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Education

Teachers Show Concerns Of Returning To School As Pandemic Surges

Emi Belciak, a teacher in Normandy, and Megan Rose, who teaches at North Side Community School, make posters July 13, 2020, at a protest over school re-opening plans during the pandemic.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Emi Belciak, a teacher in Normandy, and Megan Rose, who teaches at North Side Community School, make posters Monday at a protest over school re-opening plans during the pandemic.

Dozens of St. Louis teachers clung to a sliver of shade offered by the administrative building of St. Louis Public Schools on Monday, clutching signs displaying their fear of returning to the classroom during an unchecked pandemic.

The protest came a week before most districts in the St. Louis region are slated to release detailed plans for how they’ll try to safely bring people back inside classrooms next month for the new school year.

Reopening schools has become a political football, as teachers voice their worries of being in crowded schools and government leaders hastily try to fill a missing piece in the economic recovery puzzle.

Teachers at the protest said they miss their students and want to be back in the classroom, but they feel administrators haven’t done enough to make in-person teaching safe.

There’s no perfect solution, said Dennis Hughes, who teaches at Compton-Drew Middle School, but he said being in a crowded school without enough protective measures is cringe-worthy.

“And I feel right now we’re not preparing enough, or at least they haven’t given the teachers a plan that makes us feel prepared enough to face something like this,” Hughes said.

Teachers inspect signs during a protest July 13, 2020, over their concerns about returning to classrooms this fall during the pandemic.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Teachers inspect signs during a protest over their concerns about returning to classrooms this fall during the pandemic.

Ribbon Williams is a fifth-grade teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary School who organized the protest. She said district leaders haven’t provided enough information or protective measures for teachers and students to feel safe going back to school.

“I love them, and I love them so much that I will not risk their lives by going back into a school building when we’re not ready to do it,” she said.

In recent weeks, school reopening guidance has come from local school administrators and public health officials, state education agencies and national educator groups.

For staffs and older children in St. Louis, wearing masks while in school will likely be required, according to a guiding document released last week. In St. Louis County, it will be strongly encouraged. The state education agency is also urging mask-wearing but won’t require it.

The teachers gathered outside SLPS headquarters said they haven’t been listened to enough. Broad outlines for social-distancing and masks are one thing, they said; the reality of enforcing distancing for young children or unteaching the concept of sharing is another.

“You already have to battle with discipline issues, imagine trying to get a classroom of 20 students to keep their masks on,” Hughes said.

St. Louis Public Schools first-grade teacher Cindy Digar holds signs during a protest outside of SLPS headquarters Monday, July 13, 2020.
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
St. Louis Public Schools first grade teacher Cindy Digar holds signs during a protest outside the St. Louis Public Schools headquarters in St. Louis. A St. Louis Public Schools committee is working on a plan to address all concerns for safety.

Teachers point out that case counts of COVID-19 are increasing, and there’s no additional funding to pay for more cleaning and protective equipment. 

An SPLS spokesperson said the district holds everyone’s physical and emotional health as its paramount concern.

“Any plan that is adopted by the district will be vetted and approved by the City of St. Louis Department of Health,” a district statement said. “Like other schools across Missouri, our Restart School Plan follows guidelines offered by the Centers for Disease Control and local departments of health.”

There are three teachers and several principals on its restart committee, the spokesperson said, adding that the district held a virtual town hall for teachers last month.

SLPS and most other school systems in St. Louis will release back-to-school options and detailed plans July 20.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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