Concerns over student safety loom as some schools prepare to reopen amid COVID-19

Florida is one of a handful of states that have mandated in-person learning in schools this fall. Parents, educators and students talk about balancing the risks as the state fights high transmission.
9:36 | 07/30/20

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Transcript for Concerns over student safety loom as some schools prepare to reopen amid COVID-19
educational rewards the. Remember to keep moving as one target at a time. Eyes are facing forward. Meagan Carrigan is not letting the pandemic keep her out of the classroom. Being able to see the growth the students make when they first start with us to the end of the year is just priceless. Kerrigan knows the risks she's taking each time she comes to work. She's a cancer survivor and diabetic. In the back of your mind, to you feel like you're taking a risk every time you walk into the classroom? Honestly, yes. We take risks in everything we do each day, but given the circumstances that I've already gone through, I feel like I need to do the best that I can to live my life to the fullest. And as long as I know that I am taking all the precautions that I need to take then I'm going to be okay. N. Kerrigan has been teaching for 15 years at Bennett elementary school near Jacksonville, Florida. What are kids missing out on if they're staying at home during the pandemic? It's different school to school. But there are those kids who come to school as their safe place. We provide meals for them. Not only the academics which are extremely important, but it is the social support that they get here. The school, like the rest of our society, has been altered by covid-19. Hand sanitizer, more hand washing, seating charts, attempting to space out desks. Some students in masks, others not. Rules vary from district to district. Face coverings here are not mandatory for kindergarteners. I have been around kindergarteners and little kids and they can't keep their hands off each other, how are you planning to keep them apart? No system is perfect, but to the best of our ability we have put in different procedures to keep that from happening. Will they sometimes bump into each other? Absolutely. Will we have to give them friendly reminders to get them to social distance, absolutely. This is what the future of schools could look like across America, but how soon kids and teachers return to the classroom and whether they should at all during the midst of the pandemic is turning schools into the next battle ground. No dead children! So far, five states have ordered schools to start in-person classes this fall. A few school districts like those in San Diego and Philadelphia are remaining virtual only until November at the earliest. Earlier this month, the president tweeted threatening to cut funding if schools don't reopen by fall. Every district should be actively making preparations to open. There's not a national superintendent, nor should there be. Therefore, there's not a national plan for reopening. Governors determined to get their states back to normal. If fast food and Walmart and Home Depot, I do all that, I'm not looking down on it. If all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely Tonight we go inside the debate and inside the classroom, talking to parents, students and teachers grappling with what's We've asked teachers to take bullets for our children. Now we're asking them to potentially contract a deadly I want to go back to school, even though we're in the middle of a pandemic, because it is my senior year. I absolutely have no choice but to send them to school. Because I work 45 hours a week. Don't play politics with our kids. That angst raging across Florida, where schools have been ordered to open up in August for in-person learning, even though today Florida recorded its deadliest day during the pandemic. Pensacola parents Keith and Marsha reeves don't think school should be open. I would have been okay with either remote learning or virtual learning. That is the safest alternative for all involved. They're parents to 17-year-old akeilah. Over here we have my desk where I have my laptop and my books and things of that for school. They've struggled over whether to send their daughter back to class. Well, the options for akeilah to learn are of course the traditional route. And of course virtual. As a family, we talked about it. We discussed the pros, the cons. And we ultimately allowed akeilah to make that decision for her. But akeilah, a rising senior, says remote learning held her back. I realized that I'm not the type of person who can sit in front of a computer screen for hours on end and just learn through that osmosis style of learning. It's not for me. She's decided to return to the classroom. I've been looking forward to my senior year all my life it feels like. I am trying to get into college, so I am focussing on bettering my A.C.T. Scores and S.A.T. Scores. I personally think Spellman being an all-girls school is amazing. Her dream, Spellman. I want to study political science. Condoleezza rice is someone I admire and look up to. We still have lots and lots of concerns about it. We trust akeilah to be able to follow social distancing and wearing a mask and all those things. But Samantha Taylor won't be sending her kids back to school. I'm going to turn this into a classroom. So you'll see desks. We want to make sure that this room is where they do school and they don't do school anywhere else. The taylors live in a suburb of Orlando. Her high school aged son who has special needs will be returning to a private program. I personally feel like it's a privilege to be able to keep them home, and we're in the middle of a global pandemic. My goal for them is happiness and safety and mental health and security and stability. The academics will come, but it is not my first priority. She hopes her decision will create more space in school for children who can't stay home. If I can do my part by keeping my kids here, it's less bodies in the building for the teachers and families who have to send their kids. For millions of teachers, as opening day draws closer, so do the fears. I'm going to take my blood pressure medicine. Returning to the classroom could cost him his life. High blood pressure and covid puts me at a higher risk, especially at the school where exposure is more. His 63-year-old sister, a music teacher, has been battling covid-19 for 18 days on a ventilator. He says he has not been given the option to teach virtually. I guess we'll make a decision whether I'd have to tender a resignation or find something else for me, but I'm pretty sure that would mean I'd have to tender a resume. The nation's largest teachers union is authorizing its members to strike if their schools don't reopen safely. And just last week, Florida's teacher's union filed a lawsuit against state officials, calling the in-person reopening mandates reckless. I want schools to reopen, but we need to be realistic about in what fashion is the safest way for schools to reopen? Carol cleaver is vice president of the local teachers union in Pensacola. She's on the state's task force helping plan a safe reopening for schools. I presented that plan to the governor and commissioner of education early in June. Advice she says state leaders ignored. Frustrated, cleaver organized a drive-by parade at her school to demand at the very least a mask mandates. All types of people come out, teachers, bus drivers were there. We're concerned about the rising numbers and wanted to call attention to maybe an effort to relook at our plan. Her district relented, delaying the reopening day to August 24, adding that students and staff are expected to wear a mask when they can't socially distance. I certainly have elderly people in my family that I'm concerned about. I'm really terrified that I might bring something home to them. I'm terrified that one of my students might bring something back to their household. Let's look up on the board. Back in her kindergarten classroom, Megan Kerrigan remains calm amidst the turmoil. What can I do for you, sir? I've seen teachers protesting in different parts of the country, saying that reopening is too soon, too much too soon. What would you say to them? I would respectfully say to you, each their own, to be honest. You as a teacher, as a person, as a parent, you need to do what's best for you and your family. And if you do not feel it's a place you need to be at that point, you need to stand true to what you feel. For me, personally, being in the classroom is where I want to be and where I feel safe going.

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