As summer comes to a close and the beginning of the fall semester approaches, the final preparations for a reinvented learning experience are unfolding. RRISD recently launched its Reimagining Education plan, providing an overview of how the district will carry out both in-person and virtual learning while the COVID-19 crisis continues to escalate.
In spite of the district’s efforts to make in-person learning safe, one of the primary concerns among several parties is how the safety of students and staff will be managed effectively during in-person learning. Local health authorities are worried that the proper safety measures may not be implemented, and that students and staff will have to pay the price.
“For medical professionals, health staff and parents, even one preventable child death is too many,” Austin Public Health Public Information Officers said. “Regardless of the rate of child mortality, this assertion fails to take into consideration the thousands of adults who work in these institutions that may have pre-existing medical conditions and who are of ages that are more likely to suffer severe complications from COVID-19. Furthermore, studies have indicated that even those who recover from the virus can have debilitating symptoms that last for weeks or months.”
The problems mentioned above are not specific to RRISD. Teachers all over the state and country are protesting for their safety, something which they feel has been undervalued compared to the demands of parents and community members. Recently, the Texas for Safe School Opening and Texas Teacher Safety Initiative held a rally at the Capitol building, protesting Governor Abbott and the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) plan for the fall semester.
“We are giving names and faces to the word teacher. We are people with needs and concerns. We are desperate to return to school, but it must be safe for our children, our families, our educators, and all school personnel in Texas,” the protest event page said.
In a survey conducted by Westwood Student Press through email, teachers and staff members answered several questions about their opinions regarding the upcoming fall semester. Many staff members feel that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is too high for in-person learning to recommence. They think that COVID-19 numbers should decline before in-person learning is available. Additionally, several teachers believe that just like students are able to choose if they want to come to campus or not, teachers should be given similar options.
“I wish we had been given the option to completely work from home,” an anonymous teacher said. “I feel like we will be in an experiment with potential deadly consequences. It’s often said we are vital when it comes to students’ success, but we are being sent to the battlefront with bare minimum safety guards in place. EVERYTHING must be done to ensure we are protected and safe! We can’t be worrying about our safety and teach at the same time when it’s well documented that not everyone is taking the pandemic serious[ly], and some even believe it is a hoax. ”
Multiple staff members are worried about contracting the virus and bringing it back home to their families. They are afraid they will be asymptomatic, and their vulnerable family members will pay the price.
“I am responsible for assisting my 88.5-year-old mother who lives alone on many day to day tasks such as groceries and housekeeping,” an anonymous teacher said. “I do not want to become [a] non-symptomatic COVID-19 positive and expose my mother to the virus. She would probably become an instant fatality.”
Another concern among staff is the fact that there is no way to ensure that all students are following all protocols in place. They fear that students may flaunt safety measures, which might put the entire school at risk.
“Teachers are at greater risk for exposure than other professions because they work in close proximity to students for 8+ hours a day with inadequate ventilation and cannot afford to quarantine each time a student tests positive. No matter how many times we remind students, they will still remove their masks, share food and drinks, forget to sanitize, etc,” an anonymous teacher said.
The Reimagining Education has addressed some of these specific concerns. Students who remove their masks will be asked several times to wear it again, but if they continue to refuse, the school will ask parents to pick up their student. School ventilation systems will be upgraded, and the district has partnered with GermBlast, a company that specializes in eradicating the spread of bacterial and viral infections. Even so, the district hasn’t provided a solution for unsatisfactory sanitation efforts and periodic removal of masks. Some teachers have also expressed concern that students may come to school, even if they are sick.
“I feel comfortable coming back [because] the district has worked hard on putting policies in place,” one staff member said. “My only concern would be that parents give students Tylenol or Ibuprofen before sending them to school if they are sick. That is something no one can control.”
Furthermore, most teacher respondents believe that they should have been more involved in the discussion about the fall semester policies. They feel like they aren’t being given many options to work and stay safe at the same time.
