Updated Jul 22, 2020; Posted Jul 22, 2020
As Alabama pushes to reopen schools in a couple of weeks, and coronavirus cases continue to rise, some teachers are asking whether it’s really safe to go back into the classroom right now.
“I’m really scared,” said high school chemistry teacher Jacqueline Edwards in Jefferson County. “Teachers are the guinea pigs. We are the experiment.”
While some teachers welcome reopening, posting online that they are excited to return for fall, others are worried for their health. And thousands have joined a Facebook group opposed to reopening.
“Virtual learning is the only low-risk form of learning right now,” said Tracey Davis, a speech language pathologist in Montgomery County Schools.
Davis last month started a private Facebook group, called Alabama Teachers Against COVID-19 as a way to find out whether teachers felt safe going back inside classrooms. The group now has nearly 5,400 members, many of whom post regularly about their concerns. Those posting in the group agree with Davis’ take on virtual learning.
“We are all child advocates,” Davis said, “and it is our responsibility to promote virtual learning because it can save lives.”
Davis, a 23-year veteran of public schools, said this is the time of year most teachers would be purchasing school supplies and decorating classrooms, and not doing those things is very difficult. “Don’t make me cry,” she said as we discussed that topic.
The vast majority of Alabama districts are reopening classrooms. Nearly all offer students two choices: traditional in-person school or virtual learning. Some schools are opening for in-person learning as early as the first week of August.
Others are opting for virtual only. One at a time, 13 districts from Selma to Mobile have announced plans to start online and reassess the situation in 9 weeks or so.
Davis said members of the group, who she now calls her “5,000 besties,” are reaching out to school, district, and state education officials as well as their local lawmakers to express their concerns.
The Facebook group is not connected with either the Alabama Education Association or the Alabama Federation of Teachers, though there are members of each organization that are a part of the group.
Lauren Smith, also a member of the Facebook group, teaches special education in Birmingham City schools and said she, too, feels like teachers’ safety isn’t being considered. “Teachers have played many roles,” she said, “but I don’t feel we need to be the petri dish, the experiment to see how this goes.”
“There are so many questions and so many what-ifs,” Smith said, “that it’s just going to be overkill trying to plan for all of the what-ifs when we could safely stay home and teach.”
Alabama’s coronavirus cases have continued to rise, and while Gov. Kay Ivey ordered masks be worn statewide, there’s no way to predict what the community spread might be when schools open in a couple of weeks.
“The CDC recommended the seven-day positivity rate be at 5%,” Smith said. Alabama Department of Public Health data shows over the past 14 days, Alabama’s positivity rate to be 14%.
Decisions to reopen schools safely should be made based on data, Smith said, not solely on the need for children to be at school so parents can go back to work.
“I completely understand that they want the economy to go back and all of that,” Smith added. “However, if we open schools, they’re just a breeding ground of germs. The virus is going to spread more rapidly, and the economy is going to go down longer and longer.”
To be clear, Edwards said, teachers would rather be going back to classrooms.
“We don’t want to just sit at home,” Edwards said. “We chose this profession because we want to educate students. We want to be there with them. We miss them.”
But Edwards said 11 her family members have already had COVID-19, and five—three cousins, an aunt and an uncle—died. Her Jefferson County school is scheduled to open Aug. 25.
Both Edwards and Davis said virtual teaching is more difficult for educators. “It’s 10 times harder than face-to-face,” Davis said, “but partly because we’re not used to doing it.”
Edwards, who is starting her 16th year as a teacher, said teachers have spent time over the summer learning how to teach school virtually to get ready for the new school year.
If a virus enters the school, she said, it won’t only be teachers who are impacted. “It’s going to put parents in harm’s way. It’s going to put the community in harm’s way.”
Another problem, Edwards said, is that many schools aren’t set up to meet safety guidelines promoted by experts. “Our hallways are so small,” she said, “and our windows don’t even open.” As a result, social distancing and getting fresh air circulating will be a problem.
Who teaches kids when teachers get sick?
One of the topics that really isn’t getting talked about, both teachers said, is what happens to classrooms full of students when teachers get sick.
“We already have a substitute teacher shortage,” Edwards said. “Who is going to teach the students when teachers are out?”
Teachers have sick days they can use, and some can tap into community sick leave banks, but they are also eligible for federal sick leave if they contract the coronavirus at work.
Federal guidelines also allow employees to take extended leave under certain circumstances, such as if they have a medical condition that makes them at higher risk for severe complications.
Some teachers will likely be able to choose to teach remotely. State Superintendent Eric Mackey said 30% of students in Alabama have chosen virtual school so far.
Students choosing virtual school will need teachers, and that means some teachers uncomfortable returning to in-person teaching could be able to teach remotely.
Alabama also has an overall teacher shortage, and one in four Alabama teachers is 50 years old or older, putting them at higher risk for complications of coronavirus.
While some worried the fear of returning to classrooms might bring on a rash of teacher retirements, officials with the Retirement Systems of Alabama told AL.com there have not seen an unusual number of teacher retirements compared with this time last year.
The Alabama State Department of Education issued guidance for school officials to consider when crafting school opening plans but stopped short of mandating actions like requiring masks for students. Those decisions are left up to local school officials.
Some school districts are tying their school opening plans to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s county dashboard, shown below, which currently shows a majority of counties are at a very high level of risk of spread, while most of the rest are considered high risk of spread.
Edwards said she is putting her faith in science and in God as she continues to prepare for the new school year.
“I don’t want it to affect my family anymore,” Edwards said referring to losing five family members to the virus and the lasting medical struggles recovering family members are dealing with. “I’m very nervous. I’m very anxious.”
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