‘I don’t want to return’: many teachers are afraid and angry at the pressure to return

Many of the nation’s 3.5 million teachers were under siege this week due to pressure from the White House, pediatricians, and some parents to return to physical classrooms, even as the coronavirus breaks out across much of the country.

On Friday, the teachers union in Los Angeles, the second-largest district in the nation, demanded full-time remote learning when the academic year begins on August 18, and called President Trump’s push to reopen schools as part of of an “anti-danger”. scientific agenda that puts at risk the lives of our members, our students and our families. “

Teachers say crucial questions have not been answered about how schools will stay clean, keep students physically apart and prevent further spread of the virus. And they feel that their own lives and those of family members with whom they return home are at stake.

“I want to serve the students, but it’s hard to say they will sacrifice all the teachers, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers,” said Hannah Wysong, a teacher at Esperanza Community School in Tempe, Arizona. where virus cases are increasing.

School systems struggling to meet the financial and logistical challenges of safe reopening will need to carefully weigh teachers’ concerns. A wave of license applications, early retirements, or resignations fueled by health fears could jeopardize efforts to reach students who learn both in physical classrooms and online.

On social media, teachers across the country promoted the hashtag # 14daysnonewcases, with some pledging to refuse to enter classrooms until the coronavirus transmission rate in their counties drops to essentially zero.

Now educators are using some of the same organizing tactics they used in the pay and funding strikes in recent years to demand that schools remain closed, at least in the short term. It’s a stance that could potentially be divisive, with some district polls suggesting that more than half of parents want their children to return to the classroom.

Big districts like San Diego and smaller ones like Marietta, Georgia are moving forward with plans to open schools five days a week. Many other systems, such as those in New York City and Seattle, hope to offer several days a week of in-person classes.

In addition to the confusion, optional guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May establish ambitious safety precautions for schools. But the president, and many leaders of the local school system, have suggested that there is no need to strictly follow them, alarming teachers.

Many doctors, education experts, parents, and policymakers have argued that the social and academic costs of closing schools on children must be weighed against the risks of the virus itself.

The heated national debate on how and whether to bring students back to classrooms plays with all the concerns of the teaching profession. The comparison between teachers and other essential workers who currently work outside their homes irritates some educators. They note that they are paid far less than doctors (the median salary across the country for teachers is about $ 60,000 per year), but they are more educated than delivery men, restaurant workers, or most employees in child care centers, many of which are already back at work.

Now, as teachers listen to a national conversation about reopening schools that many believe raises the needs of the economy and parents who work above the concerns of the classroom workforce, many are fearful and angry. They note that Congress has so far devoted less than 1 percent of federal pandemic stimulus funds to public schools that extend to cover the costs of safe reopening.

The message for teachers, said Christina Setzer, a preschool educator in Sacramento, is: “Yes, you really are important and essential, and children and parents need you.” But sorry, we don’t have the money. “

Earlier in the closing, Trump acknowledged the health risks to teachers over the age of 60 and those with underlying conditions, and said at a White House event in May that “they shouldn’t be teaching the school for a while, and everyone they would understand that completely. “

But this week, when the administration launched a thorough campaign to pressure schools to reopen their doors in the fall, a crucial step in boosting the economy, it ignored the potential risks teachers face. More than a quarter of public school teachers are over 50 years old.

Teachers say many of their questions about how schools will function safely remain unanswered. They note that some classrooms have windows that don’t open reliably to promote air circulation, while school buildings may have older heating and cooling systems that lack the filtering characteristics that reduce virus transmission.

Although many districts are spending millions this summer to purchase masks, disinfectants, and additional cleaning personnel, many teachers say they have little faith that limited resources will be extended to meet the need.

They are also concerned with access to testing and contact tracing to confirm Covid-19 diagnoses and clarify who in a school might need to isolate themselves at home in case of a symptomatic student or staff member.

The CDC has discouraged regular testing at K-12 schools, but on Wednesday, Dr. Deborah L. Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said the Trump administration was exploring whether tests are being developed to Other vulnerable settings, such as nursing homes, could be used in schools.

In fact, educators have had to process a set of conflicting health and safety guidelines from Washington, states, and medical experts.

The CDC has recommended that when schools reopen, students stay six feet away “when possible,” while the American Academy of Pediatrics released guidelines suggesting three feet may be enough room if students wear masks. .

But after significant rejection from educator groups, who felt there was too little attention to the health risks of adults working in schools, the Academy joined the two national teacher unions on Friday to issue a statement that said: “Schools in areas with high levels of education.” the spread levels of the Covid-19 community should not be forced to reopen against the judgment of local experts. “

In Arizona, Ms. Wysong, 30, said she was willing to return to her Tempe classroom; She is not in a high risk category for complications from Covid-19 and its school cap classes in 15 students. But given the shortage of teachers and long-term substitutes in Arizona, which has some of the lowest educator salaries in the nation, he said he believed the general system could not be safely reopened with classes small enough.

Health and education experts supporting the reopening of schools sometimes questioned the need for strict physical distancing, noting in recent weeks emerging research suggesting that children are not only less likely to get Covid-19, but also less odds of passing it on to adults.

In interviews, many teachers said they were unaware or skeptical of such studies, arguing that much remains unknown about the virus, and that even if teachers do not contract coronavirus in large numbers of children, it could spread among adults working in a school building, or during commutes to and from schools via public transportation.

Education systems in Germany and Denmark have been reopened successfully, but generally only after local rates of virus transmission were controlled.

American schools currently have a variety of plans to welcome students to campus, ranging from regular five-day schedules with children using desk partitions to keep themselves apart, to hybrid approaches that seek to keep students physically apart. by having them attend school in person only a few days a week and spend the rest of the time learning online from home.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that the nation’s largest school system would reopen only part-time for students this fall, but teachers would likely return to classrooms five days a week.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said he doesn’t think schools can reopen if the city doesn’t receive additional federal funds this summer.

With many teachers reluctant to return to work, according to surveys, staffing will be a major challenge for districts across the country. New York estimates that approximately 1 in 5 of its teachers will receive a medical exemption to teach remotely this fall.

Matthew Landau, professor of history at Democracy Prep Charter High School in Harlem, hopes he will be one of them. He survived stage four cancer several years ago and said he is not comfortable returning to his classroom.

“I feel like there is no way to keep immunocompromised teachers safe,” he said.

Kevin Kearns, a high school English teacher at the High School of Fashion Industries in downtown Manhattan, has spent the past few weeks struggling with his own dilemma.

Mr. Kearns and his wife became parents in March and need child care for their young son. Their only option is for Mr. Kearns’ mother-in-law, who is over 70, to stay with them. Mr. Kearns is terrified of bringing the virus home.

“I don’t want to go back, I don’t think it’s safe to go back, but I don’t know if I necessarily have a choice,” he said.

Still, Mr. Kearns said he feels a duty to the mostly low-income black and Latino students he teaches.

“It puts me in a very difficult moral puzzle,” he said, “choosing between supporting my community, students, colleagues, and the safety of my own family.”

Erica L. Green contributed reporting.