The effectiveness of COVID-19 safety guidelines can vary widely from one school district to another, causing many teachers to worry about the risks they face as they return to in-person learning. South_agency/Getty Images
  • COVID-19 safety guidelines, and how they’re enforced, can vary widely from one school district to another.
  • Political divides have further exasperated this discrepancy in some areas, forcing teachers to return to in-person learning, even when they have a condition that puts them at greater risk.
  • More teachers have begun raising concerns about the dangers they and their students face by returning to in-person learning in some areas.

Tanya Kitts-Lewinski is a teacher in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and has multiple autoimmune issues.  

As president of the Kenosha Education Association, she called for schools to go back to distance learning after two students at Indian Trail High School and Academy where she works tested positive for the coronavirus in September just a few days after the Kenosha Unified School District opened for in-person instruction. 

The whole process has been stressful, to say the least, on educators like Kitts-Lewinski who are highly concerned about getting sick. 

“How can you be the best for your students when you’re worried about dying?” Kitts-Lewinski said. “Nobody’s coming to save us. We’re really on our own.”

But the district hasn’t listened to teachers’ concerns and there’s nothing their union can do about it because Act 10, which was passed in 2011, gutted many rights for public employees, including their ability to strike.  

“As a union, we can’t endorse any job action because it’s illegal in the state and we could be fined daily,” she said. 

But one Monday in September, 276 teachers called in absent for the day, forcing several schools to switch back to virtual learning for the day. Soon, a group calling themselves “KUSD Parents for Choice in September” — a Facebook group with more than 1,400 members — made a public records request for those teachers’ names and published them, according to educators there. 

Since then, Wisconsin has come to lead the nation for positive COVID-19 tests with 0.72 cases per 1,000 people as of October 22, according to Johns Hopkins University

While Kenosha school district leaders said students would return home for virtual instruction if a surge in cases occurred, more than 55 positive cases had been confirmed by the fifth week of in-person instruction, although Kitts-Lewinski suspects those numbers may be under-reported. 

“It’s a terrible mess. A surge has never been defined. In our opinion, 55-plus cases in the district sounds like a surge,” Kitts-Lewinski told Healthline while at home in a 2-week quarantine after coming in contact with a student that had tested positive. She was one of more than 700 teachers and students who were put in home quarantine after positive cases in the school district began to climb.

The dangerous reality of classrooms in the time of COVID-19

Kenosha educators and parents are far from alone in constantly wondering what is best for themselves and their children and students. 

Most school districts across the country have been closed to in-person learning since March, ending the school year with virtual instruction. The end of the year was marked by canceled sports seasons and drive-thru graduations in places that were hit the hardest first. 

Even as the federal government — including President Donald Trump, himself, who was hospitalized with the virus earlier this month — pushes for the reopening of schools, it’s not tracking COVID-19 infections that occur on campuses. That, researchers told NBC News, means that it’ll be harder to identify which safety practices can best protect students and teachers.

It’s a continuation of the federal government’s lack of comprehensive strategy, leaving states to handle the brunt of the response to the coronavirus. The decision of reopening schools is left to state and county health officials, as well as individual school boards and superintendents. 

But now, some 7 months into the pandemic, parents are eager to send their children off to school again, often citing the difficulty of working without child care and the social and emotional difficulties of having their children separated from their peers.

Evaluating all the risks

“The risk of COVID has to be discussed with the risks of keeping kids out of schools,” Dr. Joseph Allen, an associate professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University, told Healthline. 

Allen and his colleagues at Harvard in June published a guide called “Schools for Health: Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools,” which says risks to students and staff can be kept low if schools adhere to strict control measures and respond to potential outbreaks.

That includes basic safety measures — like everyone wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, keeping groups of students separate as possible, and disinfecting shared surfaces often — as well as forming a response team and establishing a plan for when someone does test positive. Safety measures also include being mindful of infection rates in the community where schools are in.

“It’s prudent that if you have more than one case in your school, you should see if it was school-acquired or in the community, and reassess your control measures,” Allen said. “There’s scant evidence that schools are hotbeds of transmission.”

School facilities themselves can be transformed to meet the current needs of a pandemic, which can be as simple as installing plexiglass barriers, increasing outdoor ventilation, and filtering indoor air with portable air filters. 

“There’s always something that can be done and it doesn’t have to be a month-long overhaul,” Allen said. 

Many large school districts — namely in Texas and Florida — are in the process of returning to in-person instruction, including nearly half of the largest school districts in the country. 

