Opinion: Georgia schools open amid COVID, politics and safety concerns

Educators attend Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. As a new school year begins, teachers across metro Atlanta will face challenges, including new laws, safety concerns and a surge in COVID-19 cases. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Educators attend Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. As a new school year begins, teachers across metro Atlanta will face challenges, including new laws, safety concerns and a surge in COVID-19 cases. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Many teachers who resisted the urge to quit during the pandemic credit their commitment to the profession, saying they have a calling they just can’t ignore.

Let’s hope the upcoming school year doesn’t finally push them to cover their ears and dash out of classrooms screaming, “I can’t hear you!”

The 2022-2023 school year is beginning to echo last year’s difficult start. Georgia schools will open their doors next week amid a highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus. Masking may be required of school staffs; Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill in March that allows parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, 86 of the state’s 159 counties are classified as having high community levels of COVID-19. Yet, the political leadership in the state and some parents and teachers seek a normal and maskless school year, no matter an unrelenting pandemic.

The surge in cases means schools may again confront staff shortages as teachers, cafeteria workers and bus drivers miss days due to the virus. But unlike airlines that canceled thousands of flights this summer due to staffing shortages or restaurants that closed early because not enough workers showed up, schools can’t leave their students stranded.

“I don’t think we can hang signs on our school doors that we’re changing hours or school is closed today because we don’t have the appropriate workforce,” said Margie Vandeven, Missouri commissioner of elementary and secondary education, at an online seminar last week by the Hunt Institute addressing why teachers are leaving the field.

Schools are also resuming with heightened safety fears. The horrific Texas school shooting in May demonstrated again that, as a country, we’ve yet to take meaningful measures to curb gun violence. Thus far, the response in Georgia to school shootings has been a push for more armed staff. In almost every school shooting, armed officers were on hand but could not prevent the carnage. New reviews show 376 law enforcement officers rushed to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, but failed to stop a teenage shooter with an AR-style rifle from killing 19 students and two teachers.

Returning teachers will also face a new adversary this year — invasive state legislation that squelches truthful representations of U.S. history and American racism under the guise it could cause some students anguish or guilt. The divisive concepts law is political stagecraft created by Republicans looking to rouse their base with exaggerated claims that white children were being blamed for slavery.

Schools will also see continued pressure to overcome pandemic learning losses. New results from both Georgia Milestones tests and the national assessments show that, while students are on track to catch up, it may take several years to recoup the ground lost to the pandemic.

“School systems started the 2021–22 school year with extra resources and plans for recovery, but repeated resurgences of the COVID-19 virus thwarted hopes of a strong comeback,” concluded a study by the testing group NWEA that examined score data from 8.3 million students in grades 3–8 who took MAP Growth assessments. While the researchers found evidence of rebounding in many areas, they also identified significant gaps between achievement in spring 2022 relative to pre-pandemic averages. The study concludes: “In total, while there are some signs of hope, our overall findings point to a long road to recovery still ahead.”

So, what can we do to ease the stresses along that road and keep teachers on board?

“Administrations both at the district and the school level have to do everything within their power to protect their teachers from the realities of the political environment,” advised Donald E. Fennoy II, former superintendent of Palm Beach County School District, the nation’s 10th largest district.

A former special education teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Jonathan Song quit during the pandemic to return home to Georgia to begin law school. His advice: The profession can no longer be seen as a cult of martyrdom where teachers sacrifice their health and their well-being for their students.

“I taught in a Title I school, and I quickly realized that as an educator in this kind of environment, we were almost expected to be miracle workers,” he said. “We bore the brunt of blame if anything went wrong in our classroom or if student progress was stalling.”

In attempts to broaden support for teacher retention efforts in Missouri, Vandeven said, “The No. 1 school-level factor for our kids’ success is that teacher. I cannot emphasize enough that I don’t know if it really has sunk in to the general community what our world will be like if we don’t have great teachers.”