Push for rapid school reopening gains momentum, but issue is far from settled

Photo: Fiona-Goodall/Getty-Images

Health experts give conditional green light, but hurdles remain and many educators and parents are still deeply concerned

As the push to reopen North Carolina’s K-12 public schools gains traction, educators ask a single question: Is it safe to return to school buildings before teachers and support staff are vaccinated against the deadly coronavirus? 

The answer coming from most researchers and medical experts has been a resounding ‘yes’ — when and if prescribed safety precautions are followed. 

“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen,” Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said this month. “And that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.” 

The CDC will release new safety guidance today (Friday) for school districts to consider as teachers and students begin to return to classrooms.  

Locally, the ABC Science Collaborative formed by Duke University has said school districts can reopen if safety protocols are followed. 

The White House and state legislatures have grown increasingly sympathetic to the plight of parents who say remote learning isn’t working, and that it’s time for students to return to classrooms to prevent further learning loss and another wasted school year.    

Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper “strongly urged” North Carolina school districts to reopen for in-person instruction, citing the need to address food insecurity and students’ social and emotional well-being. 

“School is where students learn social skills, get reliable meals, and find their voices,” Cooper said. 

Teachers have expressed fear, however, about contracting the virus and possibly passing it on to loved ones if they return to schools before being vaccinated.  

Michelle Burton, president of the Durham Association of Educators said she’s frequently asked: Why are people not concerned about the safety and well-being of educators and the students?”  

More than 470,000 people have died nationally after becoming infected with the virus. There have been more than 10,000 deaths in North Carolina. 

Teachers’ fears are real 

Kristen R. Stephens

The fear that teachers have about returning to classrooms should not be discounted, says Kristen R. Stephens, a Duke University professor of education.

“I think they are valid concerns,” Stephens said. “The teachers that I work with, I would say, there’s a small percentage of them who have those fears, but I think the school districts need to be responsive.” 

Districts must make accommodations for teachers afraid to return to school buildings, she said. 

“Just as they’re making accommodations for the families who are making the choice not to send their children back to school at this time, we have to understand that this is a serious disease and while the risk might be minimal for some groups, the fear is real and school districts need to look at making accommodations, Stephens said. 

Districts could, for example, allow teachers who are afraid to return to classroom to continue to teach students who want to remain in remote learning, Stephens said. 

Kanecia Zimmerman, who co-leads the ABC Science Collaborative, said teachers have a “fear of the unknown.” 

“I think we can have compassion for those people and understand that it’s going to take some time [before teachers are no longer afraid],” Zimmerman said during a panel discussion. 

Kanecia Zimmerman

Stephens and Zimmerman were part of a panel Wednesday that discussed the risks and merits of reopening schools, including the importance of teacher vaccinations. 

They were joined by Ibukun Akinboyo, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke. 

“We know that even prior to having the vaccines, we were able to see and experience in-person education safely,” Akinboyo said. “It would be a huge advantage to ensure that a larger proportion of those returning in person are vaccinated.” 

Meanwhile, teachers’ unions across the nation largely disagree with Walenksy and medical researchers such as Zimmerman who say that it’s safe for teachers to re-enter classrooms before being vaccinated.  

Teachers in big cities such as Chicago threatened to strike if forced to return to work for in-person instruction before being vaccinated. A strike was avoided after the union struck a deal with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to only partially reopen the nation’s third-largest school district for in-person instruction. 

A win for teachers 

The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) launched a petition affirming that educators are “essential” and demanding that Cooper move teachers up on the state’s vaccination list. 

“We demand that you [Cooper] immediately include all educators in priority vaccination groups that are currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine,” the petition said. “Failure to do so will needlessly delay return to in-person instruction throughout North Carolina.” 

The NCAE took a more conciliatory stance this week after Cooper moved educators and school support staff up on the state’s priority list for vaccinations after initially being reluctant to do so. They will become eligible to receive the vaccine Feb. 24, making them the first among Group 3, frontline, essential workers eligible for vaccinations.    

“By giving all educators, including bus drivers, maintenance workers, nutrition workers, and those who work directly in the classroom vaccination priority, we will be able to resume in-person instruction more quickly and safely,” NCAE president Tamika Walker Kelly said. “We thank Governor Cooper for listening to the overwhelming message from educators, parents, and the community that educators require vaccination priority.” 

Walker Kelly said the governor’s decision should render Senate Bill 37 unnecessary. The Republican-sponsored bill would require all districts to provide some in-person instruction 15 days after it becomes law.  

She said the bill undermines the return to in-person instruction by restricting the decision-making of local school boards and shows a lack of understanding about the necessity of mainstreaming most exceptional children as required by federal law.”

On Thursday, the House approved SB 37 with modifications that would allow educators to continue to teach remotely if either they or a child or theirs are at increased risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19. 

The bill was approved by a 74-44 vote with five Democrats joining 69 Republicans. The Senate declined to send the bill to the governor because of the changes made. Raleigh’s News & Observer reported that lawmakers would develop a new version over the weekend and vote on it Monday night.  

Cooper, who could veto the measure if an when it reaches his desk, has said decisions about school re-openings should remain the responsibility of local officials.

Changing course in Durham? 

Durham Public Schools teachers have watched the debate over school reopening with one eye on vaccinations and the other on SB 37. 

Cooper’s decision to prioritize teachers for vaccinations solved one problem, but SB 37 remains cause for concern for Durham educators.  

After the Durham County Board of Education unanimously voted to remain in remote learning for the rest of the school year, DPS teachers figured that was the final word. 

“One of the things I really want to make clear is, this is about political power and our legislators using their power of preemption,” Burton said. “This is nothing more, nothing less. Preemption is the state can override the locals and the county, so they’re using their power to overturn what we did here in Durham and other school districts.” 

District officials are also watching the bill closely. 

Sen. Deanna Ballard

“The Durham Public Schools Board of Education and administrators are following SB 37’s progress closely and communicating with Durham County’s legislative delegation,” the district said in a statement posted on its website.

SB 37 sponsor Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican and co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said students are suffering. 

“We all know that the continued learning loss, the lack of routine and limited social interaction is only feeding a generation of anxious, depressed and helpless kids,” Ballard said. 

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