Teachers wary about schools reopening

PHOTO/ALEXANDRA KOCH: Children attending Washoe County schools will be required to wear face masks.

Teachers are dying to return to the classroom; they’d rather not risk students’ health — or their own disability or death — to do it.

As Washoe County schools prepare to reopen Aug. 17 and 24, teachers and parents are nervously watching Nevada’s and Washoe County’s COVID-19 cases spike. The Washoe County School District’s administrators, staff and teachers have been re-configuring classrooms and making other preparations for the students’ return. It was clear from last week’s virtual public forum that the district has more questions than answers about how they will deal with in-person classes in the midst of a pandemic.

The unions representing most of the school district’s 3,500 employees have asked the district to delay reopening for nine weeks, utilizing distance learning instead, the Reno Gazette Journal reported. The Clark County School District, meanwhile, won’t reopen schools until COVID-19 cases are reduced significantly. The concerns about the Washoe district’s current plan echo many of the teacher’s objections to reopening quoted in this story, written before the unions made their positions public.

Some specifics of the current plan are finalized: Busses will run at 50 percent capacity. All students, regardless of age, will be required to wear masks. Elementary school students will attend school full time. Families have the option to have children attend lessons online. Middle school students will be under a hybrid plan. Those students will attend school every other day and have distance learning the other days. The average class size with the half-and-half plan would be 13 or 14 students per class. High school students also would be on a hybrid model, alternating days of in-person and online learning.

The Reno News & Review interviewed some Washoe County teachers before and after the forum was held. Excerpts from three of those teachers’ responses are below. Their real names aren’t used in the story to enable them to speak freely about the district’s plans and their reactions to reopening the schools.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Middle schools will alternate between days of in-person and on-line instruction.

Moriah, a middle school teacher in her mid-50s

Moriah said she has been going back and forth on whether she will return to the classroom or opt to teach online. Viewing the forum didn’t help her make a decision. “I watch the news and vacillate about whether to teach in-person or not,” she said. “I see the cases rising and think ‘why am I even considering (returning to the classroom). This is my life.”

Estimates based on previous virus cases and their age groupings indicate that if students return, a small percentage of students and teachers will get sick and some will die. “It’s the percentage of people who will be a human sacrifice,” Moriah said. “There’s no reason we should be on the front line of a pandemic.” School shootings have resulted in “Code Red” active shooter drills, she noted, and those are sad developments. But she said the decision to hold in-person classes is under the control of the district, and they know some children and teachers are bound to get sick with a potentially fatal illness.

“It bothers me that some people are fine with that,” Moriah said. She said she knows children won’t learn as well without face-to-face instruction, but whatever deficits they have can be made up. “There is no timeline on learning,” she said. “We should err on the side of caution. Is even one student, one teacher worth the sacrifice?” The virus has only been around for six months, and no one knows much about it or what the real consequences of the illness are as those who recover from the infection get older.  

“It’s hard to know what to think,” she said. “There’s so much information out there (nationally) and people on the wrong side of it are trying to cloud and confuse the public. We hear kids aren’t affected as much, but we know they can be asymptomatic and give it to other kids who then become asymptomatic and go home and give to to their families, including adults who may be a lot more at risk of horrible consequences. And then we have reports of children getting that strange disease related to COVID.”

Moriah noted lot of the protections being put in place “are for kids and that’s as it should be.” In middle schools, with half of the students going to school each day, she still would be with 150 children every two days. “I’ll be in their faces,” she said.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The rules for COVID-19 precautions are posted at all Washoe County schools.

In the spring, when the number of cases were far less than they are now, teachers were told not to collect the hard copies of the packets sent to children who were then shelteing in place at home. “We were told that under no circumstances should we take them in,” Moriah said. “Now, it’s OK for us to grade homework papers, handle everything. So what has changed between May and August? The number of cases has gone way up and it keeps getting worse.”

She said parents who want their children to go back because they miss socializing with other children are imaging something like the world before COVID-19. Now, she said, the students “won’t be sitting close to friends at lunch, they won’t be collaborating and working closely with classmates, they won’t be standing in the hallways talking.” She said some parents want to avoid online learning because they equate it with the system the district had last fall. Since then, distance learning programs have been refined. “Programs online in the fall won’t look like they did in May,” Moriah said. “Back then, (online programs) were a holding pattern, basically reinforcing information the kids already learned. This time, kids will be learning new material they are supposed to retain and will be tested on.”

 “Schools in San Diego and Los Angeles won’t be opening,” Moriah noted. “With cases rising in Nevada, I hope the school district will take a stand and also go to an online plan.  Saying we need to open schools and making plans to do that as we go along isn’t the way.”

