Whether Danielle Ross will teach math and science to her fifth- and sixth-graders in person or online — or a mix of both — will be decided in the next couple of weeks. She’s been told she’ll know by the end of July.
As much as she wants to see her students, she would prefer teaching virtually when school starts. When she thinks about schools reopening in northwest Philadelphia, where she teaches, she’s already stressed.
“I shudder to even think about it,” Ross said.
She knows firsthand that online learning is not ideal. She’s a mother of three, and if she goes back to work, her children will have to go back to school themselves. During the summer, she has been waking up between 4:30 and 6 a.m., to prepare for her day, getting administrative tasks done, teaching special education students online and making sure her own children get attention.
In the background, she’s always thinking about how she’s going to pay for masks and sanitizer if she has to go back into the classroom and the district doesn’t provide them. She’s worried about her students, most of whom are from black and Latino communities hit hard by the pandemic already. Many of her students are being raised by their grandparents. Without these caregivers, many of them would be in foster care.
“We all want to go back. Some of us work with the most vulnerable children in the country, and there would be lasting effects if these kids lost a grandparent or teacher to the virus,” Ross said.
She’s hoping that policymakers are taking these kids into account as they make the decision. If she could speak to officials, she’d say, “Don’t just think about your children and where they go to school. Think about families that have already been disproportionately affected and are already struggling. Look at it from their position.”
While she waits, she’s finishing up her living will and praying. Teachers she knows have lost family members to the coronavirus, and one staff member in her region has died.
Like the other 3.2 million public school teachers in the U.S., Ross doesn’t know what she’ll face if school goes back to in-person instruction. As the country continues to battle a record number of coronavirus infections, with some regions hitting unseen records, teachers say they’re left out of the conversation about whether to reopen schools or not.
“Decisions seem to be made without many of our educators’ voices being heard,” Tiffany Roland, a teacher in Norman, Okla., wrote in an email. “I’ve not heard about plans for high-risk staff members, so it feels as if we are being left out in the cold.”
“It’s hugely concerning for me that we closed schools back in March and the numbers then were so much lower, yet you look at the numbers today and we are still going into the year as if nothing has happened,” Roland wrote.
Her sentiments were echoed in over 25 responses from teachers for this story.
The lack of clear, uniform guidance across levels of government is also a stressor.
In California, which is battling a new surge in cases, the two biggest school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego counties — have announced they will start the school year remotely. In neighboring Orange County, the Board of Education is considering opening schools with no new virus protocols, highlighting the disparity in regional responses to education during the pandemic.
“The more details there are, the more calm teachers can be,” said Amy London, a special-education teacher at Columbus North High School in Indiana.
London’s district is opening school in person on Aug. 6, with an online option for students. She said she felt that her district has heard and listened to teachers and their concerns, yet for the first time in 21 years of teaching, she’s scared to go back to work.
Her district is well-resourced and will provide students with two cloth masks each; educators will get one. But London has students with special needs and she’ll have to adjust her teaching style.
For example, some of her students need help going to the bathroom, and she’ll have to rely more on her school nurse to assist. Not all of her students will understand social distancing; some may not adjust well to their routines being disrupted, whether it’s a packaged lunch or the difference in teaching style.
In Colorado, Corrie Eickman, a teacher in Commerce City near Denver, said her concerns about going back to school are “endless.”
In a letter to Gov. Jared Polis (D) regarding her concerns about reopening, Eickman wrote, “Last year, my school had mushrooms growing through the carpet in one of our special education classrooms. That should give you some kind of idea about the age, maintenance, and ventilation in my school.”
Her school educates approximately 800 sixth to eighth graders. Last year, two of her classes had 40 kids each. “There is absolutely no way I could social distance well enough in my classroom with more than 10 students. Our school has zero extra classrooms, but would need four times as many classrooms as we have.”
Rebecca Gamboa, a fifth-grade teacher in a suburb of Chicago, is also is waiting to hear the plan for reopening.
Gamboa worries that many may not realize the nuances involved in learning that teachers know intimately. “I worry about student and staff mental health. Is it healthier, mentally, for a second grader to be in school, where they are told ‘Sit here for five hours. No group projects. No playing with friends. Use the restroom on a schedule?’” she wrote in an email.
“I want nothing more than to be in class with my students. But I also know that being in a classroom with the students is going to be unlike anything that I ever have experienced in my 20-plus years teaching,” Gamboa wrote. “The decisions being made are literally life and death.”
In Indiana, London knows this all too well. She has diabetes, and she knows she could get gravely ill if she contracts the coronavirus. She’s spent some time this summer thinking about what she would say to her husband and two children if she ended up in the hospital and needed to go on a ventilator.