On Tuesday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Richardson ISD revealed their roadmaps to getting students back to their books Aug. 19. Texas public school districts must reopen for in-person instruction in order receive state funding, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced. As the coronavirus continues to rage in Dallas County, RISD families will have the option of sending their children into classrooms for face-to-face instruction or remaining at home for virtual learning. A similar decision also looms for teachers.

With approximately one third of RISD survey respondents saying they will choose virtual learning and two thirds declaring they’ll send their children back to campus, teachers must decide how – and if – to return. Most say they entered the profession for the joy of “lightbulb” moments and a sense of fulfillment when students demonstrate growth. Virtual learning provides fewer of these payoffs, they say. Those who return to the classroom understand that children are less likely to contract the coronavirus and at less risk for serious effects than adults, according to most studies. Teachers, though, are more likely to have underlying health issues which put them at risk of serious complications, including death, or to pass the virus to family members who do.

The prospect of returning to a potentially dangerous workplace has teachers raising questions about how the state and its school districts will handle coronavirus when school reconvenes.

  • What if a child dies of COVID-19? What if a teacher does? Are teachers equipped to care for students’ emotional and mental health? What about their own?
  • If a teacher gets COVID, do all of their students stay home for two weeks? The entire school? If a student gets it, do classmates and teacher stay home? If a teacher misses school with COVID, do those lost days come out of her sick leave?
  • There weren’t enough substitute teachers before the pandemic. Where will they come from now? If a sub can’t be found, students can’t be sent to other classes due to social distancing. If a teacher stays home, will her class stay home? Will subs go into classrooms where teachers were diagnosed with COVID? Will they be told before accepting the job? Will they be tested before moving on to the next job? Traveling nurses were banned from retirement homes when it was discovered they were spreading COVID. Will traveling subs be permitted?
  • It’s always been difficult enforcing compliance with things like dress codes, cell phones and ear buds. How will teachers enforce face masks, food sharing and social distancing? What if parents send a note to exempt them?
  • If parents need to get to work and they notice their child has a fever or cough, will they pump them full of Tylenol and cough medicine and send them to school anyway? What will teachers do if they suspect a student may have COVID?
  • Professional athletes are frequently tested to keep teams safe. How often will teachers and students be tested? Who will pay for the tests?
  • How will districts determine which employees remain on campus and which ones work from home? Will teachers with underlying health conditions get priority for virtual learning?

Retired Lake Highlands High School teacher Rhonda Russell expressed confidence in RISD’s commitment and ability to keep students and teachers safe.

“I know the schools will not risk the health of our children,” said Russell, who taught for 35 years and is now concerned that her precocious 4-year-old granddaughter could fall behind. “More harm will be done to our children if they don’t allow them to return. Let the districts work out a reasonably safe plan for our children and teachers to return.”

“Every month we keep them out of school, kids are falling behind,” added Russell. “I worry about it. If we keep this up, kids will be 19 or 20 before they graduate.”

Other teachers were more dubious about the safety of returning to work.

“As a current teacher, you are requiring me to put myself and my family at risk every day,” wrote LHJH science teacher Erin Anderson. “As a single parent, I don’t have the option to quit. In this current economy, starting a different career would be impossible. The state has taken the ‘hybrid’ option [combining online and in-person learning] off the table. This would have allowed us to reduce class sizes by half and maybe be able to space kids 6’ apart throughout the day. Now my classroom will have 25-30 kids times 6 class periods. Trust me, I understand the mental health concerns. I desperately want to return to ‘normal.’ But we’re not there yet. They released the population too soon and people are not taking the recommended precautions seriously, so we’re now back at square one. It’s easy to demand that schools open when you’re not the one exposed to 180+ teenagers every single day. [Even] the TEA offices are closed until January. I’ll shut up when Mike Morath puts his own rear end back in the workplace.”

Some teachers preferred not to share their names here, but they shared their questions and fears with other teachers on social media and in teacher chat rooms.

“All of these pediatricians say kids need to be in school for their social and emotional development,” wrote one, “yet all of the models I’ve seen have us keeping kids as separate as possible and limiting interaction. Won’t that confuse them and cause more trauma when they can’t play, work or talk together?”

“My kids want to go back to school because they want to be in the school they remember,” agreed another. “When I explained to them about the school they would be walking into, they were all adamant about preferring to stay home.”

“I’m not comfortable no matter what precautions are taken because kids are kids,” wrote another. “Those masks aren’t going to stay on. Those hands aren’t going to stay clean.”

RISD Superintendent Dr. Jeannie Stone reassured parents in her video message Tuesday that “specials,” including P.E., art and music, will be included when elementary classes resume. Some specials teachers remain as baffled as any.

“As a music teacher I’m getting really confused about what is required of me. I am also the art teacher since last year. I was told I possibly won’t be allowed to use any of my instruments because the students would have to share. I was told the same for art supplies,” wrote the teacher. “If a student gets sick, do I also have to self quarantine for 14 days? I see multiple grade levels every day…what if several students get sick and I’m forced to stay home often?”

Most teachers expressed confidence that RISD would do their darndest to preserve the health and well-being of staff and students.

“I 100% believe RISD will do everything we can to keep people as safe as we are allowed to keep them,” wrote Casey Boland, LHHS AP teacher. “Dr. Stone’s email to teachers [Tuesday] made me feel a lot better. Still work to be done, but SO much more solid than the TEA guide. And very different from the spring.”

After a flurry of messages on such a weighty topic, some teacher friends finally leaned on humor. Carol Nelson, a teacher at RISD’s Memorial Park Academy, noted that State Fair of Texas officials canceled the 2020 event on the same day as TEA’s pronouncement.

“I just want to know if we still get fair day,” she joked.

On Tuesday, the National PTA and five other groups released a joint statement of concern about the current push to reopen schools. You may read it here.