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American educators search for common ground on school reopenings

Aarthi Swaminathan and Reggie Wade
·4 min read

As teachers, parents, and officials continue to debate how and when to reopen schools a full year into the pandemic, some districts have been able to find common ground.

There's pressure from the top to reopen: During a CNN town hall in February, President Joe Biden said he wanted the majority of K-8 schools reopened five days a week within his first 100 days in office.

But reopening isn’t a simple process. Many teachers and their unions stress the need for their safety and well-being. According to Education Week, at least 833 active and retired K-12 educators and personnel have died of COVID-19 so far; 227 were active teachers.

'I'm glad to get it'

After months of teaching remotely, Quentin Washington, a Chicago Public School teacher, returned to in-person teaching in February after the city decided to expedite vaccinations of teachers and other school workers.

“I don’t like needles, so I just kind of had to keep my eyes forward and take a nice deep breath as they gave me the shot,” he told Yahoo Finance. “But I’m glad to get it. It gives me a certain sense of security. And I think that every teacher deserves to have that before they’re forced back into a building.”

But not all teachers across America have been to receive the vaccine. As of March 1, teachers in 16 states were still not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. One of those states is Texas.

“The vaccine rollout has been picking up a little bit of steam here over the last couple of weeks,... [but] at this particular point in time, educators are not in the group to be vaccinated,” Jimmy Lee, president of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, told Yahoo Finance. “We have been asking the state to move them up to a point where they can get that vaccine, and have that comfort level of being able to go into the classroom.”

Sister Jenthia and Dr. Angela Branche hand out coronavirus disease (COVID-19) survival kit to Natalie Hall as part of a door-to-door outreach program to the Black community to increase vaccine trial participation in Rochester, New York, U.S., October 17, 2020. Picture taken October 17, 2020.  REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario
A door-to-door outreach program to the Black community to increase vaccine trial participation in Rochester, New York, U.S., October 17, 2020. (REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario)

Pandora's box

The school reopening debate has exposed systemic problems within school systems, as in Rochester City, New York.

For the district's middle-school math teacher Tom Rossiter, the lack of financial resources has been frustrating. The urban district, which has a majority of Black and Latino students from low-income families, doesn't have the resources to provide laptops to students.

“We haven’t had the finances to be able to buy things. We’ve had to get donations from organizations to be able to open,” said Rossiter. “I remember being in a training where one of the heads of maintenance for all of the district said, 'Oh, we’re gonna have Lysol wipes in your classrooms. We just got a pallet of them donated.'”

At that moment he thought, “We shouldn’t be waiting on donations of cleaning materials for a school district to be able to reopen — that should not be a limiting factor in education,” he said.

“Our technology issues are so significant for all of our students,” Rossiter added, including, “not having access to the internet at home, and having to do MiFis and personal hotspots that have data limits, so the kids can’t share videos and can’t be as actively participating in lessons … just because my students’ families don’t have the financial resources ... that other students may have outside.”

Considered to be a “chronically underfunded” school district, the threat of more cuts to the system is also imminent, which is likely to complicate teaching and learning further amid the pandemic, said Rossiter.

WOODLAND, WA - FEBRUARY 18: A first grade student at the Green Mountain School listens to her teacher on February 18, 2021 in Woodland, Washington. Washington state loosened in-person learning guidelines in December, sending elementary and middle school students back to the classroom a few days each week. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

It's 'just insane' to juggle parenting and school

The lack of in-person classes has also been a major pain point for parents, who feel overwhelmed with balancing work and childcare responsibilities.

Eden Mosoff, a parent and STEM teacher in Illinois, sees the COVID-induced stressors from both sides.

“When I went back to work, and even when I was teaching at home in the spring, having an 18-month old running around while you’re trying to teach classes is just insane. It’s not the most conducive way to teach class,” she told Yahoo Finance.

But all sides are aware of the risks to educators if schools were to reopen, said Becky Pringle of the National Education Association, said, and that there’s broader support for unions than publicized widely.

Based on two surveys done by her union, “What we found is that they trust their teachers… [and] all of the other adults that work in the system … that parents and the larger community believe in what our teachers have done over this pandemic and actually support our unions,” said Pringle. “You get the salacious headlines that are blown up, … but that’s not what’s happening in our communities.”

Aarthi is a senior reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter at @AarthiSwami.

Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.

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