WHEN NEWTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS closed in March, seventh grade English teacher Jenna Monahan assumed school would resume safely one day and she would return.
Now, as she thinks about going back to school in September, her views have changed. “With everything that’s transpired, I’ve completely flipped to a feeling of I don’t think it’s possible to do it in a safe enough way,” Monahan said. “I just keep coming back to the fact that one person in the building gets sick and it just seems like we’d have to shut down, and to me that’s more traumatic on adults and on students and families than to just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
As schools plan for fall with the continued presence of the coronavirus, teachers will be on the front lines. They are the ones who must spend all day in the classroom with students – often multiple groups of students – and due to their age, teachers likely face more risk than their students of getting sick with COVID-19.
In interviews with 10 teachers from across Massachusetts, virtually all said they felt worried and conflicted. While they miss teaching in person, many doubted whether the classroom would be a safe place, even with health and safety guidelines being developed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. They worried for their own safety and that of their students. And at the same time, most teachers acknowledged that remote teaching also has pitfalls, and there is no perfect solution.
“I have a lot of trepidation about both sides of the coin,” said Courtney Phoenix, an eighth-grade science teacher in the Chelsea public schools. “Staying at home raises a whole host of problems but going back into school raises another set of problems.”
Under state guidelines, all school districts are required to prepare three plans: for opening in-person, for continuing remote learning, and for a hybrid model where students alternate between in-person and remote learning. The state has asked districts to announce their final plans in August. While the state has set a goal of returning as many students as possible to in-person learning, districts will be required to offer remote learning options to any student whose parent keeps them home.
Safety precautions will be in place, requiring students and teachers to wear face coverings and remain at least three feet apart, among other steps.
But many teachers doubt the precautions will provide adequate protection.
“I don’t see how you can fit all your students in the classroom. I don’t see how you can socially distance in these ways. There’s cleaning issues, I think there are supply issues,” said Ariel Serkin, a chemistry and physics teacher at Norfolk County Agricultural High School. Serkin said bathrooms in her school often lack soap. She said most modern classrooms are not set up to have students sitting in rows, listening. Rather, her students work in groups, while teachers circulate.
Serkin started a Facebook group called Massachusetts Educators United, which provides a forum for teachers to talk about coronavirus-related concerns. The group, started in early July, attracted 23,000 members in the first 10 days.
Serkin said she is seeing consistent themes in conversations: “People miss students, people miss the classroom and people don’t know how to keep themselves, their families, and their students safe.” Serkin said she, like many of her colleagues, thinks if students return to school, “it is going to be difficult to impossible to safeguard everybody’s health and safety.”
Kelsey Wilbur, an English teacher at Plymouth North High School, is one of the Facebook group’s moderators. Wilbur has similar concerns that COVID-19 will spread easily in school. Many of her students are teenagers who work after school in nursing homes, grocery stores, or fast food restaurants, putting them at high risk. And she doesn’t think social distancing is possible.
“Knowing kids in general, they tend to get close together no matter what,” Wilbur said. “They touch, they share, it’s part of their socialization as children to be constantly on top of each other. Even teenagers, they constantly look at each other’s phones, share headphones.”
Wilbur said many schools lack proper ventilation or HVAC systems, and some have classrooms without windows or air conditioning. With an airborne virus, she said, “the thought of having kids in a room that doesn’t have access to proper ventilation seems like a really scary idea.”
Jennifer Belden, a former Springfield middle school teacher who is switching districts, added that many classrooms do not have sinks – raising a herculean logistical challenge of how frequently students can wash their hands if 10 classrooms share one bathroom.
Teachers worry that younger students will not keep their masks on. Students used to moving between classes will be unable to sit at their desks all day, if a school limits student movement. Teachers cannot hug a homesick elementary school student. “It’s very dystopian to consider,” said Phoenix, the Chelsea science teacher.
Older teachers, those with health conditions, and those with at-risk household members have personal health concerns as well.