“If you look at the Reimagining plan website, you’ll notice that Staff FAQs is the only section [that is] ‘coming soon,’” an anonymous teacher said. “The district continually touts that student [and] staff safety is a top priority, but then their actions say differently. After the district’s staff ultimatum/survey [and] the lack of info for teachers, it appears we’re not being valued and being kept in the dark purposely.”
However, the district also has to comply with the guidelines set by several governmental agencies, including the TEA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and federal and state governments. According to the TEA, in-person learning must be offered in all schools, otherwise funding may be withheld. Additionally, guidelines are being added, modified, or removed daily, making it difficult for anything to be set in stone.
“We will continue to evolve in the best interests of our students, our staff, and our community,” Superintendent Dr. Steve Flores said in a town hall meeting. “There will be some decisions that you disagree with, and that’s because some of the guidance we’re receiving changes and shift[s] within an hour [or] minutes notice.”
Some teachers have also expressed appreciation and gratitude at the administration’s efforts, saying that it is a creative solution that makes the best of a difficult situation. Westwood has designed their in-person learning in such a way that the risk for teachers and students is minimized. Students will be divided into classrooms with one teacher and 12 students per class. In-person learners will be given a laptop where they can learn remotely for all of their classes, and teachers will be instructing their lessons online as well. The majority of teaching will be achieved through the Schoology Learning Management System.
“I believe Dr. Acosta is working very hard to make it possible for teachers to work from home if they need to,” Journalism teacher Lanie Catugno said. “That’s why they are putting students in small pods to stay in one spot all day.”
While the use of Schoology ensures safety, teachers are worried about the switch to teaching virtually. Several have submitted requests for extensive virtual training before the school year begins. Some teachers fear that learning a completely new system will interfere with their instruction, while others are concerned that it will be difficult to keep students engaged.
“It’s going to be very hard to build relationships with my new students,” Ms. Catuogno said. “We do a lot of discussion, and while that can certainly be done in a virtual environment, it just isn’t as smooth.”
Other concerns among teachers regarding the Schoology platform include delivering live instruction to virtual learners while being asked to monitor the students in their classrooms. Teachers are apprehensive about whether they will be able to do both effectively, especially with the addition of managing safety.
“If teachers are delivering live virtual lessons while students in their classrooms are attending virtual classes, it will be very difficult to deliver a seamless, high-quality lesson while also practicing classroom management, especially with the addition of masks, sanitization, social distancing, restroom breaks, writing nurse passes, etc,” an anonymous teacher said.
Although teachers and staff members have various concerns and apprehensions about coming back to school, they also have ideas for improved safety and a better learning experience for both themselves and their students. Teachers have suggested face shields and face masks for everyone, thermal scanners at school entrances, and the removal of restroom doors to prevent multiple touches on door handles. One teacher proposed providing classroom monitors to make sure in-person learners follow safety protocols so teachers can focus all their attention on instructing students, instead of monitoring behavior. Another recommended that teachers should be allowed to teach in their own classroom, instead of being relocated with their “pod” of 12 students in order to make students and teachers more comfortable in their environment.
“During on-campus learning, teachers should be able to continue to teach from their [own] classrooms, especially science and CTE because we will need to demonstrate many lessons that students previously practiced hands-on,” an anonymous teacher said. “We cannot move models, supplies, equipment, sinks, mannequins, etc. This is required for high-quality lessons.”
The entire community is grappling with how school reopenings should be accomplished. Some parents are pushing for in-person learning so they can return to work and their children can be educated more effectively. School administrators are struggling to guarantee safety along with high-quality education. District officials are sandwiched between the demands of the community and the guidelines set by numerous governmental agencies that shift every day. And in the midst of all of the chaos, teachers are once again being called upon for the highest level of personal sacrifice, risking everything for a questionable payoff.
One teacher said, “I’ll do it. I’m a teacher, and I’ll adapt.”