With the start of the fall semester underway, school staff members all across Texas and the country are attempting to adjust to an unusual school year during COVID-19. Schools are reopening—some are holding classes virtually while most are having to open for in-person instruction.
The pressure has come from the top: first President Trump directed public schools to reopen. Governor Greg Abbott echoed that sentiment, asking Texans just last week to get the flu shot as soon as possible this season since both flu and COVID-19 symptoms are similar and the season will coincide with fall classes. Abbott is instead citing more concern for students and teachers practicing safe virus guidelines outside of the classroom than in it.
This becomes confusing for educators: On one hand, the president and governor are ordering schools to reopen, but on the other, the governor is also diverting responsibility by stating individual districts should decide how they want to proceed.
“School districts get to make their own decision and they get to take in the advice of local public health authorities as well as state and national health authorities,” Abbott said. “And then in addition to that, they can provide either an in-classroom setting, a remote learning setting or a combination of the two instilling the safest practice possible.”
Thus teachers are getting conflicting instructions from higher-ups on how to proceed during this uncertain time of the virus.
For Mark Wiggins, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, feedback from the association’s members, including teachers, administrators and staff, has involved fear, uncertainty and confusion.
“There is a powerful tension between our members’ desire to get back into their classrooms and want to see their kids and their desire to keep their students, families and themselves safe,” Wiggins stated. “It is a tough situation for people who have dedicated their lives to serving children. In some cases, parents will have a choice for their kids to receive remote instruction, but educators don’t get that choice. Confusion doesn’t inspire confidence.”
ATPE and teacher union Texas AFT have both laid out basic guidelines for the state to define including monitoring a 14-day decline in cases, positivity rates below 5 percent and a low transmission rate—all of which should help authorities decide if it is safe enough for schools to reopen in person, and recommendations that Wiggins cites being used for business reopenings as well.
Communications Director for Texas AFT Mark D’Amico states that onsite instruction could be near to impossible, considering how the situation has been going in the state.
“Most [teachers] are scared,” D’Amico recalls. “Teachers want to get back to the classroom, but don’t have any confidence in the protocols in place.”
D’Amico recognizes the concerns of politicians and pediatric societies wanting to get students back into schools for [students’] social and emotional reasons, but at the same time: “It could be fairly bad for students to be sent back to school sitting isolated in front of a laptop trying to wear a mask and follow protocols.”
There are other factors to consider, D’Amico says. Some schools having shutdown protocols in place after a single positive case is reported on their campus, not to mention the effects of the coronavirus on teachers, including health, preparation and loss of pay/benefits. With teachers concerned, many are organizing on their own, such as by making Facebook groups.
Some teachers are also planning strikes, which could get complicated in Texas since it is illegal to strike and get penalized with legal consequences if they do. Texas AFT’s national affiliate has passed a resolution supporting strikes on a ‘case-by-case’ basis since many of its local unions across the country are allowed to strike under their state laws. Texas AFT has not made any statements supporting strikes, because local unions in Texas don’t have protection under state law to do so.”
It will also be important to monitor how schools that are reopening to in-person instruction will fare the pandemic since some summer camps and school districts are already reporting positive COVID-19 cases.
But for Mark Wiggins, it all comes down to teachers continuing to make their voices heard to legislators: “Stop micromanaging school reopenings and let educators, parents and public health experts make the decisions that are best for their communities.”
Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Texas AFT has not made any statements supporting strikes. A previous version stated that Texas AFT would support strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort.