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NC Teachers Worry About The Risks Of Returning To The Classroom

Rachel Keith
New Hanover County Schools are starting the fall with the first nine weeks online.

In-person teaching. Then, no in-person teaching. North Carolina public school teachers had to prepare for both possibilities since school let out in June. And it hasn’t been easy, as school districts across the state have flip-flopped between the two options. In Wilmington, WHQR checked in with some teachers about their fears of returning to the classroom during a pandemic.  

As one teacher put it, it’s been a whirlwind of plans. In early July, teachers in Wilmington -- like others across the state -- eagerly anticipated Governor Roy Cooper’s announcement about school reopenings. Then, the decision was delayed:

“We want our children back in school safely, and we’ll have an official announcement next week.”

But when it was announced, it really wasn’t a decision at all. Instead, the Governor gave local school districts the option of opening under a hybrid plan, including both in-person and online classes, or a plan where instruction would take place only online. 

New Hanover County chose the hybrid plan, with students rotating through one week of in-person instruction and then two weeks online. That meant all teachers would have to return to the classroom. And some of them weren’t happy:

“We don't want to be a year from now completely upset and distraught going back into the building and not seeing five or four of our colleagues because we know that they had severe complications from COVID, either they can't come back to work at all, or that they've passed.” 

That’s Amanda White. She’s a high school chemistry teacher and she’s the President of the New Hanover County Chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators.  

She didn’t waste time airing her concerns about her colleagues who were in the high-risk category, including ones older than 65, or with a pre-existing health condition.

And Amanda adds that just because she’s not in a high-risk group, doesn’t mean she should have to teach in-person:

“They're going to force the younger, healthier teachers into the classroom, putting them at risk, which is insulting.” 

Other teachers decided the risk was too great. Robert Turk retired officially on August 1st of this year. He taught mainly high school math and calculus for twenty-six years: 

“I saw the kind of the writing on the wall that I just didn't think that being in-person to teach was going to be viable. Even if we started that way, there were going to be cases and we're going to shut down anyway. So, you know, I'm just like, I don't know if I want to do that.” 

Nathaniel Johnson, who’s been an elementary educator for 23-years, knows what the virus is capable of:

“It’s just really scary, I know of people personally who have had COVID. I know of a principal who died recently. And so those things are always in the back of our minds.” 

On top of that, there’s the issue of masks and social distancing. When Governor Roy Cooper issued the mandate that all K-12 students would have to wear masks, that was something Robert Turk knew would be difficult:

“I would have been like, wait, you have to put your mask back on. I mean, that would have been happening probably all day long. Because I wouldn't have just let it go.”

And there are other questions about in-person reopening-- like how will temperatures be taken -- and who will take them? 

Amanda White says that many schools lack nurses -- and that teachers would’ve been the ones most likely doing the medical screenings and enforcement of social distancing and sanitizing protocols:

“We have a nurse two to three days out of the week and she goes to other sites throughout the day. So these are things we're actually being put on the front line. And we don't have any hazard pay.” 

Most everyone agrees that in-school instruction offers important emotional and social connections for students. But does that justify the risk? Robert Turk:

“You're putting 10 kids in a classroom together, but we're like yelling at them if they get near each other. We're telling them, they can't touch each other. And we're telling them, they can't share supplies. And that's not the socialization that the students are used to.” 

Danielle Smallwood is in her eighth year teaching elementary school, and she has two young children, ages four-months and two-years-old: 

“I am constantly trying to have pep talks with myself and just remain positive because that's the most important thing we have to do for our students and our parents and each other.”

With all the confusion this summer, patience will be critical.

“This year we'll be like building an airplane, as we're flying it; we have no idea what the school year is going to bring. Many of us are confused. And I know that we're not the only ones. I know that the administration is confused and trying to make plans that will work.”

And while teachers have always worn many hats, Nathaniel Johnson says this year is different: 

“We just need to be more sympathetic, especially because we have to deal with a whole lot of stuff. We’ve become counselors, nurses, and sometimes surrogate parents. The public needs to be more understanding; this is totally different. It's a new norm.” 

13 days after New Hanover County Schools committed to a hybrid plan, the School Board changed its mind -- voting 6 to 1 to move instruction online for the first nine weeks of school. To many teachers, this came as a relief. But they all say they will miss being with their students on campus. Here’s Danielle Smallwood: 

“Of course, I'm going to miss watching them in their small groups and laughing and having a good time, and it has taken me a really long time to understand that that might not happen this year. It's very emotional.”

Emotional for everyone: teachers, students...and families all across the state.