Despite COVID-19 cases across Texas continuing their precipitous rise, state leaders are still pushing for schools to open their doors in coming weeks.
In order for that to happen, however, the state’s 368,000 public school teachers need to be on board — despite being largely left out of the decision-making process.
Teachers and teachers unions have expressed serious concerns about the return of in-person instruction, arguing that it is starting too soon, without regard for their health and safety. With one month left from the start of school for most districts, many teachers aren’t sure whether they will be allowed to teach virtually if they desire, or will be pressed by their district to return to the classroom.
“Utterly uncomfortable,” is how one educator, Dallas ISD librarian and teacher Hobie Hukill, described his state of mind.
“Schools can’t even control lice, so how the hell do you expect them to be able to control this?” Hukill said.
According to recent guidance set out by the state’s education leaders, parents and children must have the option of in-person instruction each day — with school districts allowed the option to have a three-week virtual return to their campuses to start the school year.
This decision is in lockstep with what’s being demanded by national Republican leaders — most notably President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who have threatened to pull federal funding from districts if their schools aren’t physically open.
“American investment in education is a promise to students and their families,” DeVos told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace on July 12. “If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds, and [we should] give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.”
While the Texas Education Agency mandated that students over age 10 wear masks in parts of the state where COVID-19 cases are prevalent, most of the specifics for safety plans are being left to each school district.
And given the delay in the state’s guidelines — finally released to districts on July 7 — many Dallas-area districts are still scrambling to provide comprehensive safety plans to their staff and the public.
One Richardson ISD elementary teacher, who asked to not be identified for fear of reprisal, said she didn’t know whether her district had made sufficient steps to ensure teacher safety because official plans had not yet been released.
“I can barely function right now when I visit the grocery store or Home Depot and consistently see people and families without masks on,” she said. “I don’t trust myself to be able to take care of myself and kids in a classroom where we are all face-to-face, and I know I am not alone.”
The teacher said she was expecting to have to provide her own personal protective equipment, and recently spent $150 for her husband to build a plexiglass and wood barrier for her desk.
Richardson ISD spokesperson Tim Clark said that his district’s safety guidance would be released next week, and that teachers, staff and students would be provided a face shield and/or a mask.
Another teacher, from Crowley ISD, said she was being asked to fill out requests for workplace accommodations by her district, without having the district’s plan.
Without seeing how Crowley would handle things like student-to-teacher ratios or interactions with special-needs students who might not be wearing masks, the teacher — who also asked that her name not be published for fear of reprisals — said she does not “have enough information about working conditions to make an informed decision about my employment or about accommodations.”
The form, provided to The Dallas Morning News, questioned employees about whether they belonged in a high-risk group (by age or underlying medical condition), and asked staff to provide their specific recommendations or suggestions on the accommodations they would like.
“Please note,” the form reads, “to the greatest extent possible, the district will seek an onsite workplace accommodation as an alternative to working from home.”
Crowley schools spokesperson Anthony Kirchner said that his district is working on finalizing safety plans next week, but juggling new information from a variety of entities made it a “fluid and constantly-changing situation.”
The Crowley teacher said, “So far, what I have seen is policymakers catering to politicians and industry. It seems that my district is responding to parents’ concern about childcare but they are not talking about teachers.”
That’s a common refrain from teachers and teacher groups, that politics and pressure from the business community to reopen schools has taken precedence over public health guidance.
Steven Freeman, a coach and teacher at South Garland High School, said that he couldn’t help but feel that teachers are being asked to just be “babysitters.”
“I know education and educators are an afterthought many times in our society, and the current situation magnifies this idea,” he said. “Likening teachers to doctors and nurses without just compensation, the ability to collective bargain, and generally, the idea that teachers are not held in the same esteem as these positions means that our voices do not matter to the policymakers.”
As a result, some of the state’s teachers have turned to their unions and professional associations, getting advice on how to proceed — from potentially using the Family Medical Leave Act for paid leave to resignation and retirement.
So far, while the state’s largest school districts are not reporting significant teacher shortages, that’s a concern for some of the state’s top administrators.
While May survey results from Dallas ISD asking teachers about their willingness to return to campus found educators overwhelmingly in favor of returning to their classroom, those numbers are likely much different now, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said last week.
When asked whether the district would have enough teachers to handle potential in-person student populations when his schools opened, Hinojosa called it “one of my biggest concerns right now.”
Campus-level administrators are expected to reach out to DISD teachers next week to gather feedback, said district spokesperson Robyn Harris.
According to data from the TEA, 51,000 teachers in Texas are 55 and over — including nearly 8,000 teachers 65 and over. Dallas ISD has a slightly higher percentage of older teachers, compared with the state and the region.
A teacher-led protest is scheduled for Saturday in Austin, with teachers caravaning around the Capitol and TEA headquarters to ask for concessions such as virtual-only instruction until the infection rate lowers, hazard pay, and coverage for out-of-pocket medical expenses for COVID-19 cases.
On Wednesday, more than 100 teachers held a sit-in outside the Capitol, holding signs asking lawmakers to put teachers’ health first.
Darcy Vogt Williams, a teacher in Leander ISD and an organizer of the protest, told the Austin American-Statesman’s Lara Korte that learning and teaching should be safe.
“We went into education because we love kids. We love watching the light bulbs turn on, and we miss that,” Vogt Williams said. “But we also don’t want to know that we are putting ourselves at risk and our families at risk, and our extended relationships at risk.”
Hukill, the Dallas educator, acknowledged that while students and families are in need of normalcy, and that academic achievement gaps could widen with another inadequate round of online learning, the fix shouldn’t solely rest on teachers putting their lives at risk.
At 69, he’s considering retirement, even though he planned to teach a few more years.
“Nobody is saying that an online platform is wonderful, however it’s not like we have the luxury to pick and choose the format for learning,” Hukill said. “We’re talking about human life and health, first. I think it is extremely important that we stop leaving true societal failures at the teacher’s doorstep. Let’s be clear, we wouldn’t be in this position if our country’s leaders would have taken the right steps to control this. But that hasn’t happened.”
State officials have hinted that changes surrounding the start of school might be coming in the next few days.
On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott told Houston KTRK-TV’s Ted Oberg that TEA commissioner Mike Morath is expected to announce that school districts will have the flexibility to work in a virtual-only environment beyond the three-week option without losing state funding.
“This is going to have to be a local-level decision, but there will be great latitude and flexibility provided at the local level,” Abbott said.
Also, as originally reported by the Texas Tribune’s Aliyya Swaby, a TEA spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that state funding wouldn’t be at risk for school districts closed by local public health orders, provided those schools were still operating in an online format.
Staff Writer Holly K. Hacker contributed to this report.