Jessica DiGianfelice, a Peabody High School chemistry teacher, lives with someone who has asthma and worries about bringing COVID-19 home from school. “In a perfect world, I would love to be back in my classroom….Remote learning was not ideal for anyone,” she said. “However, I am very concerned about being able to go back into our physical classroom safely. It’s going to take a well-thought out plan and a lot of funding that we currently don’t have.”
A lack of money was a theme several teachers raised. Ashley Coleman-Fitch, a Chelsea High School English teacher, said the decision to open should be made by the local community, depending on the virus’s prevalence and the community’s resources. “To anybody who’s just saying schools have to open, I say show me the resources to support that happening,” she said.
Coleman-Fitch said a district like Chelsea, which was the hardest hit in the state by the virus and relies heavily on state funding for education, today has no idea what its budget will look like. She said reopening could involve hefty costs, like modernizing ventilation systems, buying furniture or installing more sinks. Districts will need more custodians and cleaning supplies. They might need more teachers to staff smaller classes.
Even with resources, Coleman-Fitch worries about virus spread. “Schools are little petri dishes on any day,” she said. “It’s one thing when it’s literally a common cold. It’s a whole other thing when we’re talking about COVID.”
Lisa Cullivan, a second-grade teacher in Lynn, said similarly that in a normal year, even tissues are not provided for her classroom. And germs are ever-present in an elementary school. “I can’t tell you how many times I walk down the stairs, the railing’s wet, and you wonder what is this, what did I just put on my hands?” she said.
Cullivan said parents who risk getting fired from a job if they take a sick day often send their children to school sick, giving them Tylenol to mask a fever. Sometimes when the school calls a parent to ask them to get a sick child, the parent cannot be reached. She worried that parents will be unlikely to admit to COVID-19 exposure if it means they must keep their child home for two weeks.
But despite all their concerns about reopening, teachers acknowledged that continuing remote learning is also problematic given the mixed results from this spring’s experience. Cullivan said in Lynn, many students got laptops from school but lacked an internet connection. “If we stay remote, then those kids are just with limited resources at home, limited books, limited access to general education,” Cullivan said. She also sympathizes with parents’ concerns that children need to socialize and leave the house.
Coleman-Fitch noted that remote learning is actually harder for teachers, since they must take time to develop new curriculum and teaching methods. Teachers don’t get the same kind of instant feedback from students, so it is harder to know if they understand the material.
A group of state teachers unions have proposed phasing in the school year. And many teachers have their own ideas.
Coleman-Fitch suggested reopening elementary schools first, since high schoolers are better able to learn online independently. She said schools could reopen early to students with special needs and English language learners, so they can get extra support, while continuing remotely for everyone else.
Cullivan suggested opening schools with limited capacity at first. Monahan, the Newton English teacher, suggested opening schools for office hours, where small groups of kids could drop in and get extra help if they need it.
Several teachers said remote learning could work better in the coming school year than it did in the spring, since teachers have had more time to prepare. And they say the struggles may be worth it. “It’s hard to say we’re going keep doing distance learning because we’ve been there and in some districts it was a disaster,” Monahan said. “But I think…a year of disrupted education to make sure people are safe and hopefully we get rid of this sooner rather than later, it seems like it’s a sacrifice we should be willing to make.”
But others are ready to go back. Ben Chertok, a music teacher in Salem, said during remote learning this spring, he noticed disparities in which students completing the work, tied clearly to socioeconomic status. Now, he is part of Salem’s school reopening committee, which he said is working to put in place as many safety measures as possible.
He is reading literature on topics like the safety of wind instruments, and is trying to develop creative ways to teach music as safely as possible. He wants to see more information published about health and safety and curriculum and worries about rushing into returning without enough time to prepare. But he also said he is emotionally ready and physically healthy, and hopes to return to school.
“I personally didn’t go into teaching music to sit behind a computer screen and stare at people,” Chertok said. “I would much rather be face to face interacting, though obviously once it’s safe to do so.”