When Chatham County Schools first asked its employees in a September survey how they felt about returning to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, 41% did not feel comfortable …
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When Chatham County Schools first asked its employees in a September survey how they felt about returning to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, 41% did not feel comfortable returning.
Emily, who teaches at a CCS high school and considers herself to be in the high-risk category for getting sick, is one of them. Not because she thinks remote learning is without challenges or that the school district isn’t trying to be safe, but because she worries teaching in person will inevitably lead to people dying or facing debilitating health consequences — people like her.
“That frightens me,” she said.
Like all the other employees interviewed for this story, Emily has been given a pseudonym to ensure her privacy.
Currently, Emily’s school is operating with only a few students coming to in-person learning, and the limited number of faculty and staff not working from home makes it easy to socially distance, she said. Still, she worries what will happen when more students come back — worries that there will be more cases among older students and that some may comply with school coronavirus policies.
Since last March, most Chatham County Schools have been in fully remote learning; the county’s board of education voted in July to start the year with four weeks of remote learning and later extended that through the first nine weeks, which ended Oct. 16. On Sept. 23, the board voted 4-1 to extend remote learning through Jan. 15 — the end of the semester — signaling it would bring select student groups back earlier under Plan B. Less than one week later, the board unanimously voted to send Extended Content Standard E.C. students, Pre-K students and K-2 students to school under hybrid learning starting Oct. 19. They also implied more students might return sooner than the Jan. 15 date decided the week before.
Janice Frazier, the associate superintendent of human resources at CCS, said the district has been processing concerns with employees since the school year resumed in August, ranging from personal health issues to overall apprehensions about returning to on-site work.
“We have also heard from teachers who feel strongly that students should return to in-person instruction. It is essential for us to ensure that our staffing decisions allow for the continued fulfillment of students’ instructional, social-emotional and basic needs.” Frazier said. “However, we are highly sympathetic to each and every worry that has been expressed. As such, we will continue working hard to provide the highest level of support possible for our employees as we respond to individual circumstances.”
To that end, Frazier said the district is encouraged by employees whose concerns were lessened once returning to school and experiencing “the safety protocols and procedures in our comprehensive reentry plan.”
The board will meet again for its regular meeting next Monday and plans to discuss timelines for the possible return of additional student groups to in-person school.
Emily has mixed feelings about these decisions. She understands that remote learning presents many equity problems for students without broadband access or academic support at home, and that learning in person is the ideal way to learn.
“I really want school to be normal,” she said. “I don’t know anybody that has chosen to work with kids that doesn’t want to be with kids because this is just what we do. We want things to be normal, but normal is scary. It’s risky. And that risk is more significant for me.”
Steve, another CCS high school teacher, feels that risk acutely — not necessarily for himself, though he does have mild asthma, but for his elderly mother, who lives with him.
“I just can’t put my life, or her life, in the hands of teenagers,” Steve said.
Like Emily, Steve has been impressed with both his school’s and the district’s communication throughout the start of the school year. He doesn’t think it’s an easy decision, or that administrators are approaching it lightly, but ultimately he needs to prioritize his family’s health.
“If and when the school board decides to bring students back, if the virus is this out of control, I will have to resign or retire early,” he said.
Though 41% of CCS employees said they did not feel comfortable returning to in-person learning in September, according to the employee survey, just over 10% said they’d request leave or would resign. More than 26% said they’d “request a reasonable accommodation,” which the district said at the time did not necessarily mean requesting to work remotely.
The current phase of reopening affects just over 2,000 CCS students, but it also impacts teachers and the schools’ staff. Supporting parent choice has been a major part of the conversations about returning to school, but many employees have noted that teachers and staff do not have the same luxury. Many teachers seem thrilled to be back with students, but for other teachers who feel unsafe, some feel speaking openly could cost them their careers.
Currently, teachers can only opt to work completely remotely with a medical doctor’s note.
Emily hopes that the district will provide some kind of accommodation that can allow teachers to be creative when it comes to their role under in-person learning. She has the option to retire, but worries for her co-workers who have conditions that make them higher-risk but do not qualify them for medical accommodations. And, though she’s thought about retiring frequently since the pandemic began, she doesn’t want to.
“It’s not an option I want — I’m not somebody that’s like counting down the days until I can retire,” she said. “I love my work. I love my co-workers. I love my students. And I would be more than a little heartbroken if I felt like I needed to retire.”
Laurie, who works as a custodian in the district, is not worried about the virus. If she could have it her way, all students would have been back in school yesterday. And while her job could potentially expose her to more germs, she said she has felt safe and protected at work.
Still, the return to in-person learning is not without its challenges for her. She’d been on partially paid leave prior to Oct. 19, but was able to return to work because her school is offering free child care for staff.
“Unfortunately, my own children are in upper elementary and middle school, so they’re still having a very hard time not being back in school — mentally, emotionally, socially, it is horrible for them,” she said.
Though she’s grateful she’s been able to continue working, she has concerns for how the child care impacts her children.
“It’s not a good situation in my mind because the kids all go to one room, they socially distance apart, which is I guess the good part,” Laurie said, “but they’re sitting at a desk, quiet with their mask on from 7:30 in the morning till 4:30 in the afternoon with a break here and there and lunch and recess, but you are sitting at a desk with a mask first from 7:30 to 4:30. And honestly, I’m not OK with that. There’s just nothing good about being shut down.”
Another CCS teacher, Ruth, also has school-aged children. As a teacher, she worries about interacting with students in-person and increasing the exposure to her family. As a parent, she also worries about her children’s safety, particularly during times like lunch or snack when students aren’t wearing masks. (At CCS, students eat at their desks, spread six feet apart, and are not allowed to socialize until after they’ve finished eating and return their mask over their mouth and nose.)
Another part of hybrid learning that concerns her is the added workload for teachers.
“Right now it’s really a lot on teachers. I know a lot of people don’t see that, they only see the teaching part. But a lot goes into the prep work,” Ruth said, adding that she expected the prep work required for A and B days, in-person and virtual lessons to “go up exponentially.”
Prior to speaking with the News + Record, Ruth consulted two of her teacher friends to discuss their main concerns: spreading the virus to their students and families, yes, but also their mental well-being.
“If we go on this A-day B-day plan, to see the workload — it’s already a lot of extra time to be a teacher,” she said. “And we all knew that coming into it and understand that but there’s only so much you can pile onto a person. There’s a breaking point. That might be some people’s breaking point, and it’ll be sad to see.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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