Just over a month away from the scheduled start of school, Kansas teachers still don’t know much more than parents and students about whether or how school buildings will reopen.
But they know one thing: They sure as heck won’t be bullied into going back to schools that aren’t safe — not by the president or anyone else.
The teachers are right. This is no time for a classroom bully.
The Kansas National Education Association is pushing back against President Donald Trump’s sudden insistence that schools across the country reopen, and his threat to cut funding if they don’t.
“This kind of strong-arm-from-the-bully-pulpit tactic, I think, is going to not go well at all,” Marcus Baltzell, Kansas National Education Association director of communications, tells The Star.
Noting the hypocrisy of some Kansas conservatives refusing to wear masks but demanding that teachers be forced back into a work environment regardless of its safety, Baltzell says, “They are ignoring the facts. They ignore the science. They’re simply saying, essentially, hey schools, you exist for the benefit of the economy and businesses — so let’s get you back open so that those things can happen. We’re vehemently against that ...”
Teachers, many of whom are at high-risk for suffering complications from COVID-19 due to age or underlying health conditions or who have family members who are, “are on pins and needles” awaiting guidance on reopening from the Kansas State Board of Education at its meeting July 15, says Linda Sieck, president of NEA-Shawnee Mission.
An unknown number of teachers, even some not of retirement age, are weighing the risks of returning to the classroom in the current coronavirus climate, Sieck says.
Not that teachers don’t desperately want to get back in the classroom. Polls of KNEA members overwhelmingly show they do, Baltzell says. Adds Sieck: “Remote learning is not what I went into teaching for. It’s the daily interactions with kids that go way beyond the content, the curriculum, that you teach.”
But they have to be convinced schools are as safe as they can be made in the eyes of medical experts. Baltzell, who describes the collaboration between the Kansas Department of Education, KNEA and other education agencies as “herculean,” says the KNEA is advocating four basic principles for reopening: masks for all; adherence to CDC guidance and science; social distancing, such as through smaller classes, staggered schedules and personal protective equipment; and collaboration with school officials, parents and students on the ground.
“We want teachers to be in classrooms. And the teachers want to be in classrooms,” Baltzell says. “But they don’t want to be in classrooms and have their lives and the lives of their family members or their students put in jeopardy.”
Any reopening plans will necessarily be fluid, before and after a reopening, to adjust to changing coronavirus realities. But to add a slice of certainty to that heaping helping of incertitude, Shawnee Mission schools have released a draft reopening plan covering three possible scenarios: “All students in school, an alternating schedule where students would attend on-site part-time and remote part-time, and all instruction occurring remotely at home.”
Indeed, much will be up to local districts — perhaps including an insistence on masks, which will put many school boards at odds with county commissions and city councils that have refused to mandate masks. So be it. The schools will have to stay strong and mandate masks.
Most kids are better off in school, with the certainty of meals and the safety net of a caring community. But opening schools prematurely could risk the health and even lives of some, and imperil the reopening of the wider economy if it leads to wider spread of a shifty virus.
Most of us are eager to get back to school and some semblance of normalcy in education. But science and health must lead these decisions, not politics or economics.