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Closing The Gap

'No solid answers': The scramble to reopen schools leaves teachers with concerns

Tara Cushing is sick and tired of hearing school and government officials promoting their back-to-school plans by talking about how kids don't get sick from coronavirus. 

"All the articles and the people in government all point to the fact that children don't transmit [Covid-19] as much, and children don't get sick. Children, children, children. But they seem to forget that there are adults that work with these children. And we are at risk," says Cushing, who teaches fifth grade in New York City.

Recent studies show children may not contract severe Covid-19 cases as easily as adults. But that doesn't mean that children, and the adults who care for them, never get sick with coronavirus. At least 16 children and adults tested positive for Covid-19 after exposure in an in-home daycare located near Syracuse, New York, last week. Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Health reported that 894 staff members and 441 children tested positive at child-care facilities earlier this month. 

Even lower levels of coronavirus spread could mean that the U.S. has to deal with an overwhelming number of infected classrooms all at the same time, says Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Additionally, schools generally share a lot of characteristics with other super spreading environments: They tend to have enclosed spaces with poor air circulation, a lot of people talking or singing and a lot of individuals in close proximity for a prolonged period of time.

New York City school teacher Tara Cushing is worried that even a blend of remote and partial in-classroom learning will still pose significant risks to school staff and kids.

And schools are filled with adults, too — and not just teachers, as Cushing emphatically points out. School buildings house everyone from cafeteria workers to office aids and security officers. "It's hurtful that we're not thought of [in school reopening plans]," Cushing says. "Schools don't just run with children. Schools are run by adults of all different ages with different health issues and different concerns." 

"We're all worried about our health," she says. "The virus is unpredictable, and we still have such limited information."

The lack of detailed planning and information is also a huge challenge to educators. What's going to happen when somebody — a student, teacher or school worker — tests positive? Will the whole school go into quarantine, or just that class or individual? "There are no solid answers," Cushing says. And while school and health officials are working diligently to come up with solutions, she worries it's not enough. 

'I don't know how it's going to happen'

Roughly 35 school districts nationwide that have approximately 2.7 million children enrolled — including four of the 10 largest — have announced they'll be using a blend of remote learning and part-time classroom instruction heading into the fall semester, according to Education Week, which has been tracking school reopening plans from 194 districts of the nation's 13,000 overall. Nearly 60 districts have opted to return full-time and 44 say they'll be fully remote. Just over 50 districts remain undecided as of mid-July. 

Yet countries that have successfully reopened schools waited until they had nearly suppressed the virus, and they have enacted plans that called for extensive changes to school operations, including shrinking class sizes, implementing different scheduling arrangements and making some physical adaptations to school facilities, Konyndyk says. "That's pretty difficult for schools. It takes resources; it takes time and planning." 

Teacher Julie Groce in front of her old school in Arizona. She and her family moved to Michigan in June.

That planning still seems to be in early stages, even at schools that are set to reopen full-time in the fall. "I get a little flustered when I think that this started in March, and it's halfway through summer, and I still feel we're in the dark with a lot of stuff," says Michigan-based teacher Julie Groce. 

It's not just teachers left in the dark. Nearly two-thirds of parents (65%) say they still do not know what their school's plans are for reopening this year, according to a recent survey of 5,000 parents conducted by parent-teacher communication platform ClassTag. Moreover, 74% of surveyed parents say they haven't received any instructions from their schools on how staff plan to tackle cleaning and safety issues associated with Covid-19.

"I feel like the schools have to open. We can't not have schools," says Groce. "But at the same time, really they're such a giant petri dish. I don't know how it's going to happen."

Groce, who moved from Arizona to Michigan this summer to be closer to family for her 2-year-old son, says her new school district is set to return to the classroom five days a week next month, with social distancing, masks and sanitizing guidelines put in place. 

She'll be working four days a week as part of a professional development and training program for other teachers, bouncing between classrooms at the district's two high schools and middle school. For her job, Groce will be interacting with both adults and kids when she's in the classroom observing. 

"I am very scared and very nervous about going back," Groce says, but adds that she tries to put it into perspective. "I think about all the health-care workers that have been going to work every single day and well, if they can do it and they're actually like treating patients with Covid-19, I can go into a school, surely," she says. 

'Kids can't keep their hands to themselves'

Jenny Shiplett, who teaches second grade in New Lexington, Ohio, says she's not too concerned about her own safety when her school district resumes in-person class in September. "I feel safe enough that I know we're going through a lot of different procedures to ensure that I'm just as safe at school as I would be going into the grocery store," she says, adding that she's already the person in her family designated to go grocery shopping and to the store for supplies, so getting out of the house doesn't seem that foreign. 

But the kids are a different story, Shiplett says. "I deal with little kids, so I'm more concerned that those kids can't keep their hands to themselves. They can't keep their hands out of their face," Shiplett says. "I'm concerned about them passing things back and forth and being in charge of that and knowing that what I do for them during the day is going to ensure their health and safety."

Jenny Shiplett, who teaches second grade in Ohio, says her school district is planning to return to the classroom full-time this fall.

Plus, illnesses spread so quickly in schools, Groce says, adding that during her last year in the classroom in Arizona, she was constantly sanitizing desks, door handles, everything, as well as having the kids wash their hands. "I was really diligent that year, and I was really proud of myself. But I remember within two days, half my class was wiped out from a stomach bug. So I can only imagine how fast this virus is going to spread."

Teachers like Cushing, who has twin sons entering fourth grade, are also worried about sending their own children back to school.

"I know the chances are slim that something will happen to them. But I don't want them to be in that slim category. I don't want anybody to be in that category," she says. "I don't think I'm as much afraid of death from the virus. I'm more afraid of these long-term illnesses people are having," she says, adding that she had Lyme disease for 10 years and understands what it's like to have long-term health issues. "As a parent, if I send my child into school and they end up sick like that, I don't think I could ever forgive myself."

"It's not that we don't want to go back to work. We desperately want to go back to work," Cushing says. "We love your children. That's why we do what we do. It breaks our heart to not be with them, but it will break our hearts more if we lose one to this virus, if we lose a colleague to this virus. That's something you can't repair."

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