ArticleJuly 28th, 2020
Educator Voices: 41 teachers on what back to school should look likeCoronavirusEducation
Children in an elementary school class wearing masks enter the classroom with desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Editor’s note: Amid spiking coronavirus cases in parts of the country, summer school infections and tenuous planning for fall, NewsHour EXTRA put out a call mid-July to gauge how teachers felt about reopening. Dozens of teachers shared their fears, frustrations, hopes and uncertainties. Responses below have been edited for clarity and length. We also include links to lesson plans and blog posts relevant to coronavirus and reopening plans.
I’m okay teaching and sending my child to school IF it’s done safely. I have received ZERO assurances that this will be done. I have received ZERO assurances that the state or federal government will increase revenue to provide basic PPE, sanitization supplies or resources to address social distancing. — Lee Wright, Saint Cloud, Florida, ninth grade teacher
I teach preschool special ed. The phrase we all have heard is “early intervention is key to a child’s success.” My students need the OT, speech, PT and other services. I feel like my students should be in class, but with the needs of special ed, all of the recommendations from the CDC will be almost impossible to implement. Catch 2020.
— Stephanie Blank, Altadena, Calif., preschool teacher
As a veteran educator, I yearn to return to the classroom and to my students. They are the reason I’ve dedicated my life to teaching, and I miss them every day. I want to feel confident that all available safety measures will be in place; instead, what I’ve heard state and national leaders say makes me afraid they’re willing to sacrifice us to keep the economy going. — Frances Turner, Atlanta, Georgia
This is a tough decision. I think the best thing schools can do right now is offer parents a choice. It’s going to be a learning curve, and things are going to be different, but we will make the best of it. That’s what teachers do.
— Laura Smith, Joppa, Maryland, director of online learning
Putting hundreds and in some cases thousands of young people and adults in close settings such as schools, many with little to no AC, is a recipe for disaster, especially with cases rising in many states and hospitals reaching capacity.
Class size in Paterson, NJ can be as many as 40 students. Good luck. Teachers have no recourse. School is outdated. Concerned for friends still working … and students.
— Noreen Sweeney, Warwick, New York, former high school teacher
Public schools serve as the foundations of their communities. In the best social and academic interests of children, and in a best-case scenario, brick and mortar schools should be open. But COVID-19 is not a best-case scenario. And putting hundreds and in some cases thousands of young people and adults in close settings such as schools, many with little to no AC, is a recipe for disaster, especially with cases rising in many states and hospitals reaching capacity. — Deborah Van Pelt, Tampa, Florida, high school teacher
I love teaching and I love my job, but I shouldn’t have to put my life and my family’s lives on the line to do my job. It’s not an acceptable option to quit — teaching has been my dream for as long as I can remember—but our government should be doing more to keep us and our students safe. Opening five days a week to all students with the recommendation of masks is unacceptable. People keep spouting these facts that we’re going to be okay and kids won’t get as sick or infect teachers, but honestly we don’t have enough data to ensure that’s the case.
— Heather DeBaca, Highlands Ranch, Colorado, eighth grade teacher
My state (North Carolina) has been lacking on guidance recently, but I would certainly give credit to my district for being as proactive as they can be. I would love to be in the classroom this fall. I miss my students. At the same time, though, I would never put that above the safety of my students, the safety of fellow faculty and staff, the safety of my family and the safety of the community as a whole. My classroom is likely to be online, and I can live with that if it keeps everyone safe. — Kyle Stern, Durham, North Carolina
My school just formed a small reopening committee and we have met three times so far. We seem to get stuck on articulating concerns and find it difficult to move forward with solutions. As of now, our committee outlined two possible schedules, and our own model for reopening, but the problem is complex with many layers of planning depending on circumstances out of our control. It is difficult to wrap my head around the schedule teachers and students will follow.
— Elisa Margarita, New York City, New York, high school teacher
We seem to get stuck on articulating concerns and find it difficult to move forward with solutions.
If we are truly in this together, if we abide by our social contract and take precautions including practicing social distancing, wearing our masks, quarantining if necessary, then we can stop the spread of this disease and we can open schools safely for our children and for the adults. Perhaps some school districts have reached that level, but in South Florida, we have not. Schools house over 1,000 students. There is no realistic distancing that will prevent the spread of germs when the rate of infection is this high.
— Neyda Borges, Miami Lakes, Florida, high school teacher
My classroom doesn’t have a sink and we share our bathroom with another neighboring classroom. I teach Pre-K and my district has a higher concentration of COVID cases than neighboring districts. I cannot imagine going back, because I know we won’t have the supplies needed to socially distance and sanitize our rooms. We know teaching in this way will not be better for our students and their social emotional health. I would like to see remote teaching in the fall and then a reevaluation in January.
