Amid political tug-of-war, teachers look ahead with fear, uncertainty as new school year rushes onward

July 13, 2020 12:01 am

A school bus in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

To understand the mind of a teacher, those of us who do other things for a living must attempt some mental gymnastics.

Let’s imagine a professional passion so acute that when the coronavirus shuttered classrooms, they pivoted with little warning or rehearsal to digitally link dozens of children from home and continue daily instruction remotely.

Close your eyes and comprehend a devotion to students so strong that you spend your personal money to supplement classroom supplies as eclectic as sanitizing wipes and Elmer’s glue, crepe paper and whiteboard markers.

Now, as days start shortening and summer bends toward autumn and a new academic calendar, imagine balancing your innate yearning for the classroom with a well-reasoned fear of a monstrously contagious, potentially deadly virus that medicine still can’t control and science doesn’t fully understand.

Finally, overlay that against the backdrop of political conflict and chaos that multiplies by the day.

In one corner is Virginia state government with guidance that gives local districts broad discretion to devise plans for each community based on outbreak levels with a heavy initial preference for remote instruction.

In the other is a White House trying to coerce full, on-site reopenings starting next month as it tries to bully the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into relaxing safeguards during a nationwide surge in outbreaks — and threatening federal funding of districts that balk.

Across the commonwealth, teachers look on with varying degrees of fear and dismay, fully at the mercy of opposing forces well beyond their modest pay grades and limited influence. They want a measure of certainty that allows them to plan for whatever the future holds in a patchwork of reopening regimens.

Chesterfield County, with 3,108 coronavirus cases resulting in 61 deaths to date, will soon choose from among several proposals, including one that melds limited-capacity classroom instruction for families whose students prefer in-person learning with remote options for families that prefer to keep their children home, said Sonia Smith, who works full-time as president of the Chesterfield Education Association after years teaching English and African American Literature at Meadowbrook High School.

Bristol, with eight reported cases and no deaths, is expected to approve a plan this week whereby 100 percent of its students return to classrooms four days a week with Wednesdays reserved for online instruction while crews deep clean school buildings.

Their plans liberally allow families to opt for distance learning until they are comfortable with children returning to in-person classes.

It’s awfully late in the game to be facing so much tumult and uncertainty, say teachers, the frontline troops who are the linchpin to every district’s successful reopening.

“To a certain degree, I understand where the state is coming from. You have 133 school divisions across Virginia and one size can’t fit all. As things go for Alexandria city may not be how they go for Prince William and it may not be good for Emporia,” Smith said.

“But it’s frustrating to sit here and listen to a whole lot of nothing,” she said.

It’s a massive, unprecedented undertaking with more moving parts than a freight train. It is a space-time issue: a finite amount of school square footage designed for students much closer to one another than the six-foot distancing standards the CDC has recommended for months.

“If we are to be truly physically distant from every student at six feet apart, then that would allow for students to attend school one day a week,” Smith said.

To visualize it, imagine every student centered within a hula hoop, never allowing anyone else’s hoop to overlap within his or her own hoop’s radius.

Put another way, classroom headcounts would drop by at least one-half from normal attendance levels to maintain safe distancing, according to David Palanzi, who will teach business this coming year at Loudoun County’s Briarwood High School in Brambleton.

And even if the number of classrooms could magically double over the next six weeks to accommodate the sort of comprehensive, on-site, five-days-a-week instruction the president and his acolytes want, there aren’t nearly enough teachers to go around.

That’s just the instructional part. Intricate logistics for vital support functions such as buses and food service must be fully re-imagined and rebuilt, said Tracey Mercier, a special education teacher for pre-kindergarten children at Bristol’s Stonewall Jackson Elementary School. Aides will be on buses to assure distancing and take students’ temperatures, routes will be changed, school start and finish times will be staggered.

There’s also the yet-uncountable expenses of the wholly new mission of running schools safely in a pandemic, including disinfection services, broadband and computer access and staggered and extended transportation needs.

“We’re looking at budgets being cut while we still have to install more safety measures, and everything we do to mitigate (virus spread) costs money. We’re going to need more aides, more custodians,” Mercier said. “I feel like we’re being put into a war unarmed, going into battle without any armor.”

Already, teachers are on the hunt for hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and various types of personal protective equipment.

“Every time I can find latex gloves, I am buying all I can and hoarding them,” Mercier said. “There’s no way our school division can even offer those.”

Loudoun County, with 4,319 cases and 99 deaths so far, is eyeing a four-day schedule beginning Sept. 8 in which students would alternate, depending on the day, between in-person and remote instruction with about half of the students on-site at any given time. Parents would have the option for 100 percent distance learning, Palazi said.  

How well it works hinges on how well students play by the rules, he said. Masks are compulsory at school except for those who have a disability that clearly prohibits it. Not yet known, he said, are consequences for those who will not comply.

“For me as a high school teacher, I feel less threatened than an elementary school special ed teacher who may or may not be able to keep on a mask,” Palazi said.

Most students will conform, feeling an obligation to others, he added, “but every disruption in a classroom is like a stone thrown into a pond: it just ripples everywhere.”

Concerns about reopening have rightly focused on the students’ welfare, but teachers and staff are worried about their own vulnerability and how to sustain operations should too many fall ill.

“People forget about the professionals,” Mercier said. “I can’t tell you as a pre-K teacher how many times I’ve been coughed on, sneezed on, spit up on by a 4-year-old.”

Among Loudoun’s 12,000 school employees, many are older or have health issues that increase their danger from infection, Palazi said. While people in that group get preference for remote teaching, he said, there is no guarantee that they won’t be in classroom settings.

Many senior teachers across Virginia are contemplating taking leave or possibly retiring. Should that happen, it would create a troubling shortage made worse by a depleted corps of substitutes – many of them retired teachers – who called it quits after the pandemic exploded in March.

Ric Watts has three children in Bristol’s schools, but he worries more about his wife, an elementary school teacher.

“Much of the teacher base is already at the top end of the scale because they’ve been teaching 20 or more years. Many of them are in a high-risk group and they’re being asked to step into a Petri dish where their health is on the line,” said Watts, who works from home for computer giant Apple.

He used his own family to illustrate the potential for instruction disruption. Should his wife test positive, she would have to isolate for two weeks, and it’s likely their children would have also unknowingly spread the virus to others, including their three Bristol teachers. Thus it continues.

“With quarantining, you’re going to run into problems finding substitute teachers,” Watts said. “There’s going to be a chain reaction and the whole thing will fall apart.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]