School & District Management

As Schools Plan for Reopening, Worried Teachers Say They Have More Questions Than Answers

By Madeline Will — June 30, 2020 7 min read
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Across the country, schools are planning a return to at least some in-person instruction in the fall—but teachers say they still have many unanswered questions about how it will all work.

If a teacher is exposed to someone with COVID-19, will they have to use their sick days to self-quarantine for two weeks? What extra responsibilities will teachers be tasked with to ensure the safety and cleanliness of the classroom? What accommodations will be made for teachers who are high-risk, or who live with a high-risk person? Will they be guaranteed their jobs if they opt to teach remotely? What options will teachers have if they can’t wear a mask for medical reasons?

Many of these details have not been hammered out yet, despite the initial guidance released by many states. And while teachers say they miss their students and the normalcy of school, many are apprehensive—and scared—about returning to in-person instruction amid so much uncertainty. Some teachers’ unions are pushing back against opening school buildings at all until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, while others say they think modified in-person instruction can return in the fall—but they need more details on how it will work.

“What does classroom life look like post-quarantine? ... Are we living in a delusion that we’re going back to a classroom that’s a normal room?” said Abigail Lund, a 5th grade math and science teacher in Cincinnati. “We have six weeks or seven weeks [left of summer]. Are these questions really going to be answered when we walk into the building?”

She’s waiting for Ohio and her school district to provide some clarity. But for many teachers, the initial guidance from their states and districts has prompted more questions than answers.

“When the [New Jersey] guidance came out, almost immediately there was a lot of questions,” said Sarah Mulhern Gross, a high school English teacher in the Monmouth County Vocational school district. “It was pretty obvious to a lot of people that not all situations were taken into account when making the guidance.”

She started compiling questions from hundreds of teachers from across the state who teach various subject areas and grade levels. The resulting document now has more than 300 questions on typical school routines, quarantine procedures, extracurriculars, and health and safety measures.

For example:

  • “How can teachers provide non-verbal cues like a desk tap if maintaining social distance?
  • “Will students/families have to tell school personnel if they/members of their household have traveled to COVID hotspots?”
  • “How will staff be evaluated on the many standards that require collaboration (professionally and in the classroom)?”
  • “If a teacher dies from COVID contracted while at school, does the state still pay their surviving spouse the [state-funded] life insurance payout?”

Gross has sent the document to the New Jersey Education Association, and she has heard that the governor’s office is aware of it. She also heard from school board members and administrators who have looked at it. One told her that he hadn’t thought of half of these questions.

“Obviously what we did in the spring was crisis schooling, we flipped in a day,” Gross said. "[Now], I know a lot of teachers wanted more than guidance—they wanted a decision.”

Difficult Choices

In Fairfax, Va., administrators asked parents to choose an enrollment option—entirely remote instruction or a hybrid approach. In the first option, students would receive “virtual, interactive instruction” four days a week. In the second option, students would attend schools in person for at least two days and be “engaged in independent study and work” on the other days. One day a week would be set aside for teacher planning and student intervention in both scenarios.

Teachers are also being surveyed about what option they’d prefer. But the three teachers’ unions that represent the district—one of the largest in the country—have asked their members to choose the entirely remote option, at least until administrators can present a more detailed plan for how they will keep students and staff safe.

“It doesn’t seem like they’re going to be able to protect everyone because of how this disease spreads and how schools function,” said Kimberly Adams, the president of the Fairfax Education Association. She doesn’t think it’ll be safe to reopen schools until there’s a vaccine.

“Logistically, we don’t know a lot of the answers,” she said. “To say you’re going to sign a contract saying you’ll do this is very high risk.”

The teachers’ associations have been told that accommodations will be made for teachers who don’t want to go back to school based on a tiered system of necessity, Adams said. The first tier will be for teachers who are personally at high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. The second tier will be for teachers who live with someone who is high-risk. The next tier will be for teachers who have child-care challenges or another reason they can’t go back to school, and the last tier will be for teachers who simply don’t feel comfortable going back without an underlying reason. The district will accommodate as many teachers as they can, starting with the first tier and working their way down, Adams said.

But teachers are worried about disclosing their medical conditions, Adams said, and childcare will be a major challenge. If students are only in school two days a week, but teachers are expected to teach for four days and spend the fifth day planning, it’s unclear where teachers’ children will go the three days they’re not in class. Adams said the associations are pushing the school system to establish a child-care center for teachers’ kids.

Waiting for a Vaccine?

An EdWeek Research Center survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders administered in June found that 62 percent of respondents are “somewhat” or “very” concerned about the health implications of resuming in-person instruction in the fall. That’s down from 67 percent when the survey was administered at the end of May.

In May, nearly a quarter of respondents said they would leave their job if schools reopened without social distancing measures. Eleven percent said they would quit if schools reopened before widespread coronavirus testing is available. And 7 percent said they would leave their job if schools reopen before a coronavirus vaccine is available.

Richard Franklin, the president of the Birmingham, Ala., chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said he thinks it will be irresponsible to open school back up before there’s a vaccine. Local school districts, he said, don’t have the resources to put in place the proper safety precautions that were recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Alabama education department has issued guidance for districts recommending that schools provide options for both in-person and remote learning. The state recommends spacing desks at least six feet apart, facing in one direction, but leaves the specifics up to districts.

“When was the last time people who came up with this plan went into a classroom?” Franklin said, citing concerns about the feasibility of social distancing. “I really think we’re putting people’s lives in jeopardy when we don’t have to. I think we’re trying to make a situation that’s not normal be normal.”

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics has released guidance “strongly advocat[ing]” for students to be physically present at school, saying that schools are fundamental to providing academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, nutrition, physical activity, and mental health supports.

And other teachers’ union officials elsewhere say they would rather work to come up with a plan to safely bring teachers and students back to school.

“We don’t think it’s safe to leave kids alone or outside of school for what would eventually be over a year now if we wait until a vaccination is out there,” said Jeff Leake, the president of the Connecticut Education Association, which is in one of two states that have reported a decline in new coronavirus cases compared to last week. “We know we’ve got to get back, we know kids need us—how are we going to do that safely?”

Right now, he said, teachers are waiting for more clarity on how they will be protected come fall. Until then, many educators say they’re worried about their own health and that of their families.

“There’s a sentiment that teachers should be ready to jump in and give it all up for our families and students like we always do, but [this time] we have our own families so it’s a little different,” said Adams, the Fairfax teachers’ association president. "[People say] health care workers did it, why can’t teachers? We didn’t sign up to be health care workers.”

Image via Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.