School Staffers Speaking Out on Coping With Epidemic

As schools edge closer to a decision on how to reopen in September, questions hang over nearly every aspect.

Speaking up more loudly than earlier this summer, some teacher organizations are questioning what their role will be and how they might have handle kids during an epidemic while remaining safe themselves.

Planning for a reopening has generally followed three paths: Completely remote, completely open for in-person classes, and a hybrid of the first two ideas.

Districts have been surveying parents about whether they’ll send their children back into a building or would prefer to wait until the virus is dissipated. 

And unions, too, are asking their members about how willing they are to return and under what conditions. In Florida, a teachers’ union sued Monday to avoid being forced back into classrooms to teach in person.

Some of the many questions superintendents and other educators are grappling with include:

How to respond if a parent refuses to send their child back into the building even if some or all of the class is in-person

What to do with children who might have a health vulnerability, such as recent cancer treatment, an auto-immune disease or is recovering from Covid-19, is a concern.

If teachers have health vulnerabilities, should they be required to return to the building or be allowed to work remotely?

If someone in the building develops Covid-19, should everyone exposed to that individual  quarantine for 14 days?

If staff members are required to return to the building, how do they for care for their children or senior relatives at home?

What effect will having to deal with safety measures of the epidemic have on teaching and learning? Will measures to main physical distancing distract children?

If distancing is maintained, how do teachers work closely with children, especially those who need close personal attention or supervision?

How would lessons such as music or art be handled? Would teachers move from class to class or would students?

From kindergarten through high school, how would students get exercise, especially if they’re confined for any length of time in one room?

On Sunday, the New York State United Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers demanded that school districts follow school reopening guidance issued by the governor and state Department of Health on distancing, reduced occupancy and the use of masks, among other safety measures.

“With the clock ticking for districts to develop and submit reopening plans, there is no time for ambiguity,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said. “We’ll say it again: Health and safety, as well as equity, are absolutely essential in planning for the fall. The Department of Health issued clear guidelines regarding social distancing and masks. There’s no reason districts should be guessing at what the safest option for students, staff and the entire school community is.”

Several teachers have been expressing concerns that they’ll have to spend too much time enforcing rules on children and not enough time on teaching. Others say they’re worried that children won’t be able to follow the rules or that, in some cases, parents opposed to the face mask requirements might undermine them.

The state Department of Health set these requirements to reopen schools:

  • Districts must ensure there is proper distancing on school grounds and in school facilities. “Specifically, appropriate social distancing means six feet of space in all directions between individuals or use of appropriate physical barriers between individuals that do not adversely affect air flow, heating, cooling, or ventilation, or otherwise present a health or safety risk.”
  • Even with face coverings in use, occupancy of spaces, such as classrooms and other small spaces, “should not exceed 50% of the maximum capacity of the space, unless it is designed for use by a single occupant.”
  • Face coverings must be worn “any time or place that individuals cannot maintain appropriate social distancing.” Further, face coverings are “strongly recommended at all times, except for meals and instruction with appropriate social distancing. However, Responsible Parties can require face coverings at all times, even during instruction; and it is strongly recommended in areas with higher rates of COVID-19 community infection.”
  • Other health and safety measures must also be in place

NYSUT and AFT said all requirements must be met and are unequivocally necessary before anyone returns to the classroom.

“We must get this right,” Pallotta said. “We will not jeopardize the health and safety of students, educators and families by agreeing it’s safe to go back without these requirements in place.”

The Board of Regents developed the following principles to guide the work of developing this guidance document :
• The health, safety, and well-being of the children and adults in our schools is paramount.
• We will always keep the issue of educational equity at the forefront of our thinking and decision-making.
• We recognize that one size does not fit all. New York is a large state, in population and size.
We will always consider the tremendous diversity that exists among our people, our geographic
regions, and our schools and school districts.
• While it is important to provide districts with guidelines and policies, it is important as well to give
them appropriate leeway to develop creative solutions to their unique challenges.
• We will enable and encourage districts to work directly with parents, teachers, administrators,
and their local communities to develop and deliver workable solutions to their unique needs. We
will succeed through our collective effort.
• We will proceed with the understanding that planning for schools to reopen is not a one-time
event. We will continuously monitor the situation and provide updated guidance, policies, and
regulatory changes as the situation requires. 

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