Teachers insist their input needed for successful return amid COVID-19

Many teachers across the state are concerned that back-to-school plans don’t have their best interests in mind. A new statewide survey by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators found that at least 70% of respondents in school districts with reopening plans were asked for input. However, 52% were critical of those plans.

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Many teachers across the state are concerned that back-to-school plans don’t have their best interests in mind. A new statewide survey by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators found that at least 70% of respondents in school districts with reopening plans were asked for input. However, 52% were critical of those plans.

As parents and school leaders figure out plans for educating students this fall, one group feels its input hasn't been heard: teachers. With many school systems considering some type of in-person learning, teachers across the state have complained that they can't do their jobs effectively if they're concerned about contracting a deadly disease.

“Every plan calls for extra cleaning. Who’s going to do all that cleaning?” asked one educator in Gwinnett County, echoing the fears of teachers across Georgia who worry about COVID-19.

A new survey of about 16,000 teachers by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators found that most had a say in the process, but 52% were critical of the resulting plans in school districts that have released them, said Margaret Ciccarelli, the group’s director of legislative services.

“They don’t currently feel that their district plans appropriately respond to the risk,” Ciccarelli said. Among those who identified themselves as high risk for complications of infection, 67% felt their district’s plan was inadequate.

Their concerns include questions about how to adequately keep students separated, how they get students to wear masks properly, what the processes will be if a COVID-19 case arises in their schools and, for some, why school leaders are pushing for an in-person return.

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said the plans she has seen could have been improved if teachers had been consulted with more than just a district survey, the most common method of gathering input. She knows of one that asked teachers only two questions.

For instance, she has seen plans that address the spacing of desks in classrooms without acknowledging that classrooms for the youngest students tend to use tables instead.

“We are hearing from members daily that they have not been consulted in their districts in even the most basic of ways,” Morgan said.

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Schools are under pressure to open from many corners, including doctors.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says the benefits outweigh the risks. A school environment provides for development of social and emotional skills, healthy meals, exercise and mental health support, the organization says, and schools can address racial and social inequity.

Still, the organization only recommends opening if proper safety measures are in place, said Dr. Hugo Scornik, president of the group’s Georgia chapter, and that may be a high bar for some in a year when Georgia lawmakers cut nearly $1 billion from the state education budget.

During virtual meetings this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, teachers expressed frustration with their district leadership. Because all feared retaliation by their districts, the AJC agreed not to publish their names.

“If I test positive and have to sit out for 14 days or more, how will I get paid if I don’t have accrued sick leave?” said one in Fulton County.

Federal labor guidelines allow for employees taking leave because they or someone they are caring for have a chronic condition to receive pay.

Fulton is developing its school safety plan based on one already in place for administrators who returned to work in mid-June. Teachers can see that plan, and have commented on the pending one for schools, said Ron Wade, the head of human resources. Some of their comments have been incorporated into the plans, he said.

Superintendent Mike Looney also meets with a teacher advisory group.

So far, the district has decided masks will be mandated for teachers but not for students, and the roughly 14,000 employees will each be given two washable, cloth masks.

So teachers will be less likely to spread the disease, but they worry about infectious students.

“I understand why masks are important, but I teach kindergarten,” said one teacher. “Who’s going to ‘police’ the children to make sure they are wearing masks and social distancing?”

In some districts, masks are a flashpoint. Cobb County released guidance Friday making masks strongly recommended for students and expected for staff. Forsyth and Cherokee county school systems approved reopening plans Thursday. Masks are expected but not required for teachers and students in Forsyth, and in Cherokee, they are required only for teachers whenever social distancing is not possible. Both decisions were made to the consternation of some teachers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics guidance says face coverings may be difficult to implement in kindergarten and may be counterproductive in elementary school, where kids may be unable to resist touching them. Keeping students within contained groups along with social distancing in elementary school may prove more effective, the guidance says. It calls for "universal" face coverings in middle and high schools whenever people cannot stay 6 feet apart.

One DeKalb County teacher said his biggest fear is the unknown.

“We have a new superintendent and we have no idea how classes will be conducted,” he said. “I have a chronic condition, but I teach a class that’s difficult to do virtually.”

DeKalb surveyed teachers and others in June about their comfort with everything from social distancing efforts to mask use. The results are expected to be released in an upcoming school board meeting.

Gwinnett teachers have set up Facebook groups and conducted virtual meetings to find ways to make themselves heard.

Three candidates for the Gwinnett Board of Education held a Facebook forum Tuesday after the district’s announcement it will delay opening by a week and require everyone to wear masks.

A resulting petition raised concerns about whose input informed the plan, noting that the names and qualifications of the district’s pandemic task force members have not been provided to the public.

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Another issue is timing.

The petition called for delaying the start of school until after Labor Day to allow time to address the concerns.

Steve Flynt, Gwinnett’s associate superintendent for school improvement and operations, said five days were added for teacher pre-planning. “We feel that’s adequate to allow new teachers and returning teachers to learn new guides and protocols.”

All school systems have added that if COVID-19 cases spike or the state enacts another quarantine, plans will change.

“This plan is very fluid,” said Flynt. “We’ve been working on a plan since January and it gets different every week.”

Teacher-led plan for reopening schools

This spring, the American Federation of Teachers released a plan for reopening schools this fall. It focuses primarily on the health and safety of students, teachers and staff. Here are the highlights:

  • Maintaining physical distancing until the number of new cases declines for at least 14 consecutive days. Reducing the number of new cases is a prerequisite for transitioning to reopening plans on a community-by-community basis.
  • Putting in place the infrastructure and resources to test, trace and isolate new cases. Transitioning from community-focused physical distancing and stay-in-place orders to case-specific interventions requires ramping up the capacity to test, trace and isolate each and every new case.
  • Deploying the public health tools that prevent the virus' spread and aligning them with education strategies that meet the needs of students.
  • Involving workers, unions, parents and communities in all planning. Each workplace and community faces unique challenges related to COVID-19. To ensure that reopening plans address those challenges, broad worker and community involvement is necessary. They must be engaged, educated and empowered.
  • Investing in recovery: Do not abandon America's communities or forfeit America's future. These interventions will require more — not less — investments in public health and in our schools, universities, hospitals, and local and state governments. Strengthening communities should be a priority in the recovery.

Source: American Federation of Teachers