— Jennifer Stack, North Chelmsford, Mass., pre-K teacher
As a special education teacher, I know how important face to face learning can be for students, especially those who learn differently. I also know that I have immunocompromised students and colleagues, and I know that even though I’m in my 30s with no known health conditions, I am also still at some risk of death when (not if) I catch this virus at work. I want to teach from home for the fall semester but as of now I will be working on campus every day, putting myself, my family and my school community at risk each day that I am there. I have never been this scared to go to work.
— Amanda Chang, Santa Clarita, Calif., high school teacher
I’m also a realist and know that many states and school districts cannot shoulder the kind of financial burden necessary to safely conduct face to face learning.
I teach high school in St. Louis County, MO. My school district has not formally announced the plan for the fall, but it is likely to be a hybrid of in-person and virtual. I am uncomfortable with the in-person aspect because I know many high school students will not follow protocols about social distancing, wearing masks and not sharing items. Many of them are too immature to recognize the long-term consequences of their actions and have not yet developed impulse control. As a teacher, I am concerned about my ability to teach academic content while monitoring COVID-compliance.
— Helen Burton, St. Louis, Missouri, high school teacher
Reopening should look like an empty room since it’s not safe to open schools.
— Caleb Owens, Martinez, Calif., middle school teacher
I think it is unsafe to send kids and teachers back the way things are right now. As a teacher there is nothing I want more than to be back at school in person with my students, but it needs to be done safely. Or we should use this time and plan how to effectively do remote learning. Businesses aren’t going back like this, meetings about going back to school are being held on Zoom yet they expect us to go back without a safe plan.
— Anne Smith, Lowell, Mass., fourth grade teacher
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has said that she will rely on science to determine our opening plans for which I am grateful, but it has also left school districts in a wait and see approach. My own school district is preparing for three potential contingencies: face to face instruction, hybrid model and all remote learning. My hope is that we can control COVID-19 and return to face to face instruction with temperature checks, smaller class size and students spaced at least three-feet apart while using PPE. I’m also a realist and know that many states and school districts cannot shoulder the kind of financial burden necessary to safely conduct face to face learning.
— Ryan Werenka, Troy, Michigan, high school teacher
To feel safe in person, I would need temperature checks upon entrance, six-feet separation for students, required masks, cohort models of learning, updated building HVAC systems and heavy sanitation between student cohorts. This would require major funding and restructuring of schools (which isn’t happening). I would prefer distance learning for the fall. — Joel Schlabach, Richmond, Indiana, high school teacher
Face to face with little to no restrictions. I need the support to teach my students without using fear or politics over a virus. — Rebecca Weaver, Atlanta, Georgia
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. In this case, the extraordinary measures are doing what is necessary to keep people of all ages safe! That includes students, teachers and other school staff. This means remote learning at least until the virus is better in check and more manageable. Teachers need training. Students and parents need access to technology and WiFi. The federal government needs to help districts provide these items rather than threaten to remove funding.
— Gia Jones, Humble, Texas, eighth grade teacher
We still have no decision, so teachers, who were praised for “pivoting” and providing lessons on *NO NOTICE* in the spring, and who were encouraged to take a well-deserved rest during the summer, are struggling with knowing how to prepare for this fall. Do we spend the time to improve everything for remote learning? Do we imagine our socially-distanced classrooms and how CDC recommendations will limit what we do in person to what we would do remotely, anyway? Do we cross our fingers and hope no one gets sick or dies? — Amy Tucker, Wayne, Maine, middle school teacher
I do not think that our country is taking the threat of COVID-19 in our schools seriously enough.
Increased class sizes, poor infrastructure and HVAC systems, budget shortfalls for even basic cleaning supplies or hygienic products, lack of substitute teachers and a teacher shortage to begin with, slashed budgets for creative arts and not enough mental health staff to deal appropriately with childhood trauma … all these issues will be exacerbated by and/or will exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. It is already stressful enough having to coldly calculate which exit to sprint towards in the event of a school shooting, but now I’m being forced into a situation where I’m being thrown on the front lines for a fight we should not have to be fighting (shout out to all the essential workers out there also forced to work under threat of eviction or losing health insurance).
— Paul Schlabach, Shippensburg, Penn., high school teacher
I do not think that our country is taking the threat of COVID-19 in our schools seriously enough. As a teacher I want to be back at school and I want to see my students, but I have yet to hear a good idea of how that will happen safely. Some schools will not require masks at all times, will not social distance and will not lower class sizes. The only good idea I have heard is that some schools will be offering families the option of virtual learning for their children. There are also problems within the offering of virtual learning, of course—only students with reliable WiFi will be able to benefit from this choice.
