Calhoun County Schools announced plans Wednesday to return students to classrooms next month, but some educators are uncertain about their own safety as the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on.
School officials posted a letter from Superintendent Donald Turner to the system’s website along with a series of slideshow presentations detailing the system’s reopening. According to those documents, students can return to physical classes Aug. 5, when the fall semester convenes, or their parents can enroll them in virtual courses as late as July 22. Students aren’t required to wear masks, according to a presentation geared toward families, though they are encouraged. According to that document, school employees are required by state health orders to wear masks when they’re within 6 feet of someone from outside their own family, including students.
Multiple attempts to reach county school administrators were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Other school systems, including Jacksonville and Piedmont city schools, have sent letters to parents stating that they’ll reopen as normal, though they have yet to release detailed plans. Anniston and Oxford have yet to make announcements.
According to Angela Morgan, local representative of the Alabama Education Association, some teachers have decided to retire early rather than take their chances in tightly-packed classrooms. Teaching is a job that can be done into old age, and many teachers she works with locally are older, have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID, or both.
Teachers can wear masks, but the value in masks isn’t so much in blocking incoming pathogens, rather than to keep them from getting out. Students who may have the virus and be asymptomatic or early into the infection could spread it to teachers, Morgan said, a possibility not lost on local educators. Eight teachers from the eight systems Morgan represents have retired early, despite not planning to do so before the pandemic began. About two dozen have told her they would wait to see what happens before making a decision. And still others, like one teacher with a condition that could make COVID lethal, are still too young in their careers to retire.
“I told her that her health care would help take care of it” if she got sick, Morgan said. “She told me, ‘My health care does not help me when I’m dead.’ It broke my heart to hear a teacher say that.”
As safe as can be
Among the county’s plans for keeping students safe: drinking fountains will be off-limits, hygiene routines will be enacted, students riding buses will have assigned seating, preferably beside family members.
The rub may come at the intersection of practical concerns like the lack of space and the nature of viral transmission. One slide reads that schools will practice “social distancing protocols as feasible considering line spacing, classroom seating arrangements, and limited contact sports in PE.”
Morgan said that the language there feels soft, accounting for disparity between what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends to curb viral spread and the reality of small classrooms with lots of students.
“Some of these classrooms have as many as 30 kids in a classroom,” Morgan said. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to space desks 6 feet apart, especially in classrooms designed without the task in mind.
There is at least one cause for hope: Enough parents may choose remote learning to ease the issue of cramped quarters. Responses to a survey from Jacksonville City Schools indicated that about a third of participating parents would choose to keep their kids home, she said.
“If that’s the case there’s more opportunity to space kids out,” Morgan said, “but at this moment, without knowing their numbers, employees are very afraid.”
Dr. Raul Magadia, who works with the COVID-19 task force at Regional Medical Center in Anniston, said that there are several safety recommendations that schools might consider employing. Keeping classroom doors open so door handles don’t have to be touched was a simple example; another, that students could stay in one classroom while teachers moved from one to the next, keeping close-quarters hallway populations down.
Reopening is likely to be a learning process, he said, something he saw during the early days of the pandemic at RMC.
“Teachers will know right away, or in the first few weeks, what sticks and what doesn’t stick,” Magadia said. “We did that in health care; the first month we spent learning, because nobody knew about these things.”
He said masks are still one of the best ways of limiting viral spread, whether new reports that COVID may be airborne bear out or not. Studies have shown that a healthy person wearing a mask, he said, had chances around 70 percent to get the virus from an asymptomatic person with no mask. If neither has a mask, the healthy person has an 80 percent chance of contracting the virus, Magadia said.
If the infected person alone is wearing a mask, though, the chance of infecting the healthy person drops to about 5 percent. If both wear one, it’s almost as low as 1 percent.
“There's sound science related to wearing a mask. I recommend it, definitely,” Magadia said. “Though it may be hard for younger kids to have them wear masks for an hour or even 30 minutes, let alone six to eight hours.”
Returning to remote
Morgan said that virtual options are the safest for everyone. If cases of COVID continue to climb, superintendents will have to be ready to move students back off-campus. Making masks mandatory would help, too. Anything to keep teachers in their jobs would be an improvement, she said; teachers are in short supply, and as experienced educators leave their jobs, there may not be education students ready to take their place, she explained.
There are other concerns yet to be addressed, too; if a student in a classroom tests positive for the virus, what happens next for the class and their teacher?
“They’ve asked me, ‘does the whole class get quarantined? Do I get quarantined?’ I’ve been giving my opinion, but the actual answer,” Morgan said, “is ‘I don’t know.’”