Education

Teachers balk at plan to reopen schools in August

Posted July 14, 2020 6:08 p.m. EDT
Updated July 15, 2020 8:30 a.m. EDT

— Many teachers expressed disappointment and anger Tuesday at Gov. Roy Cooper's plan to reopen schools next month despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Cooper said districts should plan to open schools on Aug. 17 under "Plan B," a combination of in-person and remote instruction. State officials have set guidelines for masks, social distancing, health screenings and cleaning to ensure students, teachers and staff can remain healthy, he said.

Teachers are skeptical that those guidelines will work, however, and they fear for their safety.

"In my opinion, and I think that of many others that I work with, we’re not able to go back safely," said Malcolm Goff, an art teacher at Brogdon Middle School in Durham. "Elementary and middle school students are not emotionally able to socially distance themselves in that setting, in the school setting. I mean, they’re all over each over."

"There seems to be a lot of pressure from on high pushing folks into an unsafe situation that includes educators, students and everyone who works in public schools," agreed Carlos Perez, a U.S. history teacher at Jordan High School in Durham.

Durham Public Schools had developed a Plan B that would keep all high school students at home for online learning to free up classroom space so all elementary and middle school students could return to school full time while maintaining social distancing.

Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said he will listen to teachers' concerns while weighing a shift to a "Plan C" of all online instruction.

"I have a lot of respect for our teachers. They know what is best for students. At the same time, they’re also thinking about their health and their safety as well, and I’m going to listen to them and make a decision accordingly," Mubenga said.

Goff said he plans to organize teachers and parents to challenge any effort to restart in-person classes.

"We are still looking at hundreds of people in Durham Public Schools alone who are going to die because somebody made the unsafe decision of forcing us to go back to school in order to put a Band-Aid solution on something," he said.

North Carolina's 2020 Teacher of the Year Maureen Stover said she backs the plan.

"I appreciate it's going to address the health and safety of all of our students, staff and families, and it provides a safe and supporting learning environment for all North Carolina students," Stover said. "By continuing to prioritize those social and emotional learning needs and by making sure they are there for their students, teachers are going to do a fantastic job."

Educators are giving a lot of thought to how to return to the classroom safely.

"I think the nature of having students together, it would be really difficult to maintain any form of social distancing to its integrity," said Mariah Morris, innovation and special projects coordinator for Moore County Schools. "In order to go back safely, I would want to see serious [protective gear] for everyone in the school building. I would want to make sure that a lot of planning had gone into how we were protecting our schools and our teachers."

In Johnston County, April Lee, county president for the North Carolina Association of Educators, still has concerns.

"We're still on a Phase 2 in our state [for business reopening], and yet, we're making the decision to potentially send our teachers and our staff members back into our school buildings with our children," she said.

The state guidelines require all students from kindergarten through 12th grade to wear masks while in school. Lee noted that getting young children to wear masks all day will be difficult, adding that parents need to practice with them before school starts.

Carol Stubbs, a custodian in Cumberland County Schools and president of the Cumberland County Association of Educators, said she worries about catching the virus from students.

"I've got to be safe," Stubbs said. "If a teacher comes out to a car, you don't know who has it [or] where they got it from. They've got to be safe."

Kristin Beller, NCAE's Wake County president, noted many teachers are at high risk from the virus.

"We know the governor has a lot of priorities, but we only have one, and that’s safety," Beller said. "There are a lot of things that need to happen in order to provide a safe environment for students and staff."

Schools don't have enough protective gear, she said, nor do they have the money to pay for the extra screening and cleaning that will have to be done each day.

State officials said they have provided a two-month supply of gear to each school, and Cooper said Tuesday that the state would provide at least five reusable masks for every student, teacher and school staffer.

"Today, I think, got us part way there, but the governor’s announcement cannot get us all the way there without funding from the General Assembly to ensure that we have the things that we need to be safe," Beller said.

WRAL anchor/reporter Debra Morgan and WRAL Fayetteville reporter Gilbert Baez contributed to this report.

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