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As the number of total COVID-19 cases in Missouri and Kansas continues to rise, school districts are preparing for a unique challenge — going back to school in the middle of a pandemic. 

Now teachers are grappling not only with their students’ safety, but also their own. 

“Teachers are not prepared,” said Julian Vizitei, a 10th grade AP world history teacher at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School in Kansas City, Missouri. “There is no way to adequately make sure your class and school is consistently following the perfect COVID regulations to prevent spread.”

Districts have been exploring options that run the gamut from in-person classes to virtual learning to a hybrid model. While data shows that children with COVID-19 have milder symptoms, some studies show that children may be just as infectious as adults and able to transmit the virus to teachers and other adult school staff members who will have worse symptoms. 

A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that between July 16 and July 30, about 97,000 children tested positive for COVID-19. In Missouri, coronavirus cases in youths between 0 and 19 years old account for 11% of total cases. 

Meanwhile, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that nearly 1.5 million teachers nationwide, or 24%, have a condition that puts them at a higher risk of serious illness if they become infected with the coronavirus.

Attempts to reopen schools in other parts of the world and in the U.S. have shown that ushering children back to school is easier said than done. When schools reopened in Israel, COVID-19 rapidly spread. The Education Ministry shut down 240 schools that had cases of COVID-19 and quarantined over 22,520 teachers and students. A camp in Stone County, Missouri, closed down in July after there were 82 positive cases among the campers, counselors and staff. In Georgia, a photo of crowded hallways at a school led to national attention. Now, at the end of the first week of school, nine COVID-19 cases have been confirmed.

In July, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly issued an executive order for schools to wait to start until after Labor Day to begin classes, which was rejected by the Kansas State Board of Education. The Kansas State Board of Education accepted a guidance document, Navigating Change, to help school districts determine policies that can keep teachers and students safe. But there is no requirement that school districts must implement any of these policies. Kelly also released an order for school staff and students to wear masks, but the attorney general stated schools can opt out if they wish.

Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools decided that students should begin at least the first nine weeks of the school year with distance learning, in which teachers and students interact online. In virtual learning, students use self-directed digital tools.

Missouri has not released any orders to delay the school year, but the Kansas City Public Schools Board of Directors decided to delay reopening until after Labor Day and begin the school year with distance learning only.

It’s unclear how many teachers have decided to retire early or quit because of the pandemic. A national survey of 1,907 educators from Education Week Research Center showed that the number of teachers who were somewhat or very likely to leave the classroom at the end of the 2019-2020 school year because of the pandemic increased 11 percentage points.  Some teachers are switching to homeschooling students in a private tutoring setup because of the pandemic.

‘It’s very personal’

Craig Fisher, an English and theater teacher at Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Kansas, prepared for the upcoming school year by getting his will and estate in order. 

“That’s something I never thought I would have to do. I’m not even 40,” he said. “I am very scared to be in-person and deal with what the ramifications of that are going to be.” 

Fisher’s mother tested positive for COVID-19 on Mother’s Day and died two weeks later.

“Everyone is talking about this like it is business as normal, but for some of us, it’s not,” he said. “For these 160,000 people whose families have lost someone, it’s very personal.”

Craig Fisher drafts lesson plans for his classes at Lawrence High School, where the first six weeks of class will be conducted through distance learning. Zach Bauman/The Beacon

The first six weeks of classes with Lawrence Public Schools will be distance learning, with a chance of returning to in-person classes with a hybrid model later. Fisher says at first, teacher input wasn’t being taken, until the union stepped in. Since then, the school district and union have both been releasing teacher surveys.

“There are a lot of concerns for safety, not only for regular classroom educators, but those who are immunocompromised or live with someone in that way,” said Gerry Sigle, executive director of the Kansas Association of American Educators.

“We’re trying to inform our members of what they can expect and what their rights are.”

The association has been working with its members to encourage them to communicate with their administrations and is urging educators to work with local boards of education to be safe. 

Fisher doesn’t think in-person classes should return until there have been 14 days without new COVID-19 cases within the county. He also has a list of health and safety concerns, including whether the HVAC systems will be updated, if teachers will have to purchase cleaning supplies and clean their own classrooms and if teachers will be provided personal protective equipment or scrubs. 