— Candice H., Jackson, Missouri
I am ready to go back in person and teach kids.
— Carsan Helm, Katy, Texas, ninth grade teacher
My state should create a better plan, which should include no new cases for 14 days before going to a (hybrid) model. If no new cases/incidents in 14 days after a hybrid reopen, then we can move onto traditional learning with safety precautions. We can’t reopen schools in some counties and not others, because people frequently travel to visit family in surrounding counties. — Heather Ruelas, Lake Elsinore, Calif.
I’m a Marine Corps veteran, 58 years old, and have been teaching high school history for 26 years. My husband and I both have asthma. I am petrified to go back. There is no money in our district budget to hire new nurses or custodians, nor to supply teachers with PPE or cleaning gear. There is no space to socially distance, and our ventilation system is from the 70s. Many classrooms have no windows. This is an absolute disaster waiting to happen. Israel and S. Africa have had school outbreaks and subsequent closures. How will we be any different? — Theresa Flannery, Wheat Ridge, Colorado, high school teacher
The Texas Education Agency recently announced that they would be working from home until at least January 2021, but it’s okay for teachers to go back into the classroom. Let that sink in.
I live in Central Texas and while this area has not been hit as hard as other areas of the state, they are still planning on reopening. They are giving parents the option to choose virtual learning or in-person. Parents are being asked to choose how they would like for their children to learn, but not once have I been asked if I feel comfortable going back into the classroom, nor how I’d prefer to teach. I feel that the reopening of the economy is the sole focus, and that Texas is trying to reopen its schools too soon. The Texas Education Agency recently announced that they would be working from home until at least January 2021, but it’s okay for teachers to go back into the classroom. Let that sink in.
— Stacy Kyle-Romel, Kempner, Texas, eighth grade teacher
Currently my district has planned to go back in person 100%. I feel this is incredibly reckless and unsafe. Teachers with health concerns are able to request accommodations to work remotely, but healthy, young teachers are put on the chopping block. CDC guidelines even limit indoor summer camps to 10 students in a room, while my district is planning on stuffing over 20 students in a room for over seven hours. It’s not safe and it’s not fair. They should at least consider a hybrid option. — Alex Molleck, Denver, Colorado, first grade teacher
We are asking our families the wrong question. We should not be asking them what they want, we should be asking them what they can do. We are still living through this pandemic, so school will not be safe to reopen as usual, especially without family commitment to safety. — Sarah Kopplin, Shorewood, Wisconsin, seventh grade teacher
Reasonable people can disagree on policy issues in a normal time, but public health shouldn’t be up for debate. What many people don’t realize is that educators are walking into a lose-lose situation, forced to choose between their own livelihoods and their students. Over the years, teachers have absorbed more societal obligations, and we’ve gotten stronger. We’ve seen harmful physical altercations, family situations too traumatic to discuss, and our hearts break to bear witness to the life our kids lead. And this pandemic only exacerbates it all. — Kristin Schnerer, Toledo, Ohio
In my opinion, schools should start fully remote. I am in Massachusetts and they are looking at three different scenarios. However, we closed in March with one case and it is only getting worse. How many cases will it take until we close again? How many deaths will it take? In the spring, teachers acted fast to try and figure out which technology worked best for our lessons. We have just started to figure this out, now give us time to use it. It is too dangerous to go back in any form face to face.
— Jennifer Fairbanks, Hopkinton, Mass., high school teacher
I like my students. I like teaching them. I like helping them learn. But — real talk — I do not want to die for them.
There is great concern for the health and safety of students and staff. The potential for exposure at a time without a vaccine, reliable treatment, coordinated testing and tracing is enormous and puts everyone at risk. The lack of clear directives from the government particularly make the thought of returning overwhelming. Signing “hold harmless” agreements prior to the start of school does not foster a sense of trust that schools are capable of keeping those in and beyond the building safe. We’re not at the point where a return should even be entertained.
— M. Devonshire, Long Island, New York, high school teacher
Living in South Florida, which has been recently referred to now as the new epicenter of Covid-19, all classroom learning and instruction should be done safely all online. I miss my students and worry about their mental health; however, the emotional and physical wellbeing of my own three kids and husband must take precedence over hazardous work conditions at my school. I love my students but I also want to live for my own kids.
— Brigid Duncan, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, high school teacher
I do believe schools should be virtual in the fall. We should put money into providing laptops for all students and free internet services. Students that are below grade-level academically, or who need additional support, we should provide virtual one on one tutors. In order to do all of these things, states need additional funding. As educators, we want to see our students face to face; however, it is not safe and we do not know enough about the virus and potential long-term effects on our students. We also need to think about the health of our educators and staff. As a school counselor, I believe some students may be anxious returning to school if we return to the school building.
