Opening Schools: What Teachers Don’t Know
In August, teachers and students go back to school. It will be a tumultuous moment for our state. This week our COVID numbers hit a terrible new peak: 858 new cases, 261 of them in Tulsa County. We have no reason to believe the crisis will be gone by August. Our elected officials, state education organizations, advocacy groups and local school boards are working on plans, but no one has a clear idea of what it will look like when we relaunch public schools during a public health crisis. Teachers are bracing for the worst. As a teacher turned legislator, I wanted to know more about their state of mind. So I asked teachers in a popular FB group to tell me what they were thinking. I received almost a thousand comments and questions before the end of the day.
In a nutshell, our teachers are very anxious. They feel out of the loop. Will masks be mandated? Will protective equipment be supplied? If they get sick, do they use their sick days? Will there be hazard pay? Will they get sued if one of their students gets sick? Will there be sports and drama programs? Are we still planning to carry out state testing? What about the many older teachers and those with compromised immune systems? And what will be the triggers for future shutdowns, either for schools or districts?
The questions are particularly relevant because COVID-19 seems to hit us at our weakest points. The teacher workforce is one of our society’s vulnerable areas. Fewer young people graduate from our teaching schools, and many of those go out of state. More classrooms are served by teachers with emergency certification – and data show that such teachers tend to leave the profession after a few years. This was true before the pandemic. But now consider that the raises we gave teachers in 2017 will enable older teachers to retire on higher pensions starting this year. How many seasoned teachers will elect to stay home this year, rather than face risks that fall on them more heavily than almost anyone else? We don’t know.
It’s not that we aren’t planning. Our State Department of Education has been working tirelessly. Major efforts have narrowed the digital gap, as more families have received devices and been given wi-fi access, though this remains a problem. CARES Act has been made available to schools and districts to cover expenses like the purchase of protective gear. State organizations like the Oklahoma State School Board Association (OSSBA) and the Cooperative Council for School Administrators (CCOSA) are working with local authorities to make plans, many of them available on their websites for all to see. I spoke with CCOSA officials recently. They have made detailed plans and resources available. But they are not an enforcement organization. Traditionally, our school districts have a considerable amount of autonomy to set local rules to match local conditions. As a result, our COVID plans will be all over the map.
This much is clear: Schools must be prepared to pivot to online learning. Teachers will need help turning their home offices into virtual classrooms. They will need access to their buildings for support materials. And they will need lots of professional development to master systems like Edgenuity to deliver instruction to students at home. Parents will need help as well, to navigate a strange new system.
It’s time to bring teachers and families into the conversation. We’re about to bring hundreds of thousands of people together in closed rooms with an older population of teachers. Many students will leave these schools to stay with older grandparents. The risks are enormous. And COVID is surging. We need a new paradigm, in which the state and district superintendents, administrators and associated organizations reach out to every teacher and every parent, to lay out the plan. It’s okay to tell people that there will be risks – as long as we make sure we are doing everything we can to minimize those risks. It’s okay to ask a lot from our teachers. We always have in this state, and if teachers were in it for the money they would have left long ago. But it is not okay to leave the dedicated teachers in our schools, and the children they serve, in the dark for much longer.
John Waldron represents District 77 in the Oklahoma House of Representative. He is a former teacher.