“I just hope that people understand that me advocating for myself and my safety and my family’s safety, especially given what I’ve been through, is not a selfish act,” Fisher said. 

“We all want to do our jobs. We don’t want to be made out as the villains because we’re trying to be safe.” 

Garrett Viets, a middle school choir teacher also in the Lawrence school district, doesn’t think it’s safe to return to in-person classes until there is a vaccine. 

“If you tell a few hundred kids to keep their masks on and not go near each other, good luck,” Viets said. “It’s not that our guidelines are bad, it’s how they are expected to work that is the problem.” 

Choir has been shown to be particularly dangerous when it comes to COVID-19 transmission. Viets has rewritten his class curriculum so that it doesn’t include singing.

“Trying to provide the students with the same kind of learning in the past is a concern,” he said. “Realistically, we have to accept it won’t be the same kind of learning.”

Quantifying concerns from teachers

The Missouri State Teachers Association has been receiving questions from its members about what teachers should do in different situations regarding COVID-19, like if they have to use their sick time if they become ill, or whether their district can cover their sick days. MSTA surveyed its members and found that 57% of the respondents were concerned about contracting COVID-19 when in-person school begins, and 46% were either in a high-risk category or had a family member in a high-risk category.

“A lot of those questions were unanswered at the time, and honestly, they’re still unanswered,” said Todd Fuller, MSTA spokesperson.

MSTA released its position on school reopening, which includes policies it believes Missouri school districts should follow: providing accommodations for teachers or staff who are immunocompromised, involving teachers in school reopening plans, providing personal protective equipment for teachers and ensuring that teachers exposed to COVID-19 do not have to use their sick leave to quarantine. 

MSTA also sent letters to the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission chairman and Gov. Mike Parson asking for an emergency rule similar to one already in place for first responders that presumes any teacher or educational staff member who contracts COVID-19 did so while working.

“I think that the districts that have done the best job are the ones that have had some type of surveys, that tried to do it as early as possible so they could get feedback from the community,” Fuller said. “It’s important to gauge the concern that teachers have about going back to the classroom.”

“It’s important that they have input and that all school personnel have input into what their day-to-day experience is going to look like, knowing that there are some individuals with preexisting conditions. And not every district has done that.”

Teachers organizing for a safe return

Some Missouri teachers have begun organizing to take action for their safety. A Facebook group called Missouri for a Safe Return to Campus has nearly 13,000 members. The group supports measures like waiting to return to in-person classes until there are 14 straight days of COVID-19 case declines and a less than 5% positive test rate in their counties. It also demands a state investment in broadband and laptops to aid virtual and distance learning, investments for school staff who have their jobs cut and long-term funding for educators’ salaries.

“The worry is that we are being forced back quickly without true knowledge of what is happening. The idea is that if other people go back to work, teachers need to go back and put themselves at risk because other people are getting sick,” said Vizitei, who is one of the founders of Missourians for Educational Change, which grew from the other Facebook group.

Vizitei’s school is returning virtually this fall, with laptops provided for each student and support for families to secure internet access, including funding for hotspots.

“You’re going to see teachers who will lose limbs, teachers who have problems breathing for weeks, months and potentially the rest of their lives,” Vizitei said. “You’re going to have teachers who have strokes and have mental and physical ailments for the rest of their lives.”

Right now, Missourians for Educational Change’s main focus is growing its membership. The first action the group intends to take is getting a comprehensive list of every Missouri school district’s reopening policy, creating a grade system and using its members to leverage actions to help school districts make safe choices in reopening.

Vizitei is not a part of a teachers union and was inspired to found Missourians for Educational Change partially because he doesn’t think unions are doing enough to provide for the safety of teachers.

“I commend unions for doing the things they do actively, for bargaining and getting teacher contracts,” Vizitei said. “But right now, they aren’t standing up to the dire moment teachers are facingliterally putting their lives on the line.”

Brittany Callan is the health and environment reporter at The Beacon and a Report for America corps member. You can reach Brittany at brittany@thebeacon.media. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.

Brittany Callan is the health and environment reporter at The Beacon and a Report for America corps member. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.