—Tracey Spain, Chevy Chase, Maryland, school counselor
I like my students. I like teaching them. I like helping them learn. But — real talk — I do not want to die for them. So what am I going to do in the fall when, invariably, I am asked to go back into the petri dish of public education, to the career and students that I like? If my doctors say I can, I’m going to go back. And if I get infected, if I die, and anyone calls me a martyr or treats me like one, or honors me for my sacrifice, I would like someone to ask them this: “How many martyrs died for something they only liked?” If I die from COVID-19 as a result of my career as an educator, I’m no martyr. I’m no failure. I’m a victim. (Originally posted on Medium) — AE Stueve, Bellevue, Nebraska, high school teacher
“It appears my school system is considering DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] recommendations that special education teachers and students return to brick and mortar, while other staff may have options. This is very disconcerting because I am immunocompromised. I have never disclosed this to my school district because it has never interrupted my tenure or impacted my exemplary work. I am extremely hesitant about going back and I am certainly not ready to retire.
— Karen Walton, Ed.S, Chelmsford, Mass., elementary special education teacher
I decided to take to Twitter to poll educators beyond my immediate circle. Although it was an informal poll that ran for only 24 hours on my account, the results are still pretty alarming: the majority of teachers do not feel safe returning to the classroom. This is different than saying that teachers do not want to return to the classroom. They agree that remote learning will never replace in-person learning, and they miss their students. I wrote about this extensively in my 13-part series, “Teaching in the Age of Coronavirus” for EXTRA and in this previous Educator Voice post, How do teachers really feel about returning to the classroom? — Sari Beth Rosenberg, New York City, New York, high school history teacher (pictured above)
Don’t forget the substitute teachers! They’re effectively educational mercenaries, traveling between classrooms and schools, and often between districts. And while they’re particularly well-suited for this pandemic because of their habit of walking into a room full of unknowns — unknown lesson plans, kids, and expectations — there is also a nearly mathematical certainty that we won’t have enough subs this school year. Many substitutes are retired teachers who are often districts’ first choice, especially when a teacher is expected to be out for more than a few days. But older people are also more at risk of complications from COVID-19, which may prevent some substitute teachers from returning. School districts need to be preparing for the nearly impossible task that subs will be asked to do this fall. — Dr. Chris Orlando, Lawrence, Kansas, eighth grade teacher
I am a special educator. The special education population is filled with students with anxiety, hyperactivity, sensory processing issues, mobility issues, hygiene, etc. These types of students are not being considered when we talk about social distancing and masks. My job entails me pulling students in small groups or 1:1 into my class to do interventions. How will this be possible if students are required to stay in one class the entire day? The answer may be that I will have to go into their classrooms and work with them there. Fine, but then that means that I will be going into multiple classes each day which will expose me to over 100 students in a day. — Alysha Gillani, Morton Grove, Illinois
How have we as educators gone from being forgotten to exalted to discarded, all in one year?
How have we as educators gone from being forgotten to exalted to discarded, all in one year? I didn’t sign up to be a first responder, yet with our dedication to guns — and now to money — over lives, I am willing to accept a whole new normal of risk. Why is my life, my kids’ lives, my family less important than anyone else’s? Many speak now of how awful it is to propose to defund the police and yet … we do that annually to our kids and their schools. — Julia Rogers, New Market, Maryland, high school teacher
As a Kindergarten teacher, I worry for our little ones. Imagine being five and new to school … you are sad and scared but your teacher is required to stand six feet from you, telling you it “will be okay” while he or she looks kinda scary from behind a mask. Then you’re being told you need to stay sitting at your own spot at a table for several hours without getting up. You have to use only the stuff in your own box. No sharing. You have to keep your mask on all day. You eat in your same spot. After lunch, your mask is to be put back on. You are given a small box of legos to play with for 30 minutes in your same spot. You can try to talk to the kid six feet away from you, but you both are wearing masks and have trouble understanding each other. This is not the nurturing, caring, helpful environment for a young Kindergarten student in their first days of school.
— B. Andrews, Germantown, Maryland, kindergarten teacher
I’m actually looking forward to going back into the building to teach my sixth graders. I understand there is a risk but I plan to wear a mask and face shield and I think it’s a worthwhile risk given the inadequacies of online learning. I was doing blended learning for years before the pandemic, but I still don’t think full virtual learning is appropriate for children. I’m ready to go teach in person!
— Sarah Shah, Washington, DC, sixth grade teacher
If you would like to contribute to Educator Voice, please send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org. For teaching resources on Election 2020, sign up here.
Read Sari Beth Rosenberg’s “Teaching in the Age of Coronavirus” 13-piece blog series here.
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