Some teachers have quit while others have sued over state plans to require educators to instruct students in classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images
  • As some school districts order campuses to reopen, teachers are facing the decision whether to quit their jobs or return to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The debate has led some teachers unions to file lawsuits against states where schools have been ordered to begin in-person learning again.
  • Educators say it can be difficult to remain safe even with masks, physical distancing, and surface sanitization.

Two weeks ago, Kevin Fairhurst, a high school science teacher in the Queen Creek Unified School District in Arizona, quit a job that he loves.

It happened shortly after the school board in Queen Creek, which is about 40 miles southeast of Phoenix, voted to return students in the district to in-person learning.

The district announced it would be placing 25 to 30 students in a classroom for extended periods of time, Fairhurst said.

But the data he studied showed that the school wasn’t ready for full-time, in-person learning and that doing so too early could threaten the health of the teachers as well as other school employees, the students, and families.

“The data from the experts in our health field suggested we should not yet be teaching in person because of the potential for this to cause more outbreaks,” said Fairhurst, who taught biology and anatomy and is married with four children.

“I had to consider the health of my family. I am a science teacher. We gather evidence and we make decisions. If there is competing data, we look at both and weigh them,” Fairhurst told Healthline.

He resigned on August 13. He wasn’t the only teacher at the school to give notice. He notes that nine of the 17 science teachers at the two high schools in his district have quit.

Fairhurst, for one, doesn’t regret his decision.

“This is the hardest professional decision I’ve ever made,” he said. “I have a passion for education. I love being in the classroom.”

Fairhurst fears there will be another bump in COVID-19 cases “as schools reopen around the country and more districts open in September or October.”

Meanwhile, at the J.O. Combs Unified School District, which neighbors Queen Creek, the board also voted to approve 100 percent in-person learning.

But teachers in that district responded by calling in sick in what became a revolt against the district’s decision.

The Combs district subsequently held an emergency board meeting, and the board voted 4-1 to resume virtual learning.

The new normal for teachers

Chaos and confusion are common now for the 4 million instructors who teach kindergarten through 12th grade in the United States.

The same can be said for the 1.3 million educators who teach at a college or university.

Without a federal mandate, each state, county, city, district, and individual school is handling the situation a little differently based on state orders, district decisions, parental and student and local input, and in some cases individual school and principal directives.

Teachers aren’t expected to wear hazmat suits. But it’s close.

Many educators are wearing face shields, and some schools are erecting glass partitions between each student and for the teacher, and providing other personal protective equipment.

Students and teachers will be getting their temperatures checked every day in most schools. Most students except for perhaps the very youngest will be wearing masks.

Physical distancing will be enforced, even on the playgrounds at recess.

Colleges are hot spots for COVID-19

At the college level, there’s already been a surge of new COVID-19 cases on campuses since reopening began.

The University of Alabama has had more than 550 people test positive, the majority of them students.

At Notre Dame, nearly 500 students and a staff member have tested positive so far this month.

All of which begs the question: Can teachers be expected to provide in-person learning that is safe for both the instructors and the students?

That question is causing widespread anxiety, fear, and anger among America’s educators, students, and their families.

Iowa’s education battle

In Iowa, the issue has grown increasingly contentious since Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation last month requiring schools to provide students with at least 50 percent of classes in person.

An Iowa teacher’s union and the Iowa City Community School District responded with a lawsuit last week asking a judge to block enforcement of Reynolds’ order.

Officials with the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) and the school district said in an ISEA press release they were filing the lawsuit to “confirm the authority of local school districts and their boards of directors in making decisions in the best interest of health and safety regarding school closures, virtual learning and other important measures.”

The plaintiffs said the governor exceeded her authority and that local school boards have the primary authority over their education plans.

The Iowa City school board had voted last week to join the ISEA’s lawsuit against the state, but it also said the district would start classes with 50 percent in-person instruction to comply with the requirement.

That all changed on Wednesday when the state education department granted the Iowa City school district permission to teach classes online for the near future.

The move was prompted in part by reports that Iowa set a one-day record with 1,475 new confirmed COVID-19 cases this week. Johnson County, where Iowa City is located, also set a one-day record with 334 new cases.

Brady Shutt, a high school teacher in Iowa, says states should avoid a “one size fits all” approach to classroom education. Photo courtesy Brady Shutt

Brady Shutt, an Iowa City high school government teacher and president of the Iowa City Education Association, told Healthline earlier this week that the governor’s office had forced his district to prepare for in-person teaching sooner than he and his colleagues had hoped.

