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How To Go Back: Teachers Wrestle With The Thought Of Returning To School

St. Louis Public Schools first-grade teacher Cindy Digar holds signs during a protest outside of SLPS headquarters Monday, July 13, 2020.
File Photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI
St. Louis Public Schools first-grade teacher Cindy Digar holds signs during a protest outside of SLPS headquarters last week. Teachers say they're conflicted and nervous about returning to school as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Brittany Woods Middle School feels too empty, too quiet, when teacher Anne Cummings comes to the school to maintain its garden.

The building in University City, like those of all public schools in the St. Louis region, has been closed since mid-March by the coronavirus pandemic. After the long closure, Cummings gets excited for the prospect of seeing her students in person again.

But then the reality hits her like a brick: The idea of being in a school teeming with kids doesn’t feel right either.

“I don't know if we're going to be able to go back,” she said. “I don't know what it's going to feel like to return, knowing that any student or any teacher could be a carrier of a virus that could make me very ill and the kids I care about very ill or even kill us.”

Cummings is not alone. Nearly five weeks before school is scheduled to begin, with at least some in-person learning planned, for now, teachers have conflicting feelings about returning to the classroom and being able to stay healthy. 

Anne Cummings, a teacher at Brittany Woods Middle School in University City poses for a portrait on July 14, 2020.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Anne Cummings teaches middle school in University City. "I don't know what it's going to feel like to return," she said.

Nearly a dozen educators from across St. Louis shared their thoughts with St. Louis Public Radio. They say they’re duty-bound to educate their kids. And they miss them deeply. But as fifth grade teacher Ribbon Williams put it: “I love them. And I love them so much that I will not risk their lives by going back into a school building.”

Williams organized a protest last week in which nearly 200 teachers flanked St. Louis Public Schools headquarters holding signs demanding more input in crafting plans for returning to school. 

Teachers are caught in the middle of the political debate over whether schools should reopen next month. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is echoing President Trump by urging schools to reopen, saying that if precautions are taken, it can be done safely.

“We're being used as guinea pigs, just to see what will happen,” said Angela Turner, an elementary school librarian in Hazelwood.

All the guidelines about social distancing, frequent hand-washing, spacing out desks and mask-wearing is fine, teachers said. The reality of life inside a school, however, will be very different.

"It's going to be really confusing," teacher Britt Tate said. “We will not be returning to anything that resembles normal.”

Tate is a colorful art teacher known for toting chickens and other class pets between her dual assignments at Bryan Hill and Columbia elementary schools in north St. Louis. But health experts recommend as little mixing of students and staff as possible to prevent virus outbreaks.

“I'm not going to be able to hug my students,” she said. “I'm not even going to be able to bounce around and wander into classrooms.”

Tate hopes she doesn’t have to pick one school over the other: “The idea of picking one feels like breaking up with the other school.”

But worse, she worries that art, music and other specialty teachers will be deemed unnecessary, especially if schools have to close again.

Teachers say it’ll be hard to enforce all the health guidelines while still creating a positive learning environment, especially for little kids. How much time and energy do they put into proper mask-wearing and no sharing of materials, or keeping kids 6 feet apart? For many, unraveling the instilling of "sharing is caring" and other soft skills is a nightmare scenario.

“We are going to expect humans who have been on the planet for 36 months, 48 months, 60 months, 72 months, to all of a sudden unlearn all of that and stop and become these little robots and bubbles?” Tate said.

District administrators say they’re investing in the sanitizing supplies and equipment needed to keep schools clean. SLPS has purchased 10,000 liters of hand sanitizer, thousands of masks and thermometers for every building. It’s also trying to fill a shortage of school nurses.

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

But teacher Grace Hogan is skeptical there will be enough, when hundreds of millions of dollars has been cut from the state education budget.

“I just don't see how we are going to operate, particularly with less funding than ever, at a level where we have PPE for everyone, where restrooms and janitors’ closets are stocked efficiently and effectively,” she said. “That seems very unlikely to me.”

Young children are less likely to contract or spread COVID-19 or suffer from severe symptoms, public health research shows, but cases among younger people are increasing. It has school boards and administrators considering scaling back in-person learning options. 

Andrea King is starting a new position teaching elementary school in Clayton. She said by the time her old school closed in March, she knew her students pretty well. Starting the new school year online will be more difficult.

“I don't know any of these people, I don't know their families,” she said. “I don't know how easy it'll be to build a relationship through a camera, through a screen.”

It’s a reality that school and child care need to resume for parents to be able to fully return to the workforce — and the next generation of workers to be properly educated.

Teachers don’t disagree, but they point out that first, the pandemic needs to be contained enough for it to be safe to go to school. They’ve talked about refusing to show up to school in protest in Facebook groups and started social media campaigns.

But Cummings, the teacher in University City, said that when it comes down to it, “we're still here in the game.”

Correction: The original version of this story had the wrong first name of Andrea King. It has been updated in the web story.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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