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Educators Speak Out on Creating Safe, In-Person Schools

Some schools are in-person, others remain virtual, but all educators agree - safety is the top priority.
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Published: 02/11/2021

Key Takeaways

  1. Without federal guidance or funding, safety measures aren't carried out consistently or efficiently and educators are risking their lives.
  2. Educators urge lawmakers to prioritize vaccines for school employees as a crucial safety measure.
  3. Safer, in-person instruction can happen when we work together with families, unions, administrations, districts and policymakers.

Millard Public Schools have been open in Omaha, Nebraska, since August and social studies teacher Tim Royers is relieved they now have weekly testing, but the resources to conduct the tests came from an anonymous donor the union helped secure. Royers himself developed the plan for the testing, found the company, and arranged for the bid to be sent to the district. 

“I’m grateful, but tests and vaccines should be readily available to all, not just to some because they live in a district lucky enough to have an anonymous benefactor,” Royers says. 

Using the grant, the district partnered with the Millard Education Association and the local health department to administer free, rapid one-hour saliva testing on a weekly basis, giving educators “peace of mind” by providing a good picture of conditions in schools, says Royers, who is president of the Millard Education Association 

“This really helps give us a whole lot more data,” he says. 

Contract tracing is also crucial in helping provide people with information to prevent spread, but Royers said that overwhelmed school employees are conducting it without the help of more contract tracers hired by the district. There were assigned four contract tracers for a district of 24,000 students and 3,000 staff, with the rest of the burden falling to school nurses and principals whose workload has skyrocketed out of control.  

“They simply cannot step in to do this on top of everything else,” he says. 

Rapid tests and vaccines are “game changers” in the battle against COVID-19, and along with PPE, social distancing, proper ventilation, hand washing and contact tracing, they help safer in-person learning environments move closer to becoming a reality. 

But there is still no plan to vaccinate the educators in Millard Public Schools. 

“It is critical to prioritize educators for vaccination and to improve access and information about the vaccines,” Royers says. “Too many educators haven’t had the chance to be vaccinated yet and work in schools that don’t have proper mitigation strategies. If we do, it is because we've developed the strategies ourselves with little guidance.” 

According to Royers, educators need federal funding as well as federal guidance to make sure funds are allocated to best meet the safety needs. 

‘We Miss Our Students’ 

Back east, Pam Gaddy is a social studies teacher in Baltimore County, Maryland. Along with her two school-aged children, Gaddy is preparing for hybrid instruction to begin next month. As the date draws near, there are a lot of mixed emotions swirling around their household – emotions mirrored by educators and their families in many parts of the country. 

Her teenagers want to return to school, and she wants to honor their choices, but she’s concerned about safety, especially because she and her husband care for their elderly parents. At the same time, she's trying to reconcile the strong desire she also has to return to in-person instruction

“We miss our students. I cannot express how much I miss mine,” Gaddy says. “Whether I am in with them every other day or a few days a month, it’s not the same as seeing them each day, but there are real consequences to reopening unsafely – truly life or death consequences – and we cannot ignore clear safety guidance and endanger students and educators and their families.” 

 She encourages policy makers to listen to everyone in the debate about in-person instruction. For example, she wants to know who is most vocal in pushing for schools to open. 

“Is it mostly affluent white parents, or are there parents of color demanding that too?” she asks. 

Educators Talk About Safely Reopening Schools

But most importantly, Gaddy urges policymakers to listen to the voices of educators who know their schools, their students, and their classrooms the best, and who are most impacted by the decisions. It impacts not only their livelihoods but their very lives. 

Currently the plan is to reopen schools before all school employees have been vaccinated. Some educators have received the vaccine, but many more have not and the district doesn’t have an accurate count of either population. The vaccination rollout in Maryland has been rocky and supplies are running short. 

“The message I would like to get out to policy makers is this -- it is critical to prioritize educators for vaccination and to improve access and information about the vaccines,” Gaddy says. “Too many educators haven’t had the chance to be vaccinated yet.” 

 She emphasizes that vaccines are by no means a panacea, but they are a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to safely returning to in-person learning and keeping our students and staff in schools. 

 “We often hear others talk about how school buildings can reopen because COVID affects children mildly, or that there are not a lot of cases of community spread within schools, but seldom is that statement followed by how many schools can’t take the proper mitigation precautions, because they don’t have access to funds for disinfection, or training on deep cleaning, or PPE or even the space to physically distance 38 fifth graders,” Gaddy says. “Practically, it all sounds good, but we live in reality, where our classrooms were overcrowded before this and we aren’t seeing an influx of teachers or support professionals to allow us to split classrooms in half—and that certainly isn’t the case in disadvantaged areas, rural areas or in schools that are predominantly students of color.”                 

 She adds that it is " unacceptable, callous, and cruel beyond measure for schools to ignore clear safety guidance and put educators and students in harm’s way.”  

Collaboration is Critical  

On Kodiak Island up in Alaska, Michelle Pennington, a special education paraeducator, is working with her students in person. In her community, there is a large, low-income population and many students struggle with the challenges of poverty, like hunger. Her students in particular need face-to-face instruction because of their special needs. 

But she still has not been vaccinated and she’s terrified that she could bring the virus home to her husband, who has two cancer diagnoses. Even her dog’s veterinarian technician has been vaccinated, yet she waits. 

“We’ve had great collaboration with our district and administration and strong community support,” she says. “As president of the Kodiak Island Educational Support Association, we worked with the district to fill some health and safety needs, like N95 masks and hazmat suits for the night custodians doing nighttime deep cleaning.” 

Teachers, education support professionals, districts and policymakers need to continue working together to do more, like prioritizing vaccines, rapid tests and contact tracing. 

“We need to collaborate with families and communities to create safe in-person learning environments for students and educators,” she says. 

 Pennington says she’s fully aware of the many factors that go into the decision to open for in-person instruction, and so much of it depends on what individual school districts and in some cases individual schools are able to do to protect students and their educators. Some are able to account for proper disinfection and distancing, provide PPE and a host of other mitigation measures—but too many are not.  

“School staff are afraid of COVID-19, for themselves, for their families, and for their students, and it is reasonable for us to be afraid,” Pennington says. “Overcoming that fear requires a combination of good public health responses, of course, but also inclusion of staff, unions, parents, and the broader communities in the COVID-19 response and being transparent about cases and strategies. Overcoming that fear also requires recognizing and responding to the different needs of higher-risk students and staff, that a one-size-fits-all response to the pandemic won’t work in schools.” 

 In Alaska and the lower 48, Pennington says educators have been adapting, innovating, and showing up for students every single day of this global pandemic. 

 “We will continue to do that,” she says.  “We want to be part of the solution.” 

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NEA provides guidance and resources for returning to classrooms safely, and with an emphasis on racial and social justice.
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