He said a decision to return to the classroom, whenever that may be, is not one to be taken lightly by him or his wife, who is also a teacher.

Shutt said the actions of Iowa state officials make the process of ensuring the highest levels of safety considerably more challenging if and when teachers and students return to school.

“The late-in-the-game proclamations and guidance from the state have the effect of imposing a one-size-fits-all approach at the very time we most need our locally elected officials and authorities to respond to the conditions in their community,” Shutt said.

He remains confident that his side will prevail in court.

“Our teachers are committed to our students and to our profession. We are working night and day to provide a safe, world-class education to all students, in whatever form that is,” he said.

Des Moines teachers also defiant

Despite the fact that Iowa is seeing a record number of COVID-19 cases this week, the Iowa City Community School District remains the only district among 350 in Iowa to be given the go-ahead by Governor Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Education to begin the year with virtual learning.

In Des Moines, a request by public school officials to begin the year with primarily virtual learning was denied by the Iowa Department of Education.

Des Moines Public Schools, which has more than 33,000 students and nearly 5,000 employees, responded by filing a lawsuit this week against the state to reverse the decision.

The petition asks the court to issue an injunction to set aside the state’s decision as well as review the state’s authority to override the authority granted under Iowa law to locally elected school boards.

“The governor and her agencies have decided to ignore the local decision-making authority set out in the law to try and force their will on school districts to do things we all know are simply not safe at this time,” Kyrstin Delagardelle, chair of the Des Moines school board, said in a statement.

The governor replied that she was “disappointed to hear that the Des Moines Public School system plans to sue the state rather than to work cooperatively to develop a return to learn plan that complies with the law and meets the educational and health needs of Iowa’s children.”

On Friday, Phil Roeder, the Des Moines Public Schools director of communications and public affairs, told Healthline that “Des Moines Public Schools has grave concerns about the process the state has put in place and the extreme positivity rate they’ve set to even be considered to do virtual learning.”

“It is simply not in the best interest of the health and well-being of our students, staff and community, which is why we had no choice but to take the governor and her agencies to court,” he added.

Roeder said the governor has essentially put school districts “on a tight rope with no net and the rope is fraying, causing confusion and concern for educators and parents alike.”

The Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, printed an editorial this week in support of more flexibility for school district’s across the state.

The newspaper writes, “The governor seems to not understand the danger of the virus, and her administration’s problems with data have eroded public trust.”

In a statement, Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Ahart said that as the COVID-19 situation continued to worsen in Iowa, the district altered its plan in order to safely start the school year through primarily virtual learning. 

“We sought every opportunity to cooperate and collaborate but, after exhausting those avenues, [the school district] was left with little choice but to pursue legal action for an injunction to set aside the state rejection of our virtual learning plan and to review the state’s authority,” Ahart said.

He explained the lawsuit is about “local control and who is best positioned to make decisions to promote the health and safety of our students and staff, their families and the broader community while pursuing our core mission: educating our students.” 

Meanwhile, in nearby Ankeny, Iowa, seven students and one school employee reportedly tested positive for the virus on Wednesday, just one day before classes there started.

The case in Florida

Meanwhile, in Florida, another court case could act as a precedent for Iowa and other states.

A Florida judge sided this week with the Florida Education Association, ruling that the state’s order to require schools to teach students in the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic is unconstitutional and ignores safety concerns.

Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson granted the request in a lawsuit filed by the teachers union to block the order issued in July by state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran compelling schools to reopen 5 days a week for families that didn’t want their children to do all virtual learning.

The state has appealed, but Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram told The Washington Post that his district can now plan for a safe school reopening that follows local health guidelines.

“We won because we are on the side of right, on the side of public health and safety,” Ingram said.

Working hard to stay positive

Leah Perryman has been an educator for 30 years with the Clark County School District in Nevada.

The district includes Las Vegas and the surrounding area and has more than 300,000 students, 35,000 employees, and 336 schools.

She currently teaches third grade.

And, like most educators across the United States, she is trying to make the best out of a difficult situation.

“As a teacher, and the mother of a son who grew up with reactive airway disease that resulted in lungs with scar tissue, I was worried about the safety of my elderly parents, my son, and my students as we moved closer to making decisions about the start of the school year,” Perryman told Healthline.

Leah Perryman, a third grade teacher in Clark County, Nevada, says it’s been challenging to build a virtual classroom that is user friendly. Photo courtesy Leah Perryman

Her district made the decision to go entirely virtual for now, even though several private schools in the area have begun opening to in-person learning.

“It’s been challenging to say the least with technology issues, learning to build a virtual classroom that is user friendly for young learners, and making sense of how to reach all learners and learning styles via a computer,” Perryman said.

