The first time Rachel Langley considered quitting teaching was in 1998 after a school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, violated her sense of security.
The second time is now, with her security once again in jeopardy as the start of school approaches and the state’s COVID-19 numbers continue to climb.
Langley, who teaches physics at Jenks High School, suffers from an autoimmune disease and worries that returning to the classroom could be especially dangerous. Now she has to decide whether she wants to risk everything to continue making a difference in her students’ lives.
“There’s been a lot of tears and a lot of soul-searching,” Langley said. “I’m not paid poorly, but I could get a job at Reasor’s and do almost as well. So at what point is it worth it?”
Educators across the metro and state are struggling to weigh the desire to see their students against the risk of infecting themselves and their families by going back to school during an ongoing pandemic.
The Oklahoma Education Association has received numerous requests from teachers to have free wills drawn up by the union’s legal team in recent weeks.
Lisa Wada, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science at Tulsa MET Junior and High School, wanted a will in addition to life insurance because she is diabetic and at higher risk of experiencing serious complications from COVID. She said she wants her family to be taken care of in case something happens.
But Wada also worries about spreading the disease to her asthmatic husband and her elderly parents, who live next door.
“I have to be very careful about what I choose to do,” Wada said.
Luckily, she added, Tulsa Public Schools is requiring students and employees to wear masks in the fall — though that can be a hard rule to enforce with teenagers.
There’s also the option of choosing to teach in the district’s new virtual academy instead of in the classroom this year. TPS is prioritizing high-risk teachers for the academy, which was created to help families who don’t feel comfortable sending their kids back to school yet.
One thing Wada learned during the spring semester, however, is that she hates teaching virtually. Distance learning doesn’t provide the same connection to students as does teaching in person.
“I’m balancing the risk (of infection) with wanting to be back in the classroom,” she said. “It’s a fine balancing act.”
If Will Rogers High School teacher Emily Harris had to choose today whether to start the year in person or through distance learning, she would choose the latter.
Harris may be 28 and healthy, but she said she also has a family to think about — including a 1-year-old.
Distance learning was an “incredibly difficult” experience for the teacher. She remembers feeling frustrated by the lack of engagement from students and struggling to figure out how to be effective outside of face-to-face settings.
Still, Harris thinks it’s the safest option at this point.
“I think that distance learning 100% would be the best way to go,” she said. Even if it means less engagement than being in school 100% of the time, people would be safe. And that’s the most important thing.”
Tulsa Classroom Teacher Association President Shawna Mott-Wright said she fields questions every day from educators overwhelmed with anxiety due to potentially having to go back to school before the pandemic subsides. Many are in tears when they call.
Some are immunocompromised. Others have family members they want to protect.
The problem, Mott-Wright said, is that teachers have no way of knowing whether everyone in their classroom is COVID-free. Schools can have 100 people who have the disease but don’t realize they’re infected.
“Our kids are already bringing a lot to school with them, whether it be trauma or hunger,” she said. “And then there’s physical sicknesses and things like that. So right now especially, these questions become even more important. What are they going to bring with them, and do they know they’re bringing it? What if the entire family has it and is asymptomatic? They don’t know they’re spreading it. That’s the problem with this virus.”
Although Mott-Wright said she and other teachers “desperately” want to see their students and for education to return to normal, she believes it isn’t worth endangering the lives of students, educators and their families.
She continues to urge TPS to follow in Oklahoma City Public Schools’ footsteps by committing to 100% distance learning for at least the first nine weeks instead of returning to in-person instruction prematurely. The district will decide how it reopens — face to face, remotely or a combination of both — on Aug. 3.
If the school district opts for in-person instruction, Mott-Wright warns there will be a “strong response from teachers,” though she did not elaborate on what that would look like.
“I will put it this way,” she said. “We didn’t have enough teachers before COVID. You certainly won’t have enough teachers during COVID to go back face-to-face until we know without a doubt it is safe for all students and teachers, support professionals, administrators and our families and community.”
Kay Lynn Honeywell, who teaches at Liberty STEM Elementary in Sapulpa and is vice president of her district’s teacher union, also feels apprehensive about going back to the classroom because she is diabetic.
But Honeywell said she’s conflicted about whether schools should reopen in person or remotely in August, adding that there are so many aspects to consider.
“When I think of our children from a social aspect, I’m extremely concerned about them not being in school and having that social interaction with their peers and with their teachers,” she said. “Because outside of the academic learning, that social and emotional piece is huge in public school. We don’t want to raise a generation of students who are asocial and don’t know how to work and interact with others unless there’s a screen between them.”
On the other hand, Honeywell said she wouldn’t feel comfortable sending a child with health issues to school with the threat of COVID-19 looming over them.
Many districts, including Sapulpa, have not yet announced whether masks will be required this school year. Honeywell said she was disappointed that the state education board on Thursday voted against issuing a series of virus safety mandates that would have necessitated the use of masks in most schools.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister had proposed the safety protocols and expressed frustration at the board’s decision to not make them mandatory.
Following the meeting, Hofmeister told the Tulsa World that not enough is being done to protect education employees during the ongoing pandemic.
“This is a public health crisis that needs a state response,” she said. “Today was a setback at a time when schools and teachers need clear and sound directive at the state level.”
Educators are most worried about schools not requiring the use of masks, Hofmeister said. The State Education Department has received numerous calls and messages from families pleading for strict safety protocols to protect loved ones who are immunocompromised.
Hofmeister said 7,000 teachers across Oklahoma are eligible to retire this year. She believes many of them will choose to do so if they don’t feel safe at school. The state’s proposal, she said, could have given them the assurance to stay.
“I don’t want them to put themselves in harm’s way, and I don’t want them to retire,” she said. “I don’t want them to leave. We could work to lower risk and make it work, and the time to do that is in July because we have weeks until schools open that we can use to gear up and get the needed protective gear, masks, whatever is needed.
“Yet we’re losing this window of opportunity, and unfortunately that will have consequences with our ability to open schools. Kids need to be in school, but we have a duty to mitigate risk. That did not happen at the state board meeting, against my objection.”
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