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‘Every teacher I know is flipping out:’ As pandemic back-to-school plans form, educators are wary

Around the region and across the country, educators are pushing back, voicing fears about their leaders’ ability to keep them safe if any in-person instruction happens, and in some cases, making contingency plans. “You could bring home death, and that’s just unacceptable to me,” one teacher said.

As schools roll out their return-to-class plans for the fall, teachers are pushing back, voicing fears for their safety and that of their of students. In this February file photo, a kindergarten teacher at Walton Farm Elementary in Lansdale instructs her class.
As schools roll out their return-to-class plans for the fall, teachers are pushing back, voicing fears for their safety and that of their of students. In this February file photo, a kindergarten teacher at Walton Farm Elementary in Lansdale instructs her class.Read moreCain Images

Sharahn Santana dreams of a September return to her classroom at Parkway Northwest High School.

But after absorbing the Philadelphia School District’s newly released reopening plan — which would bring students back for in-person instruction two days a week — the English teacher is terrified at the thought of classrooms without adequate room for social distancing, windows that don’t open fully, a single mask provided to last the year.

“Under safe conditions, if we get the virus under control, I’d go back with confidence,” Santana said. “But this is crazy. I don’t want the measure of my dedication and commitment to be how willing I am to risk my and my students’ lives.”

School leaders are crafting ways to reopen their buildings after a nearly six-month hiatus and amid a pandemic with no end in sight. But around the region and across the country, educators are pushing back, voicing fears about their leaders’ ability to keep them safe if any in-person instruction happens, and in some cases, making contingency plans that include taking leaves of absence or even retiring. In one national poll, one in five teachers said they might not return to work this fall.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, on Thursday called for Gov. Tom Wolf to direct public schools to prepare for fully online instruction.

“Unfortunately, an increasing number of Pennsylvania educators and parents are concerned that reopening schools for in-person instruction poses significant health risks that, in the current environment, may be impossible to completely prevent,” said PSEA president Rich Askey.

» READ MORE: Philly schools weigh reopening with a hybrid learning model, masks and cleanings every 4 hours

Among the questions Pennsauken High criminal justice teacher Rhonda Chilakos is asking: If someone in her building gets sick, what are the implications for everyone else? How will teachers enforce mask wearing among young children — or keep them separate in small classrooms?

Chilakos, the head of the South Jersey district’s teachers union, is still trying to get answers to those questions, while pressing the district to ensure it has an adequate supply of face masks and hand sanitizer.

”Teachers are very anxious. Very nervous,” she said.

Erin Corrigan, a kindergarten teacher in the Central Bucks School District, echoed that anxiety “because this is a virus that is still so unknown.”

“Teachers, by and large, they want to go back with the students to our schools,” Corrigan said. “We just all want to do it safely.”

That’s a sentiment shared by the majority of teachers across the country, an American Federation of Teachers survey found.

A day after Philadelphia released its plan Wednesday, a crowd-sourced document compiling questions from school staff contained over 200 queries for district leaders, from “Why let our kids be guinea pigs?” to “As a secretary, how am I supposed to feel safe in an office that has staff mailboxes, the teacher copier, and students who enter freely throughout the school day?”

» READ MORE: Should schools reopen amid the pandemic? It’s a debate rich in misinformation, angst, and rancor.

Philadelphia, like many districts, is giving families the option of choosing online-only learning for the school year. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. also said educators with documented medical conditions or vulnerable family members will be eligible for teaching spots in the new “digital academy.”

But those exemptions may not come easily. One teacher with family medical issues has already had her request to work remotely denied, according to documentation provided to The Inquirer.

The teacher, who works at an elementary school and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said she can’t imagine returning to her classroom on Sept. 2; she will likely take some kind of leave, despite her willingness to work.

“Every teacher I know is flipping out,” the teacher said. “We’re supposed to go back in a little more than a month, and no one knows what’s going to happen.”

» FAQ: Your coronavirus questions, answered.

Capping a career that spans two decades, a special-education teacher at another Philadelphia elementary school was planning on working the 2020-21 school year before her retirement in June. But COVID-19 and her district’s proposed plans to accommodate for it make lasting that long too risky, she said.

“I have health concerns; I’m in my 60s,” said the teacher, who now plans to retire before the end of 2020. She asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “I’m scared to death; we just don’t know if those children are contagious or not.”

» READ MORE: Schools can’t reopen safely without better COVID testing for kids, say these Philly pediatricians l Expert Opinion

The school system, which educates 125,000 students in 200-plus schools, has said that it will keep the health of its students and staff front and center.

“We have a fundamental responsibility to resume teaching and learning throughout the school year for all students, and we are fully committed to doing so with equity, safety, science, and the many needs of our stakeholders guiding our decision-making,” Hite said in a letter introducing the district’s plan.

A spokesperson for PSERS, the state teachers’ retirement system, said Pennsylvania teachers do not appear to be retiring in larger-than-usual numbers.

The push to reopen school buildings follows an abrupt transition to virtual instruction this spring that left many students disengaged and forced parents into the role of overseeing their children’s learning.

Yet, some teachers say online instruction remains the best option, and are urging schools to commit to the approach now in order to make this fall’s experience better.

Ami Patel Hopkins, who teaches at Science Leadership Academy Middle School in West Philadelphia, doesn’t believe there’s enough information about the coronavirus or the district’s reopening plan. She thinks the best route is to start the year fully virtual.

“I get that as a district we have to provide free and appropriate public education,” said Patel Hopkins. “Since everyone has experienced teaching online now, why can’t we start there? I can’t even wrap my head around how in-person teaching will work in my own classroom, let alone in the whole district.”

In cities including Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles, teachers unions have called for school buildings to remain closed at the start of the school year.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has expressed concerns about the district’s plan, saying national and local trends in coronavirus cases call “into question the feasibility and safety of a return to in-person learning.”

But it has so far stopped short of advocating for online-only instruction, as has the PSEA, which represents teachers in most Pennsylvania public schools.

The PSEA has encouraged local union leaders to engage with administrators, and has advocated for districts to adopt flexible attendance policies, said spokesperson Chris Lilienthal.

Most school districts “have wanted to hear the voices of teachers,” Lilienthal said, but ultimately, reopening plans are a local decision.

» READ MORE: Should kids return to school in September? | Pro/Con

Some teachers see reopening as not just a question of safety, but whether socially distanced schools will be conducive to learning.

”My classroom is so much about collaboration, conversation, being vulnerable,” said Nora Christman, who teaches physics at Lower Merion High School. “Those are things that are going to be virtually impossible when my students are spread out on a grid.” Lower Merion has not announced a plan, but administrators have said they are considering a hybrid reopening that would provide in-person instruction to students two days a week.

Christman says schools should remain closed, and districts should prepare now for virtual school to avoid problems that plagued online learning this spring.

”Right now, teachers are being told you should prepare for three or four possible realities,” she said. “That’s paralyzing.”

She acknowledged that virtual school “doesn’t work for everyone,” but believes it’s the best option for her students — who are older and are enrolled in an affluent school district that has few worries about students being able to access remote learning when in-person teaching is not feasible.

Danielle Arnold-Schwartz, a gifted support teacher in Lower Merion, worries about air-filtration issues and whether guidelines that implement social distancing to the extent feasible will be enough.

“Teachers have sadly had the conversations — at least within our minds, maybe with our spouses or partners — would we throw ourselves in front of a bullet for our students? To me, this is frighteningly similar,” Arnold-Schwartz said. “You could bring home death, and that’s just unacceptable to me.”