Rather than creating lesson plans and classroom decorations this summer, Durham teacher Millie Rosen drafted her will.
On Jul. 14 when Gov. Roy Cooper recommended schools return for modified in-person learning, she prepared to enter a battle with no armor.
Durham Public Schools has since announced the first nine weeks of the school year, which starts Aug. 17, will be online.
Although online learning will spare trips to school for now, that is a temporary solution. And teachers across the country are voicing concerns about safety. Educators demonstrated outside Boston City Hall against schools reopening in person this week.
Many Durham public school teachers say deciding whether to return to classrooms during the pandemic is now a choice between keeping their jobs or protecting their health. They worry it would be only a matter of time before they or their students contract the virus.
Rosen has one main criterion for returning in person, whether that be in October or next year: strong evidence that she, her colleagues and her students will be kept safe.
“It would be about the chances of me, my co-workers and my kids dying,” said Rosen, who teaches seventh-grade math at Durham School of the Arts.
Hesitation to return
Nearly 47% of Durham’s public school teachers who responded to a survey conducted through June said that they would prefer online teaching, according to the Durham Association of Educators, an affiliate of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Prior to the district’s announcement of its school reopening plan, the DAE held a Zoom town hall on July 15 with the DPS administration, asking district staff to answer over 400 questions from employees.
“My conversations with our teachers and hearing their concerns tipped the scale,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wrote about the decision to start the school year online. “They assured me that they were up to the challenge of remote instruction, and I know they will deliver.”
Many teachers are concerned that come October, when the district is expected to reevaluate, they still won’t have nearly enough funding and resources to safely teach in classrooms.
Durham public schools have seen a continuous decline in state funding for years, district officials say. The district has received $19 million less from the state each year than they did in 2009 when dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation, according to the proposed school budget for 2020-2021.
Due to COVID-19 budget cuts, the county gave DPS just over $5 million for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
As a result, they rely heavily on local fundraising, such as money raised by the DPS Foundation, which was founded in 2018.
At Riverside High School, 2019 DPS Teacher of the Year Mika Twietmeyer draws the line when a lack of resources could cost herself or her students their lives.
“Teachers are always asked to do more with less, and we will because we understand that we have to,” said Twietmeyer, who teaches science. “But when there’s risks that people are going to die… it’s really highlighting some of these concerns and highlighting how unfunded the public schools are.”
Teaching from afar
In addition to their concerns about whether classroom teaching will be safe, teachers say executing online learning will not be an easy feat. Especially with students’ unequal access to reliable internet or adequate space at home.
Twietmeyer is now faced with the challenge of converting her science classroom to an online format. Students learn by doing in her classroom, she said, with labs an integral part of her lesson plan. This semester they will have to watch these experiments on Chromebook screens.
“We’ve talked about filming ourselves doing the activities and creating modules,” Twietmeyer said. “But all of those take time and training that we really haven’t had or have available to us.”
Twietmeyer wonders how her partner, a photography teacher at Riverside, will teach lessons normally given in a darkroom, online. Together, they will navigate both teaching online under the same roof.
Durham public school teachers have little experience teaching online. When the district closed schools in March, all required instruction ended.
For middle school, Rosen said integrating social skills and other learning beyond her curriculum will be a challenge from a distance.
“With kids because there’s so much there’s so much learning that you do in middle school in terms of learning more subtle things about being in relation to other people,” she said.
Teachers will still be required to follow the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction state standards for the learning students must complete during a course, despite the unprecedented circumstances.
Twietmeyer said she wants to wait before rushing into her lesson plans. Instead she wants to make sure her students are comfortable navigating online learning and build relationships before she starts with her content.
“The really challenging part, of course, starting virtually is building those relationships through a screen,” she said. “It takes away from the craft and the art of the teaching profession, which we all love.”
Organizing for a safe return
There’s no way to know what the COVID-19 rates will look like nine weeks after the school year begins. However cases continue to rise in Durham with 5,514 cases as of Sunday, according to Durham County Department of Public Health.
Regardless of the case count, Michelle Burton, the president of DAE and a library media specialist at Spring Valley Elementary, is looking to state legislators to ensure that schools have adequate funding to follow the 31 Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for a safe re-opening.
The first step for her is ensuring state legislators expand COVID-19 relief funding for schools.
“We need to put pressure on [state legislators] to put something forward to give us the funding that we need during COVID and keep people safe,” she said. “The resources that they have allocated or voted on is not enough.”
In 2019, North Carolina was one of the two states with the lowest union membership rates, according to the US Department of Labor. And public school teachers in North Carolina are not allowed to have a collective bargaining agreement to negotiate employment contracts.
The NCAE does advocate for teachers here, however. This month members are petitioning the General Assembly, asking members to maintain the same level of funding and staffing from the 2019-2020 school year for the upcoming year.
NCAE also wants legislators to fund all state Department of Health and Human Services requirements for reopening schools. These include creating six-foot markings on floors for social distancing and frequently disinfecting all surfaces, on busses too.
They also want decision makers to meet with public school employees to allow for their input in reopening discussions.
The petition, which NCAE is still circulating for signatures, has over 16,000 so far.
Some needs are non-negotiable items for Burton, she said. They include a nurse in every school building, funding for plexiglass for high contact areas, like reception desks, masks, and cleaning supplies.
But funding for more nurses is beyond Durham Public School’s budget for next year, Mubenga said during the town hall meeting. Nurses will be available via telehealth services for schools without, according to Nakia Hardy, the district’s deputy superintendent of academic services.
Following state and federal guidelines still may not be enough to reopen schools safely, many school officials fear. In Arizona, three teachers taught summer school online from the same classroom, following all public health recommendations. All three fell ill with COVID-19 and one died.
Despite their many fears, some educators say ongoing discussions and debates are showing the power their public pressure can have on decision-making.
“We have to unite and organize to win the schools and communities that we all deserve,” DAE vice president Turquoise LeJeune Parker said during the town hall.
The more voices in this conversation the better, including student voices, said Twietmeyer.
“We hear a lot of the argument of going back to school because it’s for the students behalf. But we want to make sure that if we’re doing things on their behalf, that they’re a part of some of those decisions,” she said.
9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: With school reopening decisions happening across the nation, Jordan High School educators shared a clear message: “Our safety, our say”. Photo courtesy of Carlos Pérez