New York City, once the epicenter of infections in the United States, recently opened its schools to in-person instruction. 

But three weeks in, among more than 16,000 tests only 28 came back positive, 20 of which were from staff members, according to the New York Times.

But the Times also reported on a 33,000-student district in the suburbs of Salt Lake City that opened when the rate of positive tests were roughly 1.87 new cases per 1,000 people. After 2 weeks after schools — including colleges and universities — opened, that rate shot up to 6.17 per 1,000 people, which soon set a new Utah record for the number of people hospitalized, according to the Salt Lake Tribune

In Alameda County in Northern California, which includes Oakland, the 18 K-12 districts and 12 charter schools plan to resume in-person education by depending on regular, rapid testing. That’s what the county health department wants for employees, but the schools can’t open until their teacher unions sign off on appropriate safety measures so they remain teaching and learning remotely. 

Other school districts are contracting with outside companies for safety plans. One such company is ReturnSafe, a bio-security company based in Austin, Texas, that uses a smartphone app that offers different levels of screening before a student goes to school every day, as well as alerts people who may have been exposed to someone who has tested positive. 

“The families have the confidence that it’s a safe place,” said Dr. Reef Gillum, chief medical officer at ReturnSafe. “It also keeps you from shutting down the entire school. It’s dysfunctional to start and stop in-person to distance learning and then back again.”

Political divides have led to inconsistent safety standards

Wisconsin is one of many states that have seen bitter political battles erupt as Democratic governors have ordered businesses closed during the pandemic while a Republican president repeatedly downplays formidable experts on the virus, including Dr. Anthony Fauci

Even as eight of the nation’s 20 COVID-19 metro-area hot spots are in Wisconsin, groups like the Tavern League of Wisconsin are suing Democratic Gov. Tony Evers over his recent orders to reduce capacity in bars and restaurants to 25 percent.

It’s people going to those bars and acting as everything is normal that scares teachers about going back into the classroom. 

Maddie Gallo is in her eighth year of teaching at Indian Trail High in Kenosha. She says being a teacher was “built” into her, as she derives “great joy and satisfaction” from helping others, especially teaching them about history.  

“Unfortunately, the bureaucracy and current hostility towards teachers is destroying that feeling,” she told Healthline. 

Gallo is particularly concerned about returning to in-person instruction because of her mother’s fragile medical state. Gallo does everything for her, from getting her out of bed to feeding, washing, and changing her. Even the smallest infections from common bugs could mean a long hospital stay or worse. 

“My job and COVID present a clear and present danger to her,” she said. “Any exposure to me in the classroom would be brought home to her, and would be deadly.” 

With that on her mind, Gallo watched the Kenosha Unified school board meeting on July 28, where board members voted to have schools proceed with distanced learning until things were safer.  

“I cheered. I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders,” she said. “I got right to work on converting my lesson plans to better fit a virtual format. I came up with some pretty cool stuff. I was motivated.”

But just a few weeks later, the board changed its approach to a “choice” plan, which offers both in-person and virtual learning options for students.

But teachers didn’t have a choice, which Gallo says disregards “the health and safety of its staff and students to accommodate a vicious, angry minority of parents, and also, I believe, to accommodate fall sports.”

Gallo says she begged her school’s administration to stay virtual, but they didn’t let her, which put her in “a horrible position.”

Gallo says she hasn’t left her house since March, except for grocery shopping, to clean out her classroom in May, and the two work days she attended before going on family medical leave. But that’s only 12 weeks long and she has to return to work on Nov. 30. 

“I am absolutely scared to death,” she said. “COVID numbers are still rising, the district is not forthcoming about cases and numbers of people quarantined, and their ‘Return 2020’ is woefully inadequate in protecting students and staff.”

Gallo says because of her situation, she wishes she could return to teaching remotely, whether that be social studies, world history, military history, psychology, or other subjects. 

But what she wishes the most is that people in Wisconsin and beyond would take COVID-19 seriously so it could soon be safer for those who have to be careful, including those who work in schools. 

“What especially scares me is the number of people who just don’t care, who want to go about living their lives, going to bars and restaurants, going on vacations, etc., and ignore their role in spreading this illness,” Gallo said. “When I point this out to people, I am told that they shouldn’t have to change their lives for anyone else, and anyone who is at risk should just stay home, except I still have to go get groceries and necessities, and I’m still standing next to and interacting with those people at the store. It’s selfish.”

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