Teachers express safety concerns as first day of school draws closer

Even though she has missed her students and the structure of school during the pandemic, Idaho Teacher of the Year Stacie Lawler is worried about going back.

Idaho Teacher of the Year Stacie Lawler reacts to applause during state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s budget hearing on Jan. 23. Photo by Sami Edge/Idaho EdNews

“I need to know we have a plan for keeping everybody safe,” Lawler said. “I’m nervous, I’ll be honest. I miss my students. I miss the structure of school. But I’m nervous right now.”

Lawler, who teaches physical education at North Idaho’s Timberlake Junior High, is Idaho’s 2020 teacher of the year.

Lawler said her family has been vigilant about following health guidelines and restrictions.

She described herself as someone who takes social distancing and wearing a face mask very seriously.

She hasn’t eaten at a restaurant since February.

She watches church services online.

“Then getting thrown back into school feels scary to me,” Lawler said.

Even though she plans to teach her P.E. classes outdoors, with plenty of distance between everybody, Lawler wonders how schools will maintain distance in more traditional classrooms, which already seemed crowded pre-pandemic.

She’s concerned, depending on their age, that students may struggle to maintain distance.

Even though the State Department of Education has distributed thousands of masks and seven drums of donated hand sanitizer (with more on the way), Lawler wonders who is going to pay for all the wipes and masks and tissues and sanitizer it will take to sustain an education system serving 312,000 students.

With the first day of school just over four weeks away in some districts, the responsibility to develop reopening plans falls to the local school district and charter school. Some districts have already released reopening plans, and several plan for traditional, in-person instruction.

That’s a departure from the spring, when the State Board of Education issued and extended a statewide closure that essentially closed most public schools as educators shifted to remote learning.

Last week, Gov. Brad Little and the State Board encouraged schools to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall. They jointly released the nonbinding Idaho Back-To-School Framework 2020, intended to help local school administrators and school boards develop reopening plans.

Meanwhile, Idaho set a single-day record for new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases Wednesday, with 727.

With school only a few weeks away, Lawler is worried the reopening plans aren’t fleshed out enough.

And she’s not alone.

This week teachers told Idaho Education News they want school to resume. But in order to feel safe returning, they want more specific plans in place and they want to have a voice in local decisions.

“Every day I worry about what my children’s classrooms are going to look like,” said Lacey Watkins, who teaches at Lena Whitmore Elementary in Moscow.

“Since no one seems to be able to wear a mask long enough to nip this thing in the bud, we’re worried about what it might look like coming up in August. That’s coming up quick,” said John Thomas, who teaches English in Blaine County.

In the event of a positive test result, Thomas wonders if teachers will get sick leave while they quarantine, and who pays for it. He wonders about the availability of long-term subs if multiple teachers are exposed and need to quarantine. And he wonders how exactly schools will respond and what action they will take if a student tests positive.

Erin Paradis

“I more than anything want to be back in the classroom with my students,” said Erin Paradis, who teaches music in Vallivue and is vice president of the Idaho Education Association. “I love my students and miss them so much, but my No. 1 priority is their safety.”

Throughout her tenure as teacher of the year, Lawler has placed a spotlight on social-emotional issues, challenges students face and mental wellness. She’s deeply worried about how concerns over the virus affect children.

“That creates its own amount of trauma, really for kids, who are entering back-to-school,” Lawler said.

So, are we ready to go back?

Many teachers said it’s a personal decision for families, but they are optimistic and point out educators and schools have weathered challenges in the past.

“I like to be prepared. Obviously school is starting, so I want to be part of the solution getting figured out what is best for students,” Lawler said.

“My personal opinion is that if we all work to follow best practices every day, from now until students come back in Vallivue on Aug. 19, that we can be prepared,” Paradis said.

 

Clark Corbin

About Clark Corbin

Reporter Clark Corbin has covered Idaho government and education for more than a decade. He’s followed every legislative session, gavel-to-gavel, since 2011. Clark is a co-host of the Extra Credit podcast with Kevin Richert published on Fridays. You can follow him on Twitter: @clarkcorbin. He can be reached by email at [email protected]

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