“Teachers are for the most part in the profession because they love kids and they love the teaching. It’s really difficult position for teachers to be in. We want to be with our kids. We‘re being asked to weigh what we know is right for kids – which is face-to-face instruction in a normal situation — against what may compromise our own health. Some teachers are so tired of being locked up, they will throw caution to the wind and say ‘I just want to be with the kids.’ It depends on their perception of risk. Some, like me, are close to retirement and my risk is much higher.”

– Moriah, a middle school teacher in her mid-50s.
PHOTO/PEDRO WROCLAW/PIXABAY

Becky, an elementary school teacher in her early 30s

Becky is single and lives alone. “I’m looking forward to teaching (in person),” she said. “I have no risk factors I know of.” She said she understands that some people her age, without risk factors, have become extremely ill and some have died of complications of the virus. “But I’m willing to take that risk. I do worry about the kids, though, especially if they contract something and wind up bringing back to their families or infect other kids. It could wind up to be a disaster.”

She noted that the the American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” where they have a better chance of learning and maintaining their mental health. “I agree with that,” she said.

Becky noted that younger students don’t do well learning online. “It’s really not an option for the lower grades,” she said. “It’s a choice between those students losing a year of school, and all the negatives that result from that, both educational and individual effects on the kids, and returning to school. Right now I think coming back is the best option.”

However, Becky said she don’t have a lot of confidence in the district’s reopening plans. “I’m dreading having to deal with the new normal,” she said. Some children will take mask-wearing as joke and play around with the masks. Those who take precautions seriously may be bullied by other children, especially those whose parents doubt the dangers of the pandemic. “The students will have the masks on and off so much, and may have so much trouble maintaining distance and following the other new rules, I may spend most of my time just sorting that all out.”

She said the school year will be stressful for parents, students and teachers. “So is not being able to go to school,” she said.

“In the end, it’s my job and I love it. I think the pandemic is going to be with us for a while and we need to find a way to cope with it without staying shut down until God knows when. I’m not being cavalier about it, I understand it’s a crisis and there will be risks… If I’m wrong, if it’s a debacle, I don’t know, I’ll probably eat my words and feel guilty for the rest of my life for supporting the idea. But I believe it’s what we ought to be doing now.” 

— Becky, an elementary school teacher in her early 30s.
PHOTO/PEDRO WROCLAW/PIXABAY

Bob, a high school teacher in his mid-40s

Bob said he and his wife finally wrote a will, a task they had been avoiding for some time. In addition, the social studies teacher said he increased the amount of his life insurance. “That’s some school-year preparation that I haven’t had to do before,” he said.

If the schools open next month he will be there to welcome students back to classrooms. “I’m not crazy about it,” said Bob, who has high blood pressure and is an ex-smoker. “I think distance learning is certainly a good option (for high school students), but I understand there are some classes that really need that face-to-face, hands-on experience.”

The school district has been “dancing as fast as it can” to prepare for the reopening, he said, but no amount of preparation will make things run smoothly in the time of COVID-19. “I don’t want to be a  COVID cop, but I think that’s going to take up a lot of teachers’ time when we go back.”

Bob said that teachers who are more at risk for the disease aren’t getting a lot of attention in the planning process. He suspects that the district’s decision to reopen is driven by business interests who want parents to get back to work. “We see that kind of thinking from the White House on down,” he said. “The economy is important, yes, but not at the expense of a single child or teacher’s life… We see the decision all wrapped up in politics, which is bullshit. The decision should be based on the health of the children, that’s it.”

He said teachers are complaining that the school district has been unable to answer questions, but he understands that officials are overwhelmed by the situation. The “frequently asked questions” section  posted on the district’s COVID-19 plan web page often has the answers portions blank or relay answers that are vague and uninformative, he said.

The district has offered at-risk teachers a year’s leave without pay if they are unable or unwilling to teach their classes on-line, Bob said. Teachers who do opt to teach via distance learning through the district’s North Star Online School have asked whether they will be guaranteed to get their former  positions back when the pandemic is over. “The district has no answers for that,” he said. “They are working that out with the union… Everything is being made up as we go along and there’s a hundred things we haven’t even thought of yet. Things that are going to come up every day… I think it’s going to be chaos for awhile.”

Yet, he’s going back to school, he said.

“I’m a good soldier and I’ll do everything I can to keep everyone in that building safe, to keep myself safe,” Bob said. “Should we be doing this? I don’t know. The arguments on both sides make my head spin. Maybe it’s the right thing, maybe we’re being idiots. The virus is new and so are the decisions we have to make now. There’s really no owner’s manual, no blueprint. It’s all guesswork and all the district can do is follow the best advice of experts.”

— Bob, a high school teacher in his mid-40s.

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