As schools reopen amid COVID surge, teacher fears increase

Teacher Amber Horton holds up a sign during a protest in front of the DeKalb school district offices along Mountain Industrial Boulevard in Stone Mountain on Dec. 29, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Teacher Amber Horton holds up a sign during a protest in front of the DeKalb school district offices along Mountain Industrial Boulevard in Stone Mountain on Dec. 29, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Every day, messages arrive in my inbox from anxious teachers across Georgia who dread returning to face-to-face classes this month. Sometimes, the notes come from principals unable to quell staff panic because they, too, can’t understand why their districts keep classrooms open as COVID-19 infections surge after the holidays and hospitals convert gift shops to emergency wards.

Those fears escalated with the recent deaths of Cobb art teacher Patrick Key, Hart County science teacher Kelley Cordell Gaines, Henry County kindergarten teacher LuAnn Burns and Irwin County first grade teacher Tammie Sanford.

Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale tried to assuage the loss, but his Christmas day message to staff announcing Patrick Key’s death angered many teachers. After informing staff of the death of the Hendricks Elementary School teacher, Ragsdale devoted the rest of his letter to reminding them the “mission has been, and continues to be, serving every student and family in Cobb County as One Team, with One Goal: Student Success.”

When I shared Ragsdale’s staff letter with AJC readers last week, one said, “Teachers don’t need to be reminded why we teach. We want to know how you will keep us alive while we do it.” Another said, “The message is tantamount to the show must go on. How horrid.”

A large segment of parents also believes the show must go on, pushing their districts for a return to in-person classes. We saw that most recently in Atlanta and DeKalb where parents urged and won the choice of face-to-face classes starting later this month. Both systems were remote throughout the first semester.

The parents favoring reopening classrooms argued that distance learning was not only hurting their children’s academic development, but their social and emotional well-being, and they had many education advocates on their side.

“I think at end of the day we should be making an effort, a really full-throated effort, to get kids back in school and continue their education. The fact is there is a lot we don’t know about COVID, but we know a heck of a lot about what happens if kids aren’t in school, especially Black and brown students ... learning loss is real and it is accelerated and even more heightened for students who have additional disadvantages,” said Janice K. Jackson, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, on a recent webinar discussion on reopening schools.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called reopening schools a priority. In the most recent guidance, the CDC said, “To be sure, the best available evidence from countries that have reopened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children – at least in areas with low community transmission.”

Unfortunately, that is not the case in many parts of Georgia right now. The state has more than 590,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. In its recent report, the White House Coronavirus Task Force ranked Georgia 11th in the nation for new cases, up from 26th a week earlier. The AJC reported a steep climb in Georgians hospitalized for COVID-19, stressing the capacity of many health facilities.

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Henry County teacher LuAnn Burns with her husband of 34 years, Russ.

Henry County teacher LuAnn Burns with her husband of 34 years, Russ.

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Henry County teacher LuAnn Burns with her husband of 34 years, Russ.

Remembered Monday by her school colleagues in an outdoor memorial, Stockbridge Elementary teacher LuAnn Burns tried to be safe. She had her groceries delivered and limited her activities largely to work, said her husband of 34 years Russ Burns. He is just back from her funeral in their home state of Indiana this weekend.

Burns said his wife felt faint at school, tested positive for COVID on Dec. 15, and died on Dec. 27. “If a child needed something, she would give it to them. She ate lunch with them.” Remembrances from her many former students are flooding in, he said. “Her fingerprints and her touch and her love are fondly remembered by lots of people, She was a blessing. She made me a better person.”

Health economist Emily Oster of Brown University and her colleagues developed a widely referenced dashboard that collects and analyzes national data about COVID-19 school infection rates and mitigation strategies. While schools ought to consider community spread, Oster said, “An ideal decision would also take into account the in-school spread.”

“We need to be more responsive to closing schools if there is spread inside a school, even if there is not a lot of community spread,” said Oster during a recent webinar sponsored by the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners. “Similarly, if we are not seeing spread in schools, then even if we are seeing spread in community, it is not obvious that the solution to that is closing schools.”

Looking at school COVID data from these first few months in those places with face-to-face classes, Oster said, “What we learned is not that no one at school ever gets COVID, but these are fairly low-risk environments. Infection rates can be controlled. We are not seeing huge outbreaks, particularly in places where people are wearing masks. Masks are something we can do, and we should do. That is just best practice.”

“When we see in-school transmission, it tends to be staff-to-staff transmission in places where people let their guard down, taking masks off to have lunch together in the staff room,” said Oster. “The best way for staff to protect themselves is to be careful around other staff.”

In many districts outside metro Atlanta, masks still are not mandated, largely because parents contend their children find them unbearable. Oster disputes that contention, saying, “There were many places thinking kindergartners wearing masks would be a total disaster. But a bunch of kindergartners went back, put the masks on their faces, and it was fine.”

They don’t want to wear pants, either, she said, “but they wear their pants.”

Not all parents endorse in-person classes, including those who have twice protested the DeKalb County School District’s plan to bring teachers back to buildings Monday and begin phasing in students two weeks later. About 300 people rallied outside the DeKalb district office last Tuesday with signs stating, “Face to face is not safe” and “I cannot teach from the grave.”

DeKalb parent Maya Meeks, whose two elementary-age sons will remain virtual, said the district must involve teachers in its reopening discussions and plans. “We need their input because they are the ones on the front lines, We need to know what they need to feel safe. They are our main resource. We need to do better by them.”

DeKalb teachers say they don’t understand DeKalb’s timing, noting that Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicts the aftermath of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays could be “a surge upon a surge.”

In an email response to my questions on teacher concerns, DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said teachers worried about face-to-face classes can seek alternative work assignment options. In a video message this weekend, the superintendent said, “We recognize that there are staff members with underlying health concerns, some who are caring for a family member, or staff members who have child care challenges. Our goal again is to be flexible, patient and compassionate. "

But DeKalb teachers expressed doubts about whether they can get approval to remain remote or seek special accommodations in returning. “If it is true, I don’t know anyone who has been able to do this or anyone who has learned of the process,” said one. “I couldn’t even get an administrator to guarantee a teaching space with a window that opens.”