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To the Superintendent, From a Worried Teacher Facing the Pandemic

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Dear Superintendent,

I hope that this email finds you and your family well. I am contacting you to express concerns regarding school reopening, specifically with the “all 5-day model” and “hybrid model.” I am proud to have been part of the **** family for the past seven years. I value our district’s leadership and dedication to our community. This is my third year teaching at *** in the *** program.

As you know, our district has ingrained in us the Safekeeper Ritual. This is one of my favorite structures implemented throughout our classrooms. We know our primary job. Everyday, teachers express to our students:

“My job is to keep you safe, your job is to help keep it safe!”

We understand that the brain functions optimally when a person feels safe. How do we feel safe during this time? How can we keep our students safe and how can our students help keep it safe during a global pandemic and public health crisis?

So far, our country’s response to the pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster. How do we trust that it is safe to open schools? I understand the importance of getting our students back into the classrooms. I want to see my students. They are my kids! But the discussion of in-person learning while the threat is growing every day and infection rates are increasing indicates to me that lives, especially the lives of our school staff and students, are expendable. No life is expendable and every life should be valued.

Our state, like many others, has left reopening plans up to individual districts. I believe this will prove to be disastrous just as how leaving the coronavirus response up to individual states has been catastrophic for America. I believe we must have a unified approach to mitigate risks successfully. The pandemic will continue to intensify unless we adopt a comprehensive plan to combat it. Politics and finances aside, can we keep everyone safe during in-person learning in public education?

This is a new threat, a novel virus, and professionals are working tirelessly to keep up with it and learn as much as possible, but the truth is, much is still left unknown. There is much to consider regarding COVID-19: how do we do things safely? What is and isn’t understood about this virus? What are the long-term effects from the virus? I believe that we must first get through this pandemic before we can return to normal, before we can return to school for in-person learning. Our schools are not ready. Our schools are strained during flu season. This is much different than the flu season. There is no data indicating that transmission will not be an issue upon reopening. If infection rates are increasing in our state, infection rates will increase in our schools.

Currently, in our state, health officials caution people to stay home unless necessary and to wear masks in public. We absolutely cannot risk the health of our students, our staff, and all of their families. Countries where schools have had successful reopenings have declining infection rates and in demand testing. We have neither. COVID-19 cases have surged past 50,000 in July alone (Arizona Department of Health Services, 2020). Record hospitalizations pose their own threats. Hospitals are reaching capacity and are low on PPE. Healthcare workers are being asked to reuse PPE and are still unable to get testing due to shortages. How are schools to reopen safely, with access to PPE and testing for students and staff, when our hospitals do not even have it?

What are the current percentages of students and staff in our district who have tested positive for COVID-19? Has this been considered? Will we be tested before returning to school? Symptoms range from mild to severe, and worse, many people are asymptomatic. Would you be OK with infecting another person, that unfortunately resulted in their death because you did not know you were carrying the virus? This is our reality.

I have remained up-to-date with our district’s response to coronavirus and plans for reopening. I have viewed the most recent board meetings and certainly appreciate everyone’s efforts. But I cannot trust that we are ready to reopen. Our Health Protocol is off to a great start, but as of July’s board meeting, was still a work in progress. It also failed to outline, specifically, what is going to happen when staff gets sick.

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The Physical Distancing Protocol reassured us that risks would be determined and mitigated, but failed to give a comprehensive plan as to how other than a reference to a “layering of protection.” ******* encouraged viewers of the resiliency of our children. She expressed that although our kids might be 4 feet apart, they will have masks and teachers supporting them and coaching them to ensure safe behavior. We must be realistic. Classroom management takes time. It has been indicated that we will be required to train students how to safely attend school. One question from *** considered the sharing of materials and tissue boxes. The response said, “students will be using their own supplies and will need to be trained how to use items safely (do not touch the tissue box when grabbing a tissue, etc.).” Every educator knows, we do not have enough supplies to avoid sharing. If students cannot safely touch a tissue box, students should not be in school.

The students will learn these new routines and healthy behaviors, but what happens during the timeframe when they are being trained and learning. What happens when our students make a mistake, or forget their mask, or refuse to wear their mask? The consequences of their mistakes during the pandemic will be detrimental. Our Special Education task force indicated that there was a lot to consider and staff must remain flexible. Special education teachers, like myself, are unsure what it will look like when providing services to our students. Transportation assured that surfaces will be wiped with a 75% alcohol wipe, but only when time permits. What happens when time doesn’t permit?

Additionally, our student transporters cannot refuse a ride to a child who appears ill or is not wearing a mask. We potentially will have our first super spread event before the students even arrive at school. Safety in our schools, at this time, is not attainable. Also, why is our school board meeting virtually to discuss reopening schools in person? Is it not safe to meet in person? If it is safe to consider reopening and to send staff and students back to school, it should be safe to have a board meeting, with professionals and adults, in person. We are not ready.

I have extended a great amount of empathy to this situation. I have spent countless hours approaching this situation from different perspectives. I do not feel safe. What happens when: our students see their friends getting sick, school closes down again, some friends die, they return to school but have a new teacher because sadly, their teacher contracted coronavirus and complications resulted in death. We will get sick. What happens when: a student gets sick at school, carries the virus home and infects their family, and sadly, their grandmother dies due to complications of coronavirus. We have many multigenerational families living in our communities. What happens when: one student is infected, attendance quickly drops, multiple students are infected, a teacher that had a class of 34 students now has a class of 12, and the teacher is left worrying if her students are getting the care they need to survive? How will we support our staff and students’ emotional health through this crisis?

In my class, physical contact happens often. Bodily fluids, such as spit, are expelled and physical aggression compromises our health on a normal day, let alone a day with the threat of coronavirus. I do not have medical documentation indicating that I am high risk; however, we have seen numerous cases where complications resulted in death in “young and healthy” people without any pre-existing conditions. I do have family members that are high risk, checking multiple boxes, including my mother. The thought of not being able to see my mom for a year, because of exponential exposure to the virus in schools, is heart-wrenching.

During the July board meeting, I felt the most emotion from our board members when discussion regarded finances not the safety of our students and staff. I understand the importance of funding, but this should not be our focus at this time. One of the members stated, “show us the money” and “we are losing money!” Does our board value finances over human life? If we reopen during this pandemic we are potentially losing lives. I value life.

I hope that decisions are being made with a heart-mind connection and our leaders value what is truly important at this critical time. I understand the pressures our district is faced with. We are starting school in a short three weeks; however, teachers have received limited information about what to expect during the school year. Currently, we understand that “responsibilities will look different” for all; however, a comprehensive plan has not been provided. How are we to make decisions regarding reopening when everything appears to be a work in progress?

I appreciate your willingness to take these concerns into consideration. I have always been a strong advocate for my students and value their safety and welfare over everything. I will continue to advocate for what I value. Bottom line: we cannot reopen schools for in-person learning in hot spot areas. Until there are trends showing improvement, we should not expose such a fragile and valuable demographic of our population to the threat of this pandemic. If you have any questions, or would like me to expound upon any of these points I am happy to do so. Thank you. Wishing you well!

Your Partner in Education,

A Very Concerned Phoenix Teacher

Originally published: July 26, 2020
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