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How Teachers Are Thinking About Reopening Schools

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Coronavirus cases keep increasing at alarming rates across the country, and this comes as many school districts are wrestling with when and how to reopen. It is not an easy decision. There's the issue of safety, and that's complicated because students, teachers and parents all have different COVID-19 risk levels. Then there's how to teach students virtually or partially online and partially in a classroom and how to support low-income students without adequate Internet access and students with learning disabilities.

All that got us thinking about the extreme challenges of reopening schools. And today, we're going to focus on teachers. We're checking in with teachers in two states, Texas and Ohio - Texas because it's currently experiencing an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases and Ohio because this past Friday, Republican Governor Mike DeWine issued guidance on school reopening.

We wanted to find out what teachers are thinking about these recent events. So joining me are Maxie Hollingsworth, who teaches elementary school math in Houston, and Mariah Najmuddin, who teaches middle school Spanish in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District just outside Houston.

Thanks to both of you for being with us.

MAXIE HOLLINGSWORTH: Thanks for having me.

MARIAH NAJMUDDIN: Hi.

PFEIFFER: And also here is Karen Lloyd. She teaches first grade in Wintersville, Ohio, which is near where Ohio and Pennsylvania and West Virginia all meet.

Karen, welcome to you, too.

KAREN LLOYD: Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: So, starting with Texas, we've been hearing a lot of news about how that state is seeing a surge in cases and concerns about hospital capacity. The Republican governor there, Greg Abbott, recently signed an executive order requiring facemasks to be worn in public throughout most of the state.

Maxie Hollingsworth, with the context here that Houston is currently a coronavirus hotspot, what reopening options are on the table in your school district? And what's going through your mind as you prepare to head back to the classroom?

HOLLINGSWORTH: Well, my understanding is that the state - that the Commissioner of Education has issued sort of very lax guidelines for school districts across the state, and they're not going to be requiring masks. They're going to be asking people to do their own temperature checks at home. And so that concerns me. I think, you know, as a teacher, I'm aware of all those little details, the logistics that go into, you know, opening a school just on a normal day.

But now, with dealing with a pandemic, I think about all those little details of, who's going to check the students as they come in? We have one nurse at our school. We're lucky that we have a nurse. But there are plenty of schools in my district that don't have a nurse, or they have an itinerant nurse. They share a nurse with two or three other schools. And that nurse will bear the burden of doing temperature checks every day, isolating students who may have fevers, are showing other symptoms.

Then we've got the custodial staff, who are going to have to clean the school thoroughly with chemicals that might be harmful to themselves or to the students and the staff. You know, logistics of the scheduling - you know, how often do I wash down all the materials? I teach every student in the school because I'm the - an ancillary math lab specialist, which means I have to be on a rotation. And I've got to wipe down the desks. I've got to wipe down pencils, all of those things.

I have a daughter who is in a high-risk category. She's got asthma. You know, what will I be taking home to her? Or what will she be catching in school herself? Now, these are the things that run through my mind. It's just people don't think about all of those logistics that go into running a school.

PFEIFFER: Mariah Najmuddin, you teach just outside Houston. What's the conversation been in your district about going back to school?

NAJMUDDIN: So very similar to what Maxie said. The conversations aren't being had. We haven't been given anything beyond, you know, calendar adjustments. And so in this next school year, Cy-Fair - that's what we refer to our district, Cy-Fair - will actually extend the school day by 15 minutes to make up for, you know, potential school day losses in the future. And so there is this concern that we don't have enough information. We don't know what the plan is.

And even - I think it's almost a little comical that our most recent mask order in Harris County - and Harris County is the county that includes Houston and Cypress - extends through the first week of school here in Cy Fair, but we haven't been told, are kids going to be required to wear masks?

PFEIFFER: Karen Lloyd, you teach in Ohio. As we mentioned, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced back-to-school guidelines - things like assessing symptoms, washing hands, sanitizing surfaces, wearing face coverings, social distancing. Do you think those guidelines are realistic for your district?

LLOYD: Absolutely not. We are in old school buildings. We are in the foothills of Appalachia. We have no air conditioning, which will make it impossible in the fall to wear face coverings in the heat. There are small rooms with 25 students - kids coming in off of buses. They're on buses for 45 minutes because of the routes. And I don't see how the children can social distance from each other. It just doesn't seem reasonable, the requirements that the governor has set out for us.

PFEIFFER: Does that mean you may have to return to the classroom not feeling as safe as you would like to feel?

LLOYD: Absolutely, yes. As much as we want to get back to the classroom - because we do feel that face-to-face education is the best way. The children need that not only for educational reasons. They need it for mental health. They need it for social. We need to be there with the kids and work with the kids. They need hugs. They need food. They need to know that we care about them.

And teachers are concerned in my district that we have students that lip-read. We have students that have speech problems. We are trying to teach elementary students how to sound out words. You can't do that with a mask.

