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‘Real Disregard of Our Safety’: Teachers Across the Country Scramble Amid Chaotic School Reopenings

"My kids are struggling, and we’re just told to pretend like everything’s back to normal,” said one New York City teacher.

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Annie Tan, a special ed teacher in Brooklyn, returned to school on Wednesday after quarantining for possible symptoms during the first days back from the holiday break. She says she only returned after testing negative for covid and was at once met with confusion and fear from both students and staff at school, as Omicron cases surge in the city. “I’ve just been hearing all day from teachers, ‘My class has six cases,’ ‘My class has four cases’ — it just keeps adding up, and we all feel like sitting ducks,” Tan told Jezebel.

Tan and other teachers at her school have been receiving KN95 masks and are supposed to receive one a week, but she says many have been poor quality, including some that “just have a hole in the middle.”

As a special ed teacher, Tan has a relatively small classroom size of eight, but she says her students with disabilities face other risks at school. “We have to be physically close to each other, and they may not be wearing their masks because of something related to their disability, but that means the kids and the staff in the class are more unsafe.”

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Tan is one of thousands of K-12 teachers across the country who find themselves in a dangerous limbo amid intense pressure to continue in-person teaching, despite record-breaking daily covid cases and virtually no federal guidance. On Monday, the first day back to school after the holiday for many, the US recorded over 1 million new cases of covid, shattering previous records and making schools particularly unsafe for immunocompromised teachers, students, and their families.

On Tuesday night, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to pause in-person learning and transition to virtual learning as schools in the city struggle to assess and rein in Omicron outbreaks, with little access to covid testing, N95 masks, and adequate cleaning resources, not to mention severe understaffing.

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In response, Chicago public schools canceled classes Wednesday, but city officials say they’ll “update the plan for resuming in-person learning by the end of Wednesday,” per CNN. As part of this plan, CTU says the school district is threatening to discipline and withhold pay from teachers who don’t resume in-person teaching. Some Chicago teachers have alleged that Mayor Lori Lightfoot blocked access to remote learning tools for teachers on Wednesday, making remote teaching impossible.

It’s not just Chicago.

“In my school, there’s a sense of powerlessness, anxiety, and dread from educators and students right now,” a substitute teacher in Connecticut, who didn’t want to be named because they’re seeking a full-time job, told Jezebel in a statement. “Right now, my district doesn’t have the masks, tests, or staff to operate our schools safely. Many bus drivers in the district also have covid. We had an early dismissal today because of the driver shortage.”

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They added:

“I’m a substitute teacher. We’re paid $100 a day and do not have health care benefits or paid time off. The district is relying on us to cover for teachers who are out with COVID. Without subs, it probably would not be possible for schools to remain open, but if and when subs get sick, many will go without pay or proper care.”

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Another Connecticut teacher told Jezebel that in addition to their state’s recent guidance that “routine contact tracing of individual exposures that occur inside schools or during school-organized and supervised activities can be discontinued,” school districts across the state have called teachers who tested positive for covid to notify them that their five day quarantine period is over and they should return to work — even if they remain sick and symptomatic.

“That my district is using their human power not to contact trace but to call folks and remind them of 5 day quarantines is ridiculous and feels like a real disregard of our safety,” the teacher wrote in an email, requesting anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “None of these policies are specific to the district where I teach — these are the impacts of CDC and the Connecticut Department of Health (and from what I have heard, many other states have done the same).”

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Noting that many people don’t seem to be aware of the discontinuation of contact tracing in Connecticut schools, they added, “I wonder how families would feel about sending their kids to school given this reality. Districts certainly didn’t send notification home letting folks know contact tracing is over.”

Even in states like California, where contact tracing and reporting covid cases in schools to the state remains required, some teachers say contact tracing at their schools has been minimal to nonexistent. One public school teacher in the Bay Area told Jezebel that contact tracing in their school has consisted of their principal “writing down a couple names on a piece of paper,” and identifying possible exposure based on classroom seating charts “that don’t include [exposure to] people who they interact with in the hallways or informal spaces.”

