Butler High School in Matthews. Photo courtesy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

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As families, students and teachers brace for a school year that starts in less than a month, many teachers are pushing back against local school district plans that require them to teach in person, and some districts making decisions this week may have taken notice.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced last week that districts can choose from Plan B: fewer students back at school at the same time; or Plan C: moving to online-only instruction.

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Plan B necessitates that students learn at school part time and partly at home.

Some of the state’s largest school districts have already opted out of in-person classes to start, including Durham County Schools and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Other districts are not making a full-year commitment yet. Last week, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education decided to open schools online only for the first nine weeks of class.

Throughout the state, teachers say they feel returning to class will be dangerous for their health or that students will simply ignore health requirements to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart from their peers.

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Early childhood teacher Juliann Dean told the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education last week in written comments that returning to in-person instruction is unrealistic given North Carolina’s course during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Of course, I feel that in-person learning is optimal for students. However, nothing about a deadly global pandemic is optimal,” Dean wrote.

As an early childhood educator, Dean said the personal attention from teachers that many young children respond to will be blunted by requirements to stay 6 feet away from each other.

After several months of restricted movement, Dean said it’s unreasonable for adults to expect older students to adhere to all of the requirements to keep the virus at bay.

“It is unreasonable to expect middle and high school students who have not seen each other for six months and who have questionable behavior choices without a pandemic to faithfully follow safety protocols,” Dean wrote.

“On the two days they are in school, they will be anxious about safety and/or focused on socializing, and essentially those days will be useless for learning.”

Teachers wary of some district policies

Some school districts are experiencing pressure to rethink the decisions they initially made.

The Asheville City Schools Board of Education voted last week to return students in kindergarten through sixth grade to school under Plan B, while older students continue virtual instruction.

An email from Vance Elementary School Principal Ruletta Hughes last week said that the district’s new superintendent, Gene Freeman, “has made it clear in his communication with us that his expectation is that all of us be in our buildings next year.” 

When asked Monday by Carolina Public Press whether the district will require teachers to return to in-person instruction even if they or their loved ones at home are at risk of serious injury or death from COVID-19, district spokeswoman Ashley Thublin directed CPP to a district website that did not answer the question.

Asheville teachers are anxious throughout the district due to several unknowns as the first day of school approaches.

“I wouldn’t call it panic, I would call it terror.”

Angie Cathcart, digital lead teacher, Asheville Middle School, on teachers’ concerns about district requirements

“I wouldn’t call it panic, I would call it terror,” said Angie Cathcart, the digital lead teacher at Asheville Middle School. She helps teachers with digital instruction.

“We are between two spots, and it doesn’t feel like there is much concern about us,” said Cathcart, also the vice president of the Asheville City Association of Educators. “Not just because we can get sick and possibly die no one is taking our side.”

Teachers, she said, have not taught during a pandemic in living memory.

“It’s not going to be education as usual,” Cathcart said. Teachers for kindergarten through sixth graders will have a near constant interruption of instruction “consisting of teaching students to deal with constantly wearing a face covering and be distant. (Teachers) have not done this, and they have never done this.”

More than half of the state’s residents are at risk of a serious complication or death from exposure to the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Those risks include anyone age 65 or older, people with chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, severe obesity, diabetes and a wide array of other common conditions.

Teachers, she said, are also worried about transmitting COVID-19 to students, “and they could give it to their at-risk adults.”

Monday decisions for virtual start to school year

In other counties this week, teachers who had been anxious about which direction their districts would go were relieved by board decisions.

Henderson County Public Schools’ board voted Monday 5-2 to close school to in-person learning. Social studies teacher Kayla Payne, who teaches at North Henderson High School, said she is thankful for the board’s decision.

“If the trends show improvement they are open to reconsidering that,” Payne said.

“I myself am in the midst of trying to figure out if I have an autoimmune disorder. It’s been a very stressful time.”

Payne said she’s not sure whether teachers will still be required to go to the schools every day to teach, but she said teachers are more ready now to teach virtually than they were in March, when Gov. Cooper closed the schools ahead of the coronavirus’s rapid spread around the country.

“We’ve had a couple of months to plan,” Payne said. “And we’ve been through it in the spring. We know the kinks we need to work out to make that a better system for our students.”

The Dare County Board of Education also voted 5-2 Monday that the first nine weeks of school for all of its students will be online only.

In October, the board will examine health trends again to see if a change in course is necessary. 

Teacher objections to Plan B

For teachers who also have young children, Plan B poses a conundrum.

“Plan B is nearly impossible for staff members with young/school age children,” wrote Heather Petrusa, a staff member at Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public Schools in comments to the school board last week.

Many child care centers have closed, making child care difficult or impossible to find, she said. Teachers might also consider a leave of absence, leaving the district scrambling to find temporary staff. Or, Petrusa wrote, teachers may leave altogether.

In a poll of staff earlier this month, New Hanover County Schools revealed about 60% of teachers preferred to teach virtually for the entire 2020-21 school year. If the only option was to teach in person, more than half of teachers said they did not want to return to class. 

Of New Hanover teachers, 43% wanted to work remotely if available, around 3% said they would delay returning to class by using up paid leave. Of the remaining 6%, teachers said they planned to retire or resign, some of whom would use up available leave first.

Faced with a possible shortage of teachers willing to instruct in person, districts may not have a choice but to go online. Many educators said substitute teachers were in short supply before the pandemic. Substitutes are often retired from their field and can earn $103 per day with a teaching license. Less qualified substitutes will earn less.

Spring prepared teachers for virtual instruction

Perhaps a silver lining is how prepared many districts will be for virtual learning several months after Cooper’s executive order to close all schools to in-person instruction on March 23.

“We’ve got the remote learning piece,” Cathcart said. “For us to move to remote learning that is not a problem. The only sticking point is the new staff and the tremendous turnover I am starting to see.”

When asked about the turnover, Cathcart said teachers are leaving North Carolina altogether.

“If you are going to teach in a pandemic, why not get paid more for it?” she said.

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Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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