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On the fence: Teachers, excited to get back in the classroom, remain concerned about coronavirus risks

'We only have one chance to get school reopening right.'

  • Ivey DeJesus/PennLive
Joseph Headen, head football coach and history teacher at Susquehanna Township Area School District, shown in a photo taken in January 2020.

 Sean Simmers / PennLive

Joseph Headen, head football coach and history teacher at Susquehanna Township Area School District, shown in a photo taken in January 2020.

True to his educator roots, longtime teacher and head football coach Joseph Headen turns to the dictionary to explain how he feels about the possibility of returning to in-classroom instruction this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Ambiguous is how I feel about our return to school,” said Headen, a history teacher at Susquehanna Township High School. “According to Webster’s, ‘ambiguous’ is an adjective. Meaning open to or having several possible meanings or interpretations; equivocal: an ambiguous answer. … of doubtful or uncertain nature; difficult to comprehend, distinguish, or classify: On the fence.”

Like tens of thousands of teachers across Pennsylvania, Headen is torn about the idea of returning to the classroom amid a pandemic that continues to exact a toll across the nation and Pennsylvania, where it has claimed more than 7,000 lives.

Even as Gov. Tom Wolf recently ordered restaurants to reduce their occupancy to 25 percent of their capacity, the state’s 500-plus school districts have been instructed to adhere to federal pandemic guidelines and prepare to roll out reopening plans.

That’s not a mandate, but guidance, and with coronavirus cases on the rise in certain parts of Pennsylvania and other states, educators say they are mostly ambivalent about whether guidelines and mitigation efforts can provide them a risk-free work environment.

“The teacher in me is anxious to return to school, to be around the students, to continue to do what we as teachers love to do, in our traditional fashion,” Headen said. “However, we may never use that traditional fashion again. The ultimate goal is everyone’s safety. So the fact that districts like ours and those across the country are giving parents options is a positive. Districts and teachers can try their best to keep the students as ‘safe’ as possible.”

Cesa Pusateri, 12, and her grandfather, Timothy Waxenfelter, principal of Quigley Catholic High School, leave with his collection of speech and debate books after the recent closure of the school in Baden, Pa., Monday, June 8, 2020.

Jessie Wardarski / AP Photo

Cesa Pusateri, 12, and her grandfather, Timothy Waxenfelter, principal of Quigley Catholic High School, leave with his collection of speech and debate books after the recent closure of the school in Baden, Pa., Monday, June 8, 2020.

Across Pennsylvania, school districts are scrambling to decide whether to open their doors to students and teachers in a few weeks. A growing roster of them have opted for hybrid models, where students will attend schools on certain days and work remotely on others.

Guidance from education and health officials direct schools to ensure students remain at least six feet apart all day long, and includes other provisions such as in-classroom lunch periods and health screenings every morning.

With fluid guidelines in place, educators say they want to return to school but, like legions of weary parents, they remain concerned that a return to brick-and-mortar schools poses significant and unavoidable health risks. A survey in June by the American Federation of Teachers showed 76 percent of teachers felt the same.

At the college level, professors have not been shy about expressing their concerns about face-to-face instruction during the pandemic. A majority of professors in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education said in a survey they don’t believe in-person instruction is safe and would prefer to go with online courses in the fall.

The unease voiced by teachers was one reason both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh public schools have decided to begin the new school year with remote learning. Most — but not all — central Pennsylvania schools are beginning the year with in-classroom instruction or a hybrid of online and in-person learning.

“I think everyone is wanting to do what is best in the interest of everyone. Teachers, students, parents who have to work,” said Michele Rolko, a teacher at Downey Elementary in the Harrisburg School District and president of the Harrisburg Education Association.

“We think face-to-face instruction is key to student learning. Some people want to go back. Others would rather stay remote. There’s the thought of can we do both? Right now we are following what the CDC is looking at. We are trying to get as much guidance as possible to reopen schools.”

Rolko said there really is no ideal scenario.

