.

However, since the 2020-2021 school year began on Sept. 8, board members have worked with the HCPS Health Committee to devise a plan for the second semester which begins Nov. 16.

On Monday, surveys were sent to HCPS families and teachers asking for input on back to learning options for the second nine weeks of school.

However, a video clip surfaced Wednesday showing a group of teachers within HCPS discussing those surveys, specifically the teacher survey.

In the 23 second clip obtained by NBC12 through an HCPS FOIA, teacher Ryan Burgess tells others, “The other thing to get out, some people were confused if they could choose more than one option on the survey. So, if we get the word out that you can pick all of the options on the survey and skew the data – that is one way to go.”

Burgess is one of the organizers for the group “HCPS Back to School Safely” advocating for the return to in-person learning once it is safe to do so. NBC12 has interviewed Burgess and other members of the group previously.

The conversation was recorded by an unknown individual and then allegedly sent to HCPS Superintendent Dr. Amy Cashwell.

In a letter sent to the Henrico Education Association (HEA) President, Cashwell said in part, “the attached video does not reflect the kind of productive problem-solving approach I’ve become accustomed to from the HEA. Intentional efforts to encourage others to manipulate or skew a survey to purposely misinform HCPS leadership undermines the genuine attempt made by HCPS to gain important insights directly from employees.”

In the letter, Cashwell said the video was sent to her and other board members by concerned constituents.

“I do not know the source of the video or whether it is in fact a clip that represents conversation that occurred at an HEA meeting," Cashwell wrote. "Nonetheless, I wanted to be sure that you were made aware of this video clip which is being circulated and attributed to the HEA.”

On Thursday HEA President, John Reaves, released the following statement:

“Dr. Cashwell called me and let me know about the video. This was not an HEA meeting, and it does not reflect our current attitudes and methods. We are actively working on behalf of our members, hand-in-hand with HCPS leadership, to ensure the safest path back to school buildings as soon as possible."

“The intent of [recording the video] was to harm me personally and professionally,” said Ryan Burgess on Thursday. “I made a flippant, non-serious comment that was taken out of context and blown completely out of proportion.”

NBC12 also spoke with Burgess following the surface of the video clip. Burgess said she and other members of the “HCPS Back to School Safely” group were holding a private meeting Tuesday night about the survey they received.

“One of them turned out not to be a member and recorded me without my permission, and recorded me making an off the cuff, flippant statement that wasn’t true,” Burgess said. “It wasn’t what we were trying to do at all. There is no attempt at all to try and skew the data of the teacher surveys. That was me simply making a mistake and saying something I shouldn’t have said.”

Following the emergence of this video, NBC12 received numerous emails from parents concerned about the video clip and the comments made.

“What is HCPS going to do about teachers deliberately skewing the data,” one elementary parent asked. “How is HCPS going to determine if the data they receive and use to determine the next nine weeks is credible based on this now known, intended disruption of the survey?”

The surveys are scheduled to close on Sunday, however, teachers are able to edit responses up until then.

“While not binding, we did ask that employees give careful consideration to their responses on the questionnaire/survey,” Cashwell’s letter stated. “This information is not only an important part of planning efforts it allows us to understand how, from a Human Resources perspective, we might assist our employees with their needs related to seeking accommodations or other options through FFCRA. It’s disappointing to know that our efforts to understand staff needs could be foiled by an effort to skew survey results.”

However, Burgess said the options on the teacher surveys were minimal. NBC12 obtained a copy of the questionnaire which provided the following options based on a hybrid-learning format:

  • I will return to my work site on Nov. 16, 2020, should the instructional plan for the second nine weeks increase levels of in-person learning, bringing more students to campus.
  • I will be requesting leave based on the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and will contact the Human Resources Department accordingly.
  • I will be requesting an accommodation (e.g., the ability to teach exclusively virtually, intermittent leave, etc.) based on a medical condition, and I will contact the Human Resources Department accordingly.
  • I plan to seek discretionary leave.
  • I plan to seek retirement.
  • I plan to seek release from contract or resignation.

“There was no input from staff on any of the three options proposed to parents,” Burgess said. “So, besides focus groups that were held with teachers, teachers really didn’t get a say or be able to express their opinion about whether it’s the five-day plan, the four-day plan or the two-day plan.”

Meanwhile, other parents had concerns about the HCPS Back to School Safely group. One high school parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said he joined the social media group to try and gather and provide input on back to learning options over the summer.

“Over time, we noticed the tenor of discussion changed, at least with some teachers," he said in part. “What we hoped would be honest dialogue and problem-solving turned into an increasingly entrenched, one-sided communication that was starkly opposed to parental input, problem solving, or anything except the hard line union talking points. And just like that, without notice or warning, we were blocked from the online discussion group. Soon, I found out that many other parents were, too.”

While the school board received a COVID-19 health update from the HCPS Health Committee Thursday, Burgess said she wants to do what’s best for the students and other teachers.

“We all want to be back in the classroom with our students, we do, but we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and because we’re in the middle of a pandemic we want to make sure the health data supports a return," Burgess said.

Another concern Burgess and board members had was regarding ventilation concerns in the buildings. During the work session Thursday, a school staff members said improvements have been made over the last few months to ensure the safety of air flow when students return to school on a regular basis.

Additionally, Burgess said she spoke with Superintendent Cashwell regarding the video clip. Since then, Burgess has also stepped down as a board member with the Henrico Education Association.

Henrico Schools anticipates results from the family and teacher surveys to be released within the next two weeks. The Henrico County school board is scheduled to vote on a back to learning plan for the second nine weeks on Oct. 22.

Copyright 2020 WWBT. All rights reserved.