PFEIFFER: Mariah, even if safety issues are addressed adequately, there's the issue of educating students during a pandemic. So some schools are considering virtual learning, in-person learning, a hybrid of the two. What have you heard about what your fall teaching could look like? And are you trying to prepare for any scenario?

NAJMUDDIN: So I think one thing that our district is learning and really trying to emphasize is the importance of online platforms. So this last - you know, the last semester was just kind of the Wild West out here. We were trying to figure it out. We didn't know really what we were doing, what to expect.

And moving into the fall, we know we've been - they've rolled out a platform that we're going to use that can be used in the classroom, that can be used at home, that'll hopefully mitigate any of those problems. And, you know, they're offering all of these tech professional development opportunities. And I think that these are steps in the right direction. But there are a lot of gaps that they're not addressing.

So I think one question or topic that we're not really talking about is parent engagement and, you know, having socially competent conversations with our families and with our students because if we're doing school distant - like, at a distance, then we're going to have to have these conversations with parents more regularly than what we were expected to do, you know, just last year.

PFEIFFER: But we've heard so much about some students not even having online access and some kids just sort of dropping off the map because they don't have the technology at home to do their schoolwork. Are the three of you dealing with that?

NAJMUDDIN: So one thing is kids are going through - they're going through it. And I think we will see a lot of that in the fall, where we are - have this tunnel vision of, I need to meet these metrics, or I have to do what the state is requiring of me, what the district is requiring of me. But also, you know, our students are hungry. Our students don't have Internet access. There's nobody home with our students.

And as a middle school teacher, I feel like I saw that a lot in this last semester, where parents would email me, I have the coronavirus. What can my kid do to catch up? And my first thought was, you have the coronavirus. Your child doesn't need to worry about Spanish. And so I wonder, are we going to have that flexibility in the fall? Like, your family is sick. Do I really need to call you once a week to remind you to turn in your homework?

PFEIFFER: And, Maxie, you want to jump in?

HOLLINGSWORTH: I agree with Mariah. Every school does not have - every school district does not have wraparound services for students in need. And that could mean anything from, you know, providing families with resources to help them pay their rent or getting a laundry card but also mental health services, housing, you name it.

My district has been quite good about providing meals to families year-round. But I am concerned about those other issues. You know, we're not teaching students in isolation. We're not just teaching their brain. We're teaching a whole child. And, you know, these children have needs that we have to meet. My school was really good about passing out laptops that we had to students, but every student didn't get a laptop. And then some of those students that had laptops - they didn't have access to Internet.

PFEIFFER: And, Karen, do you want to jump in on this, too?

LLOYD: Sure. We not only had issues with students not having internet access. We have problems with teachers having adequate and sufficient Internet service in order to handle the situation of online learning. We had teachers that had to go into buildings in order to have a Zoom class with their class once a week. And there again, we didn't have everybody in the class on. They either do not have the service because they can't afford it, and those that do have it, it's sometimes very sketchy. So that's a problem that needs to be addressed statewide, I believe.

PFEIFFER: Would each of you weigh in for all our listeners on what you wish administrators and parents would keep in mind as they begin to think about reopening schools? Maxie, would you start us off?

HOLLINGSWORTH: I think for me, that would mean being very thoughtful about what every child and what every family needs and what every teacher and staff member needs in order to do their job effectively - so thinking through literally every single thing that we need to get through the day and then thinking about safety, thinking about the long term, not just the now. What is going to be best, and how can we do that with safety and equity in mind?

PFEIFFER: And Mariah.

NAJMUDDIN: For me, one thing that I would love for parents and admin to keep in mind is that this is not an us-versus-them situation. This is a we situation. This is a community problem, and there are going to have to be sacrifices on all sides. And even just little things like mask-wearing is controversial and politicized, especially in Texas.

And so thinking about ways we can bridge those gaps because teachers have the same health concerns that students have, that parents have, that admin have. And we want to make sure that, you know, we don't have to put our health and our family on the backburner just to serve our students. Those are real needs for us as well.

PFEIFFER: And Karen.

LLOYD: Well, you guys kind of took my thunder.

HOLLINGSWORTH: (Laughter).

LLOYD: So I agree with the other two. And I would like to add, too, that, you know, we need to work together. We need to communicate. We need to be upfront with everything that's going on in our community, whether it be with the local health director in how many cases we have active in our system, whether it be parents that say, hey, I went to this area, and they do have a higher number of COVID-19 cases, and I'm going to keep them home. So working together, communicating with one another and keeping things in open conversation between everybody has to be a given for administrators, teachers, staff and parents together.

PFEIFFER: Good teaching is hard work even in the best of times, so it is exponentially harder given what's going on now. So we wish all of you a huge amount of luck and success this fall.

Thanks to all three of you for talking with us.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Glad to do it.

NAJMUDDIN: Thank you.

LLOYD: Thank you.

PFEIFFER: That was Maxie Hollingsworth. She teaches math in Houston. Mariah Najmuddin - she teaches Spanish just outside Houston. And Karen Lloyd teaches first grade in Wintersville, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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