School districts around the US are set to begin reopening in August, many with in-person classes, five days a week, despite coronavirus cases rising in many parts of the country.
But the school reopenings have teachers around the US fearful for the safety of themselves, students, staff and family members, with teachers and unions saying that proper protections and protocols have yet to be implemented.
Some teachers have even drawn up wills ahead of classes beginning, others have retired from the profession and teachers unions have said they will sanction strike action for members who deem that they are being forced to take potentially deadly risks.
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“Educators are afraid because proper policies are not being put in place to protect them,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. The Oklahoma state board of education has only issued guidelines for school districts, and voted down a proposal on 23 July to issue a mask mandate in schools across the state.
“The OEA offers members through our personal legal services program a free will. The requests for those free wills are up over 3,000% in the last few weeks,” Priest added.
A report published by the Kaiser Family Foundation on 10 July found 1.47 million teachers in the US – some 24% of the profession – are at greater risk of serious illness if infected with coronavirus because they have conditions that make them vulnerable.
Yet Florida has issued an order mandating all schools must open in August in-person, five days a week. The Florida teachers union responded to the order with a lawsuit.
“We are letting the community down by pretending we can open safely. The districts cannot do what is necessary according to CDC guidelines,” said Stacy Rene Kennett, a kindergarten teacher in Immokalee, Florida, who is expected to begin attending in-person training for school reopenings on 4 August.
Amy Scott, an IB language arts high school teacher in Miami, Florida for 44 years, decided to retire one year early due to the coronavirus pandemic and the instability of the upcoming school year.
“I dreaded it. I wanted to extend it as long as possible because I love kids and teaching,” said Scott. “But then came coronavirus and I realized all the difficulties of holding brick-and-mortar classrooms and the danger involved to teachers, students and the community spread and I didn’t want to end my 45 years of teaching in such a frustrating environment.”
In Arizona, which was designated a global pandemic hotspot in early July, reopening decisions have been left to individual school districts.
“There is no consistency across the state,” said Marisol Garcia, a middle school teacher and parent in Phoenix who currently serves as vice-president of the Arizona Educators Association. “We are left to our own devices to figure out how to keep our families safe and ensure our students are safe”
Garcia explained current class loads in Arizona make social distancing impossible in districts where in-person learning is permitted, as she had no less than 31 students in each class last school year, and it remains unclear if any schools will face repercussions for not following guidelines for coronavirus protections. She also warns many of her colleagues may retire early.
In Georgia, state agencies have issued guidelines for school reopenings, deferring decisions to school districts on when and how schools reopen in the coming weeks.
Several school districts outside of metro areas in Georgia are reopening in August with in-person classes, five days a week, leaving teachers there concerned over safety protections as coronavirus case rates have been rising around the state over the past several weeks.
“We’re very concerned that when we’re once again in school buildings, children, educators, and their family members will become sick and perhaps die,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Educators Association.
According to Morgan, several school districts in Georgia that are reopening in person, five days a week, are not following CDC guidelines, with no mask mandates, large classroom sizes making social distancing impossible, and responsibility for extra cleaning measures placed on teachers to carry out.
Even as schools are expected to reopen in the coming weeks around the US, school districts and teachers are scrambling to create plans for restarting schools, whether classes are conducted in person, virtually, or a hybrid of in-person and remote learning.
“The country is asking teachers and children to lead the way, yet no one seems to know what direction we’re headed,” said Angela McKeen, a high school science teacher in Clarksburg, West Virginia. “My concerns at this point are for my students. Can we prevent huge outbreaks? Can students effectively learn in such fluid situations? Can teachers effectively reach their students at not just their places academically, but also emotionally during this time?”
Teacher unions have raised the possibility of walking off the job unless comprehensive safety plans are implemented for schools to reopen.
The head of the Colorado Education Association recently said teachers may refuse to report to work as schools are set to reopen in the state in August if teachers’ criteria for school reopenings aren’t met.
The union cited a survey of nearly 10,000 members, where about eight out of 10 teachers asserted they would be willing to refuse to work if teachers aren’t provided a voice in how safety protocols are implemented, such as mask mandates and social distancing procedures.
“We don’t want schools to be epicenters of outbreak in our community. It would crush any student or staff member if they brought coronavirus into school,” said Ernest Garibay, a high school math teacher in Jefferson county, Colorado, and local union representative.
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