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Teachers concerned for school safety

The start of this school year has been a topic fraught with debate about student needs, logistical hurdles and funding shortfalls. But, the voices and opinions of teachers seem to have been left out of the conversation when communities and schools need them most. 

According to a study conducted in South Korea, children 10 years and older can transmit COVID-19 as well as adults. This same study found that children under 10 years old were about half as likely as adults to transmit the disease, which is consistent with other studies. School age humans can and do transmit the disease. CDC guidelines suggest schools should not reopen for in person learning in areas with positive test rates above 5%. In North Carolina, at least for now, new cases are rising steadily. 

The federal government left decision making about schools to the states. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced July 14 that schools would open under Plan B, one that involves face coverings for all K-12 students, fewer children in the classroom, measures to ensure social distancing for everyone in the building, and other safety protocols. Under this plan, schools have the option to operate under Plan B or go fully remote. 

“There has been total abdication of leadership on this at the presidential level,” said John deVille, social studies teacher at Franklin High School. “And I’m disappointed that Roy Cooper has outsourced, crowd sourced the most important public health issue of the past century to local school boards who are not really qualified in the arena of public health, and who are under pressure from parents, who are even less qualified to make good, informed decisions. They want to make their kids happy, they want to provide childcare, they are looking for their kids to grow intellectually.” 

LeAnna Delph is a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators and a Buncombe County school teacher. She is concerned that schools simply don’t have the money or resources to implement safe social distancing in classrooms, common areas, on transportation and during meal times.

“It seems nearly impossible to find the funding to cover all that we would really need. We certainly have the money, but getting our state and federal governments to commit to investing it is another story. It also seems like we might be better off just focusing on remote learning for now,” said Delph. 

Not only can individual schools and school systems choose to be fully-remote under the plan the governor has laid out, individual students and families have the same option. 

“What’s going to happen is that you’re going to have teachers in school and kids in school, but even though both the teachers and the kids are in school, the kids will be receiving virtual instruction,” said deVille. 

He said he is worried about what his school board will do if not enough teachers are willing to come back into the classroom for in-person instruction. deVille said Macon County teachers have been surveyed about their preference for virtual or in-person instruction. He’s scared that a certain number of teachers will simply be required to come back into schools in order to fulfill a demand for live, classroom teaching. 

“To me that’s the bright line in the sand and I am prepared to fight as hard as I need to fight on behalf of my fellow teachers that if they’ve chosen to be virtual and they are being asked by the school system to return to the classroom, I will be there shoulder to shoulder with that teacher and I will fight as hard as I can for that teacher or staff member,” he said. 

At the university level, the UNC Board of Governors has been very clear, they want all 17 campuses to open fully and completely. According to Dr. Karl Campbell, professor of history at Appalachian State University, the decision-making process has been top-down. Faculty and staff have had very little input, and even university administrators have been told to follow directions from the Board of Governors. 

“It is important to see the decision to open the universities in a historical context. The University of North Carolina has traditionally been led by a bipartisan Board of Governors that included members of both political parties. That tradition ended during the last decade when the Republican Legislature took over control of the BOG and appointed only Republicans to its membership,” said Campbell. 

Without more funding for in-person, socially-distant, sanitary instruction teachers are focusing on best practices for online teaching. Educators just experienced a spring semester that involved the sudden and immediate transition from traditional to online schooling. Delph says they learned a lot in that time. Now, she says, is the time to expand on those tools. 

“It seems like we might be better off just focusing on remote learning for now. The educators I know have been preparing for the return to school, and most of them are focusing their energy on digitizing lessons. If we have everything ready to go online, we can still use those lessons in the face-to-face classroom, plus under Plan B many students will be online anyway. If we go fully remote, we will be ready,” said Delph. 

deVille also thinks that time and resources should be spent on understanding best practices and professional development for online learning. 

“We’ve done some professional development, I’ve taken a four-hour class and I’m teaching a four-hour class next Tuesday, but we should learn what are best practices for remote instruction, not just here’s Google classroom and how to use it,” he said. “Instead, in my opinion, across the country we are just hoping and praying for a return to normal.” 

Online learning has been making its way into schools for years now. There are those who, before any pandemic arrived, have been promoting its uses, and those warning of its shortfalls. Now, there seems to be little choice. 

“Ironically, conservatives who have been pushing online education as a way to make higher education less expensive are now insisting that students need to be educated in person on campus, while liberals who have been suspicious of too much online teaching are now arguing that the semester should be taught online to protect health and safety,” said Campbell. “Pandemics are like wars; they tend to serve as catalysts that speed up historical changes that are already underway. Certainly, our experiences from last semester will increase the use of technology on and off campus. But I also think that even the most ardent supporters of online teaching have had to face its limitations during the pandemic.”

Keeping students, teachers and staff safe while continuing to provide meaningful education in the midst of a pandemic is a novel and daunting task. Conversation and planning that includes all of those voices is paramount to finding the best solution. 

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