“Not to mention the 7 hours my grade level spent outside in 112-degree heat to pass out supplies to our 120 students to ensure that they had everything they need for at least the first half of the year,” she added.

Perryman is confident that the district’s decision to go with virtual learning is the best way to keep her students safe for now.

“I can breathe a sigh of relief that my son and elderly parents, who are at high risk, are safe when they are near me,” she said.

“The district has made some tough decisions in the midst of a pandemic, trying to ensure that highest level of learning is taking place at a distance, while keeping the students and staff safe,” she added.

The situation in San Diego

In San Diego, public health officials said Tuesday that all schools in San Diego County will be allowed to reopen for in-person instruction next week.

Current public health orders have been updated and will become effective Saturday. But that doesn’t mean all schools will be open for business.

Ashley Harbecke, a physical education teacher at Logan Memorial Educational Complex in the San Diego Unified School District, doesn’t think this decision will immediately affect her or her students.

“I knew that would be coming. But as the second largest school district in the state, I doubt San Diego Unified will open up,” she told Healthline. “They don’t have the money to keep it up to the safety code.”

Harbecke was told just days ago that she will be doing online learning until at least January.

But whatever happens, Harbecke said she’s determined to keep things positive for the kids.

“I’m lucky that San Diego Unified is doing distance learning for now,” she said.

“If they would have made us go back to school, I would not have felt safe. There was no way to lower class sizes to make it safe for teachers and staff.”

Harbecke said teachers and students would have gotten sick.

“It would have been nearly impossible to find subs. ‘Hi, can you sub for Coach Harbecke’s class of 50 students, she’s out with COVID?,’” she said.

Harbecke has other family members in Illinois who are educators, and they too are doing distance learning.

“We all are thankful our [districts] made the hard and best choice for teachers and students,” she said.

Harbecke’s first day with students is Monday.

“I have no idea what it’s going to be like meeting my students for the first time online,” she said.

“I teach because I love my kids. I love the energy I get from them. I love being around them and us all laughing together and having a great time. I don’t think the same relationship is going to be made on a Zoom meeting.”

Harbecke describes herself as “one of the lucky ones” who enjoys mixing technology with physical education.

“There is a lot more to PE than just learning how to kick a soccer ball. What muscles are you using to kick that ball? Tired from running up and down the field? What can you do to help you become a stronger soccer player? What motivates you to want to work out and want to play?,” she explained.

Teaching physical education online won’t be fun, but Harbecke said she will make it as fun as possible for the kids to learn.

“There was no good answer here. Kids do need to be in school. But we are in a pandemic, and there are no right answers. Just the best situation for the greater good,” she said.

“I honestly have put it in my head that we will be online teaching for the whole 20/21 year,” she added. “If we get to go back it will be a very pleasant surprise.”

What an infectious disease expert thinks

Dr. Robert Turner Schooley, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego, said the safety of a school depends on a lot of factors.

“Safety depends on where you are and where the epidemic is, as well as what conditions you have in the school,” he told Healthline.

“There are a lot of communities that have not made it clear that students need to wear masks, at all times, and in places like that, no, the teachers should not be back in school nor should the children,” he noted.

Schooley said teachers and their students shouldn’t return to in-person learning until schools figure out how to do testing to make sure they are identifying asymptomatic infections as well as fulfilling the masking requirements.

“You can’t have a bunch of people in the lunch room with their masks off. Not until everyone is complying should we begin to bring teachers and students and school workers back to school,” he said.

Schooley said one of the biggest issues is that there is no consistent national policy that has developed over time and no consistent message on the federal level.

“The main thing is wearing masks and eliminating situations in which the virus transmits itself, which includes people getting together in enclosed spaces with no masks in restaurants, bars, churches, gyms, places where the virus is put into air and people breathe it in,” he said.

Schooley, whose daughter teaches fifth grade in Virginia and will be opening her school in an online format, said this pandemic has placed an enormous amount of additional stress on teachers.

“The demands on teachers now are even more substantial than they were. They are asked to teach both in-person and remote classes, clean the desks, enforce social distancing, and more. They are made to do a whole range of things that make it hard to focus on education,” he said.

Schooley said teachers have a lot of joy in what they do.

“They’re not there for the money. They would do something else. But now we are taking that joy away and forcing teachers to tell their students to stand on the blue dot all day long,” Schooley said.

“And they have to juggle online and in-person courses, and teach double sections, and go to the playground and try to keep children 6 feet apart. A lot of teachers are saying ‘I will do something else,’” he said.

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