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Teachers worry about how to keep them safe if their schools reopen in coronavirus pandemic

(CNN) – After months outside the classroom, Sarah Gross, an English teacher in high school in New Jersey, is anxious for schools to open again this fall.

But she is skeptical of how it can happen safely when Covid-19 cases occur across the country.

“I desperately want to go back to my classroom,” Gross told CNN. “But I think a lot of people who are calling on schools to reopen – especially because we need childcare or the economy to start over – have no idea what schools look like today.”

Teachers who spoke to CNN said they were trying to puzzle out a snowball of unanswered questions about the school in the midst of a global pandemic. As the number of coronavirus cases increases, they weigh the risks to students and colleagues, their families, and themselves.

But since President Donald Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other politicians are pushing schools to reopen, there are no easy answers.

“I think many times forget that kids don̵

7;t go to school by themselves,” Gross said. “Schools are run by many adults, and many of those adults are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.”

Fear for their health

For many teachers, the health risks associated with returning to the classroom are especially for their own families and co-educators.

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Phil Strunk, 28, an American history teacher at Northern Virginia Middle School, said he would “love to go back to school as long as we make it safe.”

“But I have a pregnant wife at home,” he said. “I don’t want to bring anything home to her.”

Jordan Grinnell, 33, a high school teacher in the Dallas area high school, has no children and no underlying health condition. But she sees her parents every week. Both are in the 60s, and Grinnell is worried about sending something to them, especially after her father’s recent prostate cancer surgery.

“If I go back to school,” she wondered, “does that mean I don’t have to visit them for a whole semester?”

Teachers are also afraid of their colleagues, some of whom are vulnerable to the corona virus because they are older or have a health condition. Gross, who is 37, said she is not only worried about teachers but also bus drivers, lunch aids and secretaries.

Angela McByrd, 30, a college statistics teacher for a charter network in Chicago, pointed out that classrooms are not the most sanitary places to begin with. “Children get sick easily and they can definitely spread things very quickly,” Byrd said.

Before the coronavirus, parents would send their children to school sickness, McByrd said. “And I wonder if that kind of thing would happen during this time,” she said, “because parents don’t have childcare.”

Angela McByrd wonders if parents will continue to send their children to school sickness, even in a pandemic.

Manuel Rustin worries about his students and their families. Rustin, a 40-year-old high school teacher in Pasadena, California, said many of his students live in extended family units with older relatives. And he worries that students may bring home coronavirus.

But he hates to imagine a student getting sick at school. “I don’t think anyone would be willing to name the student you are willing to let be intubated” based on reopening schools, he said.

“What is the number of students or family members of students we are okay with dropping because we are pressured to show up in person?” he asked.

Unanswered questions

In addition to their health problems, teachers envision the countless scenarios that can play out as the school year approaches – for many districts, within a few weeks.

After New Jersey released its guidelines this fall, Gross said she and her colleagues began collecting questions in a Google Doc. Now, after circulating it among other teachers, there are almost 400 questions.
Jillian Heise says there are still as many questions as

Some seem basic, like how will shared instruments in music classes be cleaned? But others are more frightening, said Gross, for example: “If a teacher cooperates with Covid and it can be contacted back to the classroom, will the pension system pay out his life insurance to his surviving family members?”

Jillian Heise, a 40-year-old elementary school librarian in southeastern Wisconsin, wondered how outbreaks could track the plans schools have in place. What happens, for example, if she tests positive for Covid-19?

“Shutting down the whole school? Because I’ve had contact with every classroom if I go in person,” Heise said. She also raised the following questions: What happens if a teacher has to quarantine? Does the class also have to quarantine? Will they learn at home? Does the teacher have to teach if he or she is quarantined? Would the teacher get paid?

“It’s the questions that many teachers are asking right now that don’t seem to have answers,” Heise said.

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Others expressed skepticism about social distance and possible mask mandates for students. Although they seem reasonable to older students, it may be difficult for younger children to follow these guidelines throughout the day, they said.

Rustin pointed to confrontations between adults over masking mandates. “The adults have children,” he said.

“So schools that try to enforce that will have to unite with the kids whose parents say this is all a hoax,” he said. “It’s a worry, big time.”

The school does not look the same

Many school districts have not yet formalized plans for the fall. However, some have started or are planning to start examining parents and teachers to measure their comfort level. The Los Angeles Unified School District found in a survey that 20% of families and 36% of staff did not want to return to school, Superintendent Austin Beutner said in June.

Some district plans include hybrid models. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that schools would use “blended learning” if they re-open in the fall, meaning students will learn personally some days and remotely about others.

“Most schools will not be able to have all their children in school at the same time,” said the mayor.

Many teachers left wonder how they can best prepare for the coming school year. They are planners by nature, said Karla Amaya, 45, an English teacher at Los Angeles Junior School. “But we don’t know what we’re getting ready for,” she said.

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Regardless of plans, schools will not look like they did before the pandemic, especially with social distance, no group activities and some social interaction.

“You can’t hold a childhood hand or give them a hug when they cry the first day,” Heise said. “How do you build relationships and society when you try to keep everything at a distance for safety?”

Hybrid models are also wrong compromises, some teachers said. Amaya said that although only half of the students come part of the day, followed by the other half, they are still at risk.

“We forget that there is a common denominator among all these children: the teacher,” she said.

What would make teachers feel safer?

Every educator who spoke to CNN said they wanted to return to the classroom.

Manuel Rustin, seen in this still image from a video with distance learning, says returning to the class is preferable.  But he is not sure it can be done safely.

“Being with students is the preferred model for learning. history teacher. “The personal connection is still very important.”

“But I just don’t see how it could happen,” he said.

While each teacher was skeptical about returning to the classroom, some felt that there were certain things that would make them feel safer.

“The big thing is universal mask-wearing,” said Strunk, the Virginia middle school teacher. “Establish the routine with both adults and students in advance to make it much more to the social norm.”

McByrd prefers to spend the first quarter of school completely online and allow school districts to make decisions about the following quarter based on current information.

“Watching and deciding whether it is viable to open for the next quarter would actually make me feel the most secure,” she said.

Phil Strunk wants to see mask-wearing become the social norm before students return to the classroom.

Gross wants to see cases decline in New Jersey and across the country, She said. It’s hard to feel comfortable going back to school when her phone buzzes with a news alert that another record for new cases has been broken, she said.

Amaya agreed, saying that if cases were to go down, more teachers would feel safe. “But it doesn’t make sense to go all the way back when we’re in a worse place today than we were” when schools closed last spring, Amaya said.

“I think we all look forward to one day being able to teach this pandemic as history rather than presently,” Strunk said.

CNN’s Christina Zdanowicz and Alisha Ebrahimji contributed to this report.

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