Teaching Profession

What Schools Are (and Aren’t) Doing to Support Teachers Worried About Safety of In-Person Learning

By Elizabeth Heubeck — November 11, 2020 5 min read
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Like countless other teachers around the country, Maggie Nelson has faced some difficult decisions during the pandemic. She’s pregnant, with a preschool-aged daughter and at-risk parents who assist the family with child-care needs. She knows, based on CDC reports, that being pregnant puts her at increased risk for complications from COVID-19. All summer, she scanned news reports and watched the number of COVID-19 cases climb in Cincinnati, where she teaches pre-K at LEAP Academy. She also waited intently to see how the Cincinnati school district would decide to resume learning in the fall.

In mid-August, Nelson learned the 2020-21 year would start remotely, but teachers would be required to teach from the school building—meaning her daughter would be learning from home but she would not be there. Her school switched to hybrid learning mid-October, despite its location, in Hamilton County, nearing “purple” COVID-19 levels, which denotes “severe exposure and spread” according to the Ohio Public Health Advisory System. Both decisions shocked Nelson.

So too did the rejection of her request to teach remotely— accompanied by a doctor’s note recommending she telework due to her elevated risk of complications should she develop COVID-19. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), Nelson was granted 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds pay. It runs out Nov. 11. Finances aside, Nelson’s most disappointed not to be teaching. “I wanted to be with the kids, even if it was remote,” she said.

As growing numbers of schools begin to resume in-person learning, not all teachers are prepared to return to the classroom. Such was the case for Seth Patterson, a music teacher in Florida’s Miami-Dade County.

“Everything just seemed so rushed,” he said. Two weeks before the start of the fall semester, the school board in Miami-Dade voted unanimously to delay the return to in-person learning. A week later, says Patterson, the board reversed its decision after receiving a letter from Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran threatening to cut off funding to districts that didn’t return in person.

Patterson returned reluctantly to in-person classes at Whispering Pines Elementary, worried about bringing the virus home to his wife, who has asthma, and his two children. As a music teacher, he visits several classrooms, increasing the possibility of exposure to COVID-19. He’s been assigned lunch duty where, he says, kids aren’t wearing masks because they’re eating. “They’re unpredictable. When they line up, they bunch up,” he said.

Patterson does his best to stay safe. “I do bathe my arms in hand sanitizer, especially after lunch,” he said. He also tries to take advantage weekly of free COVID-19 testing, courtesy of Dade County, and during lunch duty he wears a face shield over his mask.

Hyper-local decision making, political views, and staffing constraints around school operations has led to big differences in how districts are addressing teachers’ requests for remote assignments. Some districts have said that if they granted all requests for remote teaching, they could not fully staff classrooms for students attending in-person.

As recently reported in the Palm Beach Post, more than a third of principals in Florida’s Palm Beach County school system declined to approve a single teacher request to work remotely this fall—regardless of eligibility due to health concerns. Other districts have been more generous.

Early Planning, Accommodations Ease Re-Entry

The Burlington School District in Burlington, Vt., credits early planning and creative partnerships with its ability to meet teachers’ needs as the district planned for all students to return to in-person learning on Sept. 8. Of an estimated 400 teachers, only two chose not to renew their contract due to pandemic-related reasons, according to Susan “Ze”Anderson-Brown, executive director of human resources for the district.

“We started really early in the process,” said Anderson-Brown. Conversations about reopening began in April and May. By July, the district had a plan to communicate to staff their options, she said. That plan involved interactive conversations with staff, particularly those at greatest health risk as identified by the CDC. “We said to them: ‘Tell us what you think is going to work.’ ” Anderson-Brown said.

Protections went beyond providing reasonable accommodations under the ADA, said Anderson-Brown. For instance, some classroom assignments were shuffled to provide teachers more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 with rooms that contain private entry and exit points.

Staff with serious health conditions considered by the CDC to be at higher risk of complications from COVID-19—including those being actively treated for cancer or having received organ transplants—were given priority for remote assignments, explained Anderson-Brown.

Of 49 teachers who requested remote work, 12 received approval. And, despite not granting all requests for remote assignments, the district did work to provide other supports to teachers, such as reasonable accommodations, more or different PPE, and approved paid leave. To date, the Burlington district’s re-entry process seems to be working. So far, it has reported no COVID-19 cases.

Denver Public Schools is another school system that reports making a concerted effort to address health risks by accommodating remote teaching assignments. “We are honoring and trying to accommodate people who are vulnerable or people who live with someone vulnerable,” said Kathryn Clymer, executive director of talent at Denver Public Schools. During the pandemic, the school system has granted about 95% of remote work assignment requests.

But as educators like Nelson, the Cincinnati pre-K teacher knows, not all requests are granted. The sidelined teacher, who says she felt “backed into a corner” when denied a request by her district to teach remotely, is spending the remainder of her pregnancy at home with her daughter and watching news reports that show COVID-19 case numbers and associated ICU admissions rising, with Hamilton County leading the way.

On Nov. 12, Nelson will start to use her sick leave that she was hoping to save for maternity leave.

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