Despite the Delta variant and the rise of COVID cases in North Carolina, schools are opening their doors. Many teachers are excited to see their students again, and many are worried about safety.
In-person schooling is a tricky topic with many different perspectives. Some N.C. teachers are so worried, they’re getting together to fight the reopening of schools. However, Gov. Roy Cooper strongly encouraged students to get back to the classroom, which disappointed and surprised some teachers.
Education isn’t the only concern, either: In an NPR article, pediatrician Dr. Danielle Dooley commented on other problems to consider, such as hunger, abuse at home, and mental health challenges, all of which can arise with virtual schooling.
There’s no perfect choice, and many questions still loom over our heads. Is reopening schools safe? Will people adhere to precautions? Will school stay in person, and if not, when will they close again? Are teachers making changes? Are schools as a whole making changes that encourage the utmost level of safety?
Women AdvaNCe spoke with two N.C. teachers about their experiences and beliefs. Here’s what they had to say.
The Joys and Concerns of Schools Opening Their Doors
“I worry about losing a colleague or student to COVID-19,” said Kenan Kerr, an English language arts teacher and academic facilitator. “I also worry about sickening my own family, even though we are all vaccinated and wear our masks religiously. I worry that, instead of using this pandemic to make radical changes in the way we approach teaching and learning, things will stay exactly the same.”
And things have stayed the same in many unsustainable ways, according to Kerr. “Class sizes are what they were pre-COVID, with little room to social distance. No school-based testing program for unvaccinated staff and students has been initiated, despite the recommendations from public health officials,” Kerr explained. “HVAC units are in a state of disrepair, weakening already poor ventilation. Teachers are coming to school sick because they know there is no one to cover their classes, and administrators and support staff are stepping in to cover existing vacancies.”
Not all teachers are experiencing these difficulties and concerns to the same degree, though. Sandie Rudisill, a physical education teacher and curriculum facilitator, is excited to see students again. “I am glad students were able to come back to school on August 23. I missed being in person and interacting with my students,” she said.
Research on the Impacts of In-Person Education
Research on the COVID-related impacts of reopening schools varies. For every study or article about it being safe, there’s another about it not being safe, and vice versa.
According to a CDC post in early August, in-person schooling this fall is a priority for student learning. However, the CDC also recommends vaccination first and foremost, then mask-wearing—regardless of vaccination status. Additionally, the CDC suggests people stay three feet away from each other, as well as engaging in regular COVID testing, handwashing, and staying home if you feel sick.
Those measures are especially important for students under 12 years old who aren’t eligible for vaccination yet, as well as their family and teachers.
Teachers Make Changes for Safer Learning
In addition to those protocols, both Kerr and Rudisill are changing their lessons and spaces to make school safer for all.
“When the weather cools, I plan to move some of our learning outside so that students can work in small groups with less of a worry about transmission,” Kerr said. She won’t be encouraging group work inside much anymore. “I also hesitate to incorporate much movement into our lessons, as it’s impossible to maintain three feet of distance with 30 plus students in such a small place.”
Since Kerr centralized collaboration and active learning pre-COVID, this is a major change for her—but it’s also one she’s more than willing to make.
Rudisill is also working hard to change her lessons. “We are limiting team sports activities and doing more individual sports like badminton, tennis, dancing, and disc golf,” she said. “I have to make sure the equipment is sanitized and students are washing their hands… I am not using any strenuous exercise or activities since a mask is worn all day.”
Her classes also occasionally take place outside, which both she and her students love. “I have enjoyed taking my students outside to exercise and play games while making sure students are six feet away from each other. My students have enjoyed being outside and are glad we have the opportunity to learn and get fresh air,” she said.
Will Schools Stay In-Person?
Teachers are making many changes to make in-person education safe—and most, if not all, are wearing masks—but will in-person school last? Or will students and teachers be back to virtual learning soon?
Kerr doesn’t believe schools will stay in person all year. “I think there will be a lot of fits and starts, with the school and the district closing down for two-week periods due to outbreaks and clusters. This is already occurring across the state,” she said. “I also foresee schools and districts having to close temporarily because of staffing issues. There is a dearth of substitutes—and a very high demand.”
Rudisill sees classes staying in person—with one condition. “I do think school will stay in session as long as the COVID cases do not increase,” she said. “It has been hard wearing masks all day and teaching, but I know everyone has to hang in there and do what is necessary for students to learn and get a quality education.”
How You Can Support N.C. Teachers and Students
Besides wearing masks, getting vaccinated, and thanking school personnel, you can support teachers and students in another way.
“My most ardent hope is that the American public will start ‘appreciating’ teachers with their votes and their advocacy,” Kerr said. “Bad education policy has eroded our public schools—and both parties and all levels of government bear responsibility. The pandemic has just exacerbated a problem that was already decades in the making.”
The way our education systems—and lives—will play out is still plagued with unknowns, just as they were a year ago. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to help.