Teachers worry about return to classroom amid surges in COVID-19 cases

Concerns could lead to clashes with leaders pushing for normalcy.

July 2, 2020, 5:01 AM

August Plock, a high school social studies teacher in Pflugerville, Texas, said he is slated to be back in the classroom on Aug. 13. But as new COVID-19 cases surge in the state, he said he's concerned that teachers are being sacrificed in order to reopen the economy.

President Donald Trump and some leaders are pushing for a return to normalcy. But a big piece of that equation -- reopening schools -- depends largely upon the willingness of teachers, many of whom say they have serious concerns about how the decision is being handled.

Plock worries that returning to the classroom could mean accidentally exposing his 86-year-old mother, who he regularly visits, to the virus.

"I would hate to think that I’ve been exposed to COVID and maybe not realized yet that I have, and then somehow bring that to her and to her home and expose her, so there are a lot of concerns related to that," said Plock, who also serves as the president of Pflugerville Educators Association of the Texas State Teachers Association.

Some teachers around the country say they are nervous about returning because of underlying health conditions or concerns about infecting family members. Others say they are frustrated by the lack of clear guidance from officials about what’s safe. And for some, it’s about child care if their own kids are only back at school for a handful of days during the week.

The result is an inevitable clash between leaders pushing aggressive reopening policies in states like Texas and Florida and teachers, some of whom say local officials need to think more about what they are asking teachers to do.

Three unions in Fairfax County, Virginia, representing education professionals, released a statement last week pushing back against the county school system’s "return to school" plan, arguing that the lack of detail doesn’t allow teachers and families to make an informed decision about returning to the classroom for in-person instruction.

"We want to make sure it’s safe for our students, the educators and their families when they return home," President of Fairfax County Federation of Teachers Tina Williams told ABC News.

PHOTO: A teacher collects supplies needed to continue remote teaching through the end of the school year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on May 14, 2020 in New York City.
A teacher collects supplies needed to continue remote teaching through the end of the school year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on May 14, 2020 in New York City.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In an interview with ABC News, Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said the unions need to be more deeply involved in the decisions surrounding the return to school, and said her organization feels that anyone who applies for virtual teaching should be granted that option. She said in a statement that they shouldn't return to in-person learning until a vaccine or a treatment is widely available.

"We feel that should be the driver on the side of how many positions are available and how many distance teachers they need and how many classes they can offer in person. What’s being done is the reverse … they’re asking how many parents intend to send their children to school and then staffing up the buildings according to that," Adams said.

David Walrod, a math and special education teacher at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax County and a member of the governor’s return to school work group, said although first and foremost he is looking forward to the day that school is back to normal, he is worried about teacher safety.

"I am concerned about people being put into situations where they have to decide between going in an unsafe work condition or losing their jobs," he said.

Apprehension around returning to unsafe classrooms extends even to parts of the country where the virus has been reined in. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, a union that represents nearly 200,000 public school educators in New York City, said there’s "real fear" among teachers in the city after several died during the pandemic.

"In the last two weeks, as we're watching what's going on in these other states, you can hear the fear and anxiety building again amongst our membership. They know what that is, they lived that. And they're in horror that people aren't taking it seriously," Mulgrew said.

School systems across the country are scrambling to make plans, but advocates say without the proper federal funding to help with safety measures, reopening for in-person learning in the fall just won’t happen. And Mulgrew said teachers won’t go back unless certain protocols are being followed.

Safety protocols require funding, and ABC News previously reported that states could face an estimated $615 billion budget shortfall over the next three years because of the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Cutbacks could severely impact public school funding.

"There was a pause in the economy. State revenues collapsed. What the heck are they going to do? They [schools] need this funding from the federal government," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a phone interview.

"So, if you know that you need funding for PPE, funding for cleaning, funding for transportation and funding to create the physical distancing, which means staggered schooling, I'm not even talking about the structural needs of kids or the social emotional needs of kids, but funding for school nurses, funding for guidance counselors. If none of that is coming to districts, what the heck are they supposed to do?" she said.

Mulgrew said if schools don’t get additional federal funding, which is outlined in a bill that has yet to pass the Senate, "there's no way for us to have the funding to do all this extra safety stuff."

"If we don't feel we can reopen safely and the mayor of New York thinks we can, we're going to have a street fight," Mulgrew said.

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