CHARLES TOWN – Many teachers have been feeling jittery facing safety concerns, added responsibilities and overall uncertainty as Tuesday’s reopening of Jefferson County’s public schools draws near amid the coronavirus outbreak.
As teachers returned to work last week to prepare for the new school year’s reopening, some have been more than jittery, agreed state Sen. Patricia Rucker, a Republican, and state Delegate Sammi Brown, a Democrat.
“I definitely have heard directly from teachers about the reopening, and most of it has been that they’re concerned,” said Rucker, a conservative representing portions of Jefferson and Berkeley counties who serves as chairman of the state Senate’s education committee. “They’re very concerned.”
“Folks are reaching out to me,” said Brown, a progressive representing central Jefferson, including much of Ranson and Charles Town. “They’re scared. They do love to teach, but these are circumstances that are very troubling to them.”
Brown estimated that she received about 200 emails, phone calls and messages from concerned teachers. Rucker said she talked directly with about a half-dozen teachers.
“I’ve definitely gotten a lot more feedback and just in the past couple of days,” Brown said last Friday. “I imagine the reality has set in for sure.”
A few teachers are worried enough about catching COVID-19 to draft their wills, Brown added. Some purchased extra masks, gloves and hand sanitizer over the summer to ensure they and their students are prepared throughout this fall, she said.
Rucker’s and Brown’s assessments and behind-the-scenes feedback — although registering somewhat more tension than two other Jefferson lawmakers, Delegate John Doyle, a Democrat, and Delegate Paul Espinosa, a Republican, have discovered while encountering teachers and school staff — reflect the uncertainty of what lies ahead for teachers, students, school service personnel and parents.
“Generally speaking, I think there’s a recognition by those I’ve spoken with that there will continue to be challenges, uncertainties and needed adjustments — just as there are in the private sector,” Espinosa, the House Republican whip and a former House education committee chair, offered in an email, “but that it’s important to allow our students to return to school, for their well-being, in as safe a manner as possible.”
While speaking to about a dozen teachers and school service staff, Espinosa commented that he has spoken with Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson to thank school officials for the difficult work they’ve been doing to reopen the schools in an unprecedented environment of continual change.
“I think Jefferson County Schools is doing their best to focus on the needs of students while making every reasonable effort to accommodate staff members who are part of vulnerable populations,” he wrote.
Doyle, a member of the House of Delegates education committee, said the teachers and parents he’s talked with are tentative about the reopening but are willing to give it a chance to work. “We’re really between a rock and a hard place,” he said of the mandatory reopening issued by Gov. Jim Justice.
Meanwhile, Rucker and Brown said some teachers have expressed apprehension about their extra teaching workloads to juggle classroom and online instruction. Teachers with children are concerned about having to report to classrooms to conduct online instruction during a safety shutdown, leaving them pressed to find childcare if that happens, they said.
“I think we often forget that our educators are parents too,” Brown said. “They have kids in school too.”
Brown said she has heard concerns about not having enough masks or face shields to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among students. Some teachers are concerned about whether the air ventilation systems in the older school buildings are sufficient for a coronavirus environment, she said. More teachers had hoped, she said, to have been selected to teach only online instruction to avoid in-person classroom environment.
Last week, Justice announced that more masks and other medical protection were being shipped to all schools across West Virginia, ensuring that enough protection will be available to meet the needs of all students and teachers.
“If I had gone off what our governor has said in his press conferences, I may have thought that everything will be fine and our educators were really cool with his re-entry plan,” Brown countered last Friday. “But I know better, because folks do contact me on a regular basis, and I do have the benefit of having grown up in the district that I now represent. Folks are very candid with me.”
The county chapter of the American Federation of Teachers conducted a recent survey of about 240 of the school system’s 750 teachers on the reopening. About 80 percent of the teachers polled then thought it was still unsafe to reopen schools. Half of the teachers indicated they will or would retire if they could to avoid the risk of classroom teaching during the outbreak.
School officials have conducted their own internal poll of teachers, but Brown added that some teachers are afraid to speak out for fear they would be punished in some way for doing so.
Jefferson County Schools officials, have no doubt been busy preparing to reopen schools and reassuring frontline staff and have been continually updating their reopening protocols in response to state mandates and federal guidelines, as they issued the latest changes on Saturday.
About 40 percent of the school system’s students — or 3,600 of 8,900 students — have chosen to use a virtual learning option during the first semester of the school year ending in November.
For the district’s remaining students, the school system is planning a phased-in approach where only a quarter of them will be called to classrooms each day during the first two weeks of the reopening.
Afterward, schools will keep classes to 18 to 25 students and keep those students together as much as possible to keep fewer students from physically mixing and interacting during the school day.
Justice’s administration is imposing a four-color coded COVID alert system that will dictate how local school buildings will operate, and when they will operate or close, based on different degrees of community infection rates.
A green code, when a county has an infection rate of three or fewer cases per 100,000 population, gives an all-clear for in-person classes with social distancing safeguards. A red code, when a county has 25 or more cases per 100,000 of population, will shut classrooms and revert to remote online learning for all students. The middle-ground yellow and orange codes will impose precautions in between opening and closing.
Doyle maintained that the governor’s administration appeared to adjust the alert system’s metrics last month so that the state’s 55 school systems are more likely to reopen and stay open. “That’s what worries me more than anything,” he said.
Brown and Doyle, worry that not enough health safety safeguards are in place at schools across West Virginia.
Both criticized the governor for not holding a special legislative session this summer to craft more effective guidelines than what the governor developed.
Such guidelines would have been much more clear to define what school systems could do and when, including when to close schools to teach online, Brown said.
We genuinely could have pulled this together and had something that was a statewide guideline that was very clear and voted upon by the people,” she added. “And now it’s still a top-down approach.”
“Almost all of the Democratic members were really, really leery of how this is going to work,” Doyle said.