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Here’s What Teachers Are Saying About Going Back To School In A Pandemic

Two teachers talk about reopening schools.

There is a lot of discussion about whether it is safe to reopen schools with Coronavirus surging around much of the country. I discussed many of the aspects of returning to school in the midst of a pandemic last weekend but thought it would be interesting to get the opinion of teachers since they are the people who will be in the hot zone. Since many teachers are older and have pre-existing conditions, they face a significantly greater risk in returning to school than their students.

I recently spoke with two teachers about their school district’s plans to reopen in early August. To protect their identities and jobs, we’ll call them Mr. Wetherby and Miss Grandy. Several other teachers that I talked to declined to go on the record, even anonymously, out of concern for their jobs.

Both teachers say that the school district sent a survey to faculty members prior to announcing the decision to reopen, but their opinions on the weight given to teacher opinions differs. Mr. Wetherby says that school leaders “encouraged each teacher to express their feelings in writing” and gave them “an open invitation to contact school leadership with issues.” However, Miss Grandy notes that the survey only asked “whether we were planning to return or not” and why.

“They did not ask for our suggestions or help in the decision-making process as a whole,” she says.

When asked whether returning to school is safe, Mr. Wetherby says, “I believe it is safe-ish. I believe students need to return to the classroom. I have seen students since school was released in March hanging out with friends and going on multiple vacations. I am not criticizing these students, but if they feel comfortable enough to engage in those activities then they should trust the precautions that are in place. The number one goal for students is their safety, health and well-being.”

“Not as normal,” Miss Grandy says, adding, “If we are to make in person as safe as possible, we need to greatly reduce class sizes. Having 30 teenagers or 20 children behaving normally in close quarters is not safe.”

Children can and do die and suffer complications from COVID-19 but are at a much lower risk than adults. Asymptomatic children can spread the disease to adults but the extent of transmission by children is still subject to debate. Teens are at a greater risk than younger children.

Class size is a big variable at this point. This district, like many others around the country, will be offering parents the option of enrolling their children in state-sponsored virtual classrooms or withdrawing from the school system completely and enrolling in homeschool. At this point, it is uncertain how many parents will forgo in-person classes and choose distance-learning or homeschools. In normal times, classes are crowded and space is at a premium in this large school district in a growing county.

Mr. Wetherby adds, “My school will be providing some supplies to the faculty and staff. I am not sure if they will provide student-specific PPE (masks, gloves, etc.) I do know each student will be issued a partition to help distance themselves from each other.” He continues, “This partition does have a clear window so that students can see through them.”

“Each teacher will be receiving a thermometer as well as disinfectant for their classroom,” Wetherby adds. “The school has trained the custodial staff to ensure proper cleaning will be utilized especially in high traffic areas. Students will also be allotted fresh air breaks and social distancing will be followed in all common areas.”

“If a student expresses a need for PPE, that students needs will be met,” says Mr. Wetherby.

But Miss Grandy argues that social distancing cannot be maintained in crowded schools, saying, “According to the procedure we will not even be trying. Social distancing is recommended only where feasible and it was specified that is not possible in hallways or classrooms.”

If schools reopen, it is inevitable that some teachers and students will contract COVID-19. An obvious question is what will happen when someone in the school tests positive for the virus. Communications from the school district say that people in direct contact with the infected person, defined in the district as within six feet for more than 15 minutes, will be asked to self-quarantine for 10 days. They must be fever-free without medication for three days before returning to school.

The school district is also encouraging parents to not send children to school if they are sick. Administrators plan to be very lenient on absenteeism for the coming semester.

“If it is the teacher” who tests positive, Miss Grandy says, “Then I guarantee it will be accompanied by an immense amount of guilt for exposing everyone.”

Both teachers acknowledge that there are risks associated with going back to school.

“I believe there is a calculated risk for reopening,” Mr. Wetherby says, adding that “Complacency has entered the mind of some individuals and that will cause issues.”

“The cons are everywhere I look,” notes Miss Grandy. “The atmosphere is charged with anxiety, fear, disbelief. I’m sure this will translate into the classrooms. When people start to get sick, I believe it is inevitable that the schools will close down again, then we will be in the same boat as March with teachers struggling to instantaneously produce material for students to learn at home. Only this year, we will be expected to continue instruction instead of just review. Where does this leave students with no internet?”

“I believe it will remain open as long as possible,” Mr. Wetherby disagrees. “I trust the leadership that are currently in place to reevaluate and take the appropriate measures to ensure the safety to all involved.”

When asked if he is concerned about safety, Mr. Wetherby answers in the negative, saying, “I am not concerned for safety. I will take the proper precautions and continue to deliver the best education I can to my students.”

On this, Miss Grandy disagrees, saying, she is “mostly concerned for others.”

“I have family that I would be potentially exposing,” she continues, “But I’m also thinking of the mental health of my coworkers. I personally know teachers who are having panic attacks at the thought of going back; waking up from nightmares; considering looking for other work because they feel the district is not protecting us. I think about the loss the high school felt when they lost a dear administrator a couple years ago. The school is still mourning that loss. What will the mental health of the staff and students be if people start dying because we went back too soon and ill prepared?”

When asked what procedures they would implement if they ran the school system, Mr. Wetherby says, “I would reopen, and the guidelines I would establish would be close to the plans that are currently in place. I would highly encourage parents who feel uncomfortable with their students attending school to take the appropriate measures to keep their children safe. I would let each parent know and understand that the leadership in the schools support whatever decision that they make for their child.”

Miss Grandy is more critical of the district’s plans. Her first recommendation is to delay the first day of school until September as some other nearby school districts are doing. This would allow “the school and community to see what happens in other places first.”

“Instead, we are the guinea pigs,” she says. “The other schools are watching us.”

“I think the district would have benefited by having a split schedule in which students came to school two days a week and the other three were online,” Miss Grandy continues. “This would have reduced class sizes by half allowing for the possibility of social distancing. It would also allow for students who don’t have internet to be able to get work directly from teachers for the three days of at home learning. They could still get one-on-one instruction, as well. When the schools end up shutting down again, these students will be left with packets and little instruction just like in March.”

“I know that a split schedule can be hard on parents, but this is a time where everyone needs to adapt,” she adds. “And having a set schedule of two days at school and three at home, at least the working parent could rely on a set schedule every week as opposed to some school districts I’ve seen implementing one week at school then one to two weeks at home.”

“With smaller class sizes, proper PPE, masks required, not recommended, and additional cleaning, I think it would be setting the schools up to actually make it through this mess,” Grandy says, “But as it is, I believe we will shortly all be at home again. And then parents will be left in the same position as last spring.” 

“I am glad I am not the one who has to make these decisions,” Mr. Wetherby says.

Most of us can probably agree on that sentiment.

If you would like to continue the discussion on social media, you can visit David Thornton’s Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

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