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‘Teachers are scared’ to be in school, Florida educator says

Although President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are urging schools to reopen in person this fall, other officials fear the health risks are too high, especially as the virus surges in many states. Florida is one of them -- but its education commissioner is calling for schools to be physically open nonetheless. Amna Nawaz talks to Fedrick Ingram of the Florida Education Association.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Even as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, some political leaders, and many parents are pushing for a wider reopening of schools, some officials are worried about the risks.

    Today, California's two largest school districts, the Los Angeles and San Diego unified systems, said they will only do instruction remotely this fall. Between the two districts, that affects roughly 825,000 students.

    In Florida, where infections remain very high, the state's education commissioner wants schools physically open five days a week. Some districts are now looking at hybrid models instead.

    We get reaction to all this from the president of the teachers union there. Fedrick Ingram is with the Florida Education Association, and he joins me now.

    Mr. Ingram, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So, your union represents thousands of teachers. You yourself are a teacher. What's your assessment? Will the schools be ready for students next month?

  • Fedrick Ingram:

    Well, thank you for having me, and I appreciate being here.

    We represent 150,000 educators and school employees across this state. And, frankly, I believe our governor and our commissioner of education have been irresponsible.

    They put out a plan last week to say that we must have a brick-and-mortar option for five days a week. And I think, being in the epicenter of this virus, with cases steadily rising every day — in fact, in the next couple of days, our state will eclipse over 300,000 positive cases — I think it's irresponsible to think that our schools, our teachers, or our educational support professionals or, first and most importantly, our students are ready to go back to school in the brick-and-mortar option.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the meantime, though, we should mention, you have dozens of school districts in the state of Florida. Each one of those districts is coming up with their own plan. They all seem to be in different stages, right?

    Some have been released. Some school boards are voting on them. Some are still very much in the works.

    When you think about how students could physically return to school, do any of those plans catch your attention? Do any of them look like a good plan to you right now?

  • Fedrick Ingram:

    Listen, kudos to our superintendents, our school boards, our local leaders, our local teachers unions.

    They're all trying to put their heads together to create plans that will be as advantageous as we possibly can with our students. But they can't do this without some guidance and some regulations and funding. It's going to cost us more money to educate our students than less. We have to deal with ventilations and cleanings of our school buildings.

    We have to deal with social distancing. That means that we will have smaller classes. And we have to deal with masks or congregations in terms of our lunch rooms, our buses, our assemblies, or cosmetology class, of course, are banned.

    We have gotten no guidelines as to how to do that. Our districts are frantically trying to create these plans. And they have been working really hard this summer. But, under the guise of our governor and our commissioner of education, they have given us a slogan: We must open with brick-and-mortar.

    They have not given us a comprehensive plan.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tell me what you're hearing from teachers. What are they worried about right now? And do they see specific steps that they want to see put in place as mitigation efforts before they walk back into schools?

  • Fedrick Ingram:

    Teachers are scared. Teachers are, frankly — they have angst that I have never seen before. Some teachers are making the decisions to retire early, simply because they cannot go back into a school because they are either over the age of 60 or they may have an underlying issue.

    Or a teacher may be healthy, and they may be taking care of an elderly parent, or they may be taking care of their own sick child who has a bronchial issue, who has juvenile diabetes. But they don't want to be the cause of bringing that home from an asymptomatic child.

    And so we're putting these things in place. Our state has said nothing about reasonable accommodations for our teachers. And that's what they're looking for. If they get sick, what happens? If there's a breakout, if there's a pandemic, a virus episode at a school or a particular feeder pattern, what's going to happen?

    Do we invite a substitute teacher to come in and teach a class, given the circumstances of a teacher or a child being in that class that's sick? There is no guidance here in the state of Florida. And we have to do better, because our kids are depending on us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, let me ask you about those kids, then, because there's a lot of concern about the effects that the lockdown has already had, that concern being based on the fact that the gaps that were there before will be widened after kids go back to school.

    If they didn't have Internet access in the spring, they won't have it this fall either. How concerned are you that, the longer schools stay closed, some of those kids are just going to fall further and further behind in a way they can't make up?

  • Fedrick Ingram:

    Sure.

    Well, let me tell you this. I'm a parent first. I have a 15-year-old who is going to high school this year. And I want her high school to be as safe as it can possibly be, knowing that there will be some academic regression, knowing that she's been out of school for five-and-a-half months.

    Listen, from March to May, our lawmakers have put in a testing vacuum that is — that has very little to do with teaching. So, I feel like our teachers still will do the magic that they always do. Whenever we get these kids back, be it online or hybrid or brick-and-mortar, our teachers will do what they need to do.

    Right now, our parents need to concentrate on exactly the same thing our teachers and our cafeteria workers and our bus drivers and secretaries are saying. This is life or death. Kids will die. People will die because of this virus.

    And, in Florida, we do not have this under control. And we need to concentrate on that, so that we can protect our communities and our families. Our teachers will still be there. And our schools will be there as strong as they have ever been, because I have every confidence in our public schools.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me just ask you.

    Based on what you have seen so far, in the way of the steps the state has been taking, do you see any way that schools could be back open next month safely?

  • Fedrick Ingram:

    Yes, I do see a way, if our state shows a trend, like the CDC regulations first told us, of 14 days of a decline in getting the virus under control.

    We have to do that, because our schools will become a microcosm of what's going on out in the community. We know that these kids will either be asymptomatic, or they will get sick, or they will go — be hospitalized, and/or they will affect other people.

    And so we have to see a 14-day decline, which we have not seen over the last six weeks here in Florida. So, until we get to that point, I don't think that we should even be in the discussions of opening schools one way or another. We should talk — be talking about delaying over maybe a two-week period of time, so that we can see if we're going to get control of this.

    If not, then we need to talk about the fall itself and moving and shifting to distance learning, and doing the very best that we can, given the circumstances.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A lot of uncertainty ahead, for sure.

    That is Fedrick Ingram of the Florida Education Association joining us tonight.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  • Fedrick Ingram:

    Thank you.

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