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“Shouldn’t contract tracing be an actual science and not up to principals and already overworked staff?” they said.

Like California, New York state continues to require contact tracing in schools — but as covid surges in New York City, teachers are being asked to return to work even if they’ve tested positive for covid just five days ago, amid severe staffing shortages. Those who return won’t be required to provide a negative covid test, and Insider reports that for NYC teachers who test positive, they can return to in-person teaching if they have a “minimal cough” or other symptoms that are “mild or improving.”

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“The thing that’s so frustrating, not just for teachers but all frontline workers, is the people in power knew this was coming for a while,” one NYC teacher, who’s been teaching in the district for 10 years, told Jezebel. “There was plenty of time to think about, how are we going to make sure schools can weather this? Instead, it just seems like there’s this broad policy of denial until it reaches a crisis point, and then once you get there, it’s the teachers’ fault.”

In the weeks before the holiday, as Omicron cases exploded in the city, the teacher says attendance plummeted, covid tests became nearly impossible to obtain, and in the two weeks of the school break, “The mayor and the governor could have said, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do so we can open schools in January, again, safely,’ but they basically chose to do nothing.” The changes in the district’s quarantine policy for teachers who have tested positive “would be one thing if they had added other mitigation measures, like distributing higher quality masks and improving testing, but they didn’t,” they said.

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Tan says despite the particular impacts of covid on schooling for special ed students, who struggled with remote learning last year, teachers like her are receiving minimal support to help them catch up. “We’re told, ‘Oh, you can teach your kids these social emotional lessons,’ but we were kind of told to do that without much training — we had like an hour webinar,” she said. “There’s not been any training or time given in the day. We’re still supposed to give standardized tests, which a lot of our curriculum is based on, because that’s what our school’s rating is based on. But my kids are struggling, and we’re just told to pretend like everything’s back to normal.”

Across the country, many teachers are facing similar situations, prompting teachers’ unions in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut to join Chicago teachers in pushing for remote learning for safety reasons.

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Federal CDC guidance on covid prevention in schools continues to prioritize in-person learning for the school year, and identifies vaccination as “the leading public health prevention strategy” to “help schools safely return to in-person learning.” But even as vaccination significantly reduces risk of severe symptoms and death, Omicron remains highly transmissible even for vaccinated people, and can be deadly if spread to people who are immunocompromised.

Due to lacking federal guidance and requirements, schools’ responses to the rapid nationwide Omicron spread have varied widely across states and even school districts. School districts in Newark, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland are temporarily moving to remote learning. Across Texas, back-to-school protocol ranges from little to no changes, to double-masking requirements for students in Leander Independent School District (ISD), and other added safety measures in a few districts.

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In Florida, the state continues to ban school mask mandates, and threaten those who would impose mask mandates with loss of funding and teacher pay. Discouraging “crazy mitigation plans” like testing and masking, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R-Fl.) mitigation plan is to “just let them be kids.” Appearing to take a page from DeSantis’s book, the Archdiocese of New Orleans on Monday dropped its mask mandate for Catholic schools in the city, as Omicron cases shatter state records across Louisiana.

Despite extensive coverage of teachers and parents as being at odds over pausing in-person learning, as one CTU member has noted in a tweet, “a huge chunk of [CTU] teachers are also CPS [Chicago Public Schools] parents like myself.” He added, “What really sucks is CPS has had YEARS to plan and billions to throw at meaningful mitigation efforts and infrastructure. And we get this.”

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The 10-year NYC teacher who spoke with Jezebel also expressed concern about 2022 being a midterm election year. “The fact that leading Democrats are totally abandoning frontline workers who have gotten them through the pandemic is just so mystifying,” they said. “It’s not even just outrageous, it’s like, what are you thinking? It seems so foolish and short-sighted — lacking in compassion, yes, but also politically, just a terrible idea.”