The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, July 28, 2020 1:00 am

Too much to ask

We owe teachers, students more thorough study of risks

Heather Puff

Sending teachers and students back into classrooms in the midst of an uncontrolled pandemic shows not only a lack of concern for educators, but a deep lack of consideration for the future of public schools and the health of our community as a whole.

I am calling on all school districts in Fort Wayne and the area to reconsider reopening plans and switch to virtual learning temporarily, for at least the first nine weeks of school.

For years, we have counted on educators – teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators – to hold up the fabric of society. We depend on them to provide meals, identify special needs and learning disabilities, note and intercede in substandard parenting, provide school supplies out of their own paychecks, and, since I left high school in 1999, be willing to step between children and gunmen.

That's just a peek at what we ask of educators each year. It doesn't even begin to consider the immense emotional and mental labor educators exercise each and every day on behalf of the students in their care.

This year, we are asking for more. We are asking for the impossible. And we don't have the right.

We are asking educators to risk their health to open schools for in-person learning. Not only that, but to risk the health of their family members, their students and their students' families – along with the health of everyone in our community any of these individuals come into contact with. It's an immense burden, and it cannot be shouldered by educators.

We don't know enough about how children transmit COVID-19 to assume educators and their families will be safe. While we have seen YMCA and child care programs successfully care for children without outbreaks, the vast majority of these programs have been able to operate in spread-out “pods” of small groups of children, with resources public schools simply don't have.

One recent article boasted that the YMCA cared for 40,000 children nationwide. Fort Wayne Community Schools has more than 30,000 students just in one district. We cannot distance children safely as so many of these programs have done.

In addition, we are beginning to see evidence that teens and tweens spread COVID-19 just as thoroughly as adults. Y child care programs (and most such programs) begin aging kids out around sixth grade and don't include high school students at all, so we have no data on their handling of middle and high school-aged kids.

While educators will be on the front lines of those who begin to fall ill, make no mistake, community COVID-19 increases will follow. Students and educators don't exist in a bubble. They live with families, buy groceries, pick up meds at the pharmacy and get library books, just like the rest of us. If our students and educators suffer, we will all suffer.

While considering educational choices for the fall, I asked educators to contact me on social media with their concerns. Dozens of teachers sent me messages, but they all had the same basic concerns:

How will I stay healthy? Will I infect my family? What will happen to my aging parents if I can't help them anymore? How can our districts possibly implement safety guidelines that can realistically be followed and be counted on to keep us healthy? Where are extra safety supplies going to come from? Will our schools be held accountable for following safety procedures? Why has no one checked with us about what we think?

Some teachers are working on medical leave plans with their doctors, others are eligible to retire and ready to go, and others are ready to simply quit and find new career avenues.

Opening schools for in-person instruction in the fall will devastate our public schools for years to come. Those who sustain disabling effects of COVID-19 or who don't make it through will never return. Those who leave for other career paths may well decide they'd prefer to stay in jobs that don't ask them to be willing to die.

And our young people are watching. If they see us send teachers to their deaths, I doubt they'll be excited to start education careers in our districts.

Make the right choice. Reconsider in-person reopening plans. If needed, move the start of the school year back a few weeks and work on distance-learning curriculum and plans for how to administer it. Give educators solid virtual tools and the training they need to use them.

Do it for the sake of public schools. Do it for terrified educators. Do it for family members who are at risk but don't have the option of their spouse (or parent or child) taking medical leave. Do it for students and their families, especially those in multigenerational households or with family members who have medical risks.

Do it for our community, so we can get this thing under control and start getting back to normal. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting that day.

Heather Puff is a Fort Wayne resident and parent of three Fort Wayne Community Schools students.

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