“You have to go day by day,” she said. “Things are changing frequently. There’s still a lot of questions but our No. 1 priority is safety of all staff, administrators and students. That is a priority, to make sure everybody is safe, however that is going to happen.”

Central to the discussion among educators is the idea that schools inherently present close quarters and close-contact environments, making in-classroom instruction and even navigating hallways a challenge for social distancing.

“We only have one chance to get school reopening right. There is no margin for error. And make no mistake about it, this virus is deadly. It kills people,” said Arthur Steinberg, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Pennsylvania. “However, before we can even consider reopening schools, there are dangers to mitigate and public health benchmarks to hit in order to protect the educators and workers who occupy these buildings every single day.”

Leanna Goodrich, a German teacher at Pennridge High School, just outside of Allentown, told state lawmakers at a hearing Monday she is concerned that some school districts are taking the virus more seriously than others within their reopening plans.

“As both a parent and a teacher I want decisions to be made based on science, facts and what is safe. If this is not being done in all parts of Pennsylvania, then perhaps the decision-making should be made by a higher authority, who will consider the safety of our community paramount,” she said. “Not the decision being made by someone who is making decisions based on either convenience or making parents or children temporarily happy.”

Jake Miller, a teacher in the Cumberland Valley school district, said some teachers are opposed to going back due to the pandemic. But in a discussion on Facebook with PennLive, Miller said some teachers want to return to the classroom.

“There are other teachers who do want to go back because we know in person at its core is what’s best, if we can do it safely,” Miller said.

Rolko notes that teachers know first-hand that coming down with a cold or flu is part of the fall back-to-school experience.

“When flu season hits it doesn’t just hit kids, it hits adults too,” she said.

Rolko said she is fond of doing a “glitter test” with her students whereby she uses glitter on the hand to demonstrate a health lesson.

“Germs spread,” she said. “It shows them that by not washing their hands and simply touching, how quickly germs can spread.”

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, Friday, July 10, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa.

One of the state’s largest teacher organizations, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents some 180,000 educators, is encouraging its local leaders to work with school districts to ensure robust mitigation efforts are part of reopening plans.

“We are making that one of our highest, if not highest, priority in the organization,” said David Broderic, a spokesman for the PSEA.

The organization’s president, Rich Askey, is urging the Wolf administration to outline plans for online instruction in the event coronavirus cases surge across the state forcing schools, once again, to shut down.

“We are not saying that districts should go all online,” Broderic said. “We are saying we should be prepared for it, in case the situation requires it.”

The organization has heard from teachers all across the state, most expressing concerns about their safety.

Individual district plans play a critical role in fostering comfort levels among teachers, he said. Still, anecdotally, PSEA has heard from teachers who are concerned about returning to the crowded spaces that are classrooms.

“There are teachers who have understandable anxiety about returning to school,” Broderic said. “It’s understandable anxiety given the situation we are in. People in different areas of the state have different views of it. This is true, not just with school reopening, but business reopenings.”

Rolko said that, at least on a personal level, she regards remote learning as the best option for everyone involved in the education process.

“We haven’t even gotten through this first phase yet,” she said. “Maybe then if we go that route, we can get a better handle on things, especially in the city where cases seem to hit harder … I think going remotely would make everyone feel comfortable at this point. We can see what happens as we go into the school year … then other decisions can be made.”

Headen said one of his biggest concerns is the fear of the unknown, particularly having his district plan for one thing only to have another situation at hand.

“The important thing will be to all work together to do what is best to educate the kids and be able to accommodate every learner,” Headen said. “Be it in a traditional setting if parents feel comfortable, remote learning, or by cyber academy. As a teacher, I know that I can do my best to keep my teaching area and class as sanitized as possible and make the parents and students feel they can learn in a clean environment. It may require me to do more and change the way I teach, but being able to adjust what I do on a day-to-day basis and feel confident that I can teach our students amid the many distractions and adjustments is my biggest concern.”

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