As Prince George’s County Public Schools plan to return to in-person learning in April, teachers are raising concerns about the risks of returning to classrooms.
School system CEO Monica Goldson announced Feb. 17 that students have the option to return to classrooms in-person for two days a week starting in April. Students that do not return to classrooms will still be learning virtually, she announced, meaning that teachers will be instructing people in-person and online.
But some teachers worry that students and staff won’t be able to stay safe, especially as COVID-19 variants accelerate the virus’s spread and state vaccination rollout remains slow.
It’s a decision elementary school teacher Annett Jones said she would not have made.
“We might be setting up ourselves for disaster,” she said.
Jones teaches fifth grade at Perrywood Elementary in Largo. She has mixed feelings about a return to in-person learning, she said. She wants her students to have the opportunity to interact in a classroom setting, she said, but she also worries about contracting the virus.
“I want to cry when I learn of the situation I have to face, where I do not make the final call on my health,” Jones said. “I have to just pray and go out there and do the best I can.”
Though Jones has already received her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine and expects to receive the second by the time students enter the classroom, she worries she will not be fully immune — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it typically takes a few weeks for the body to build protection against the virus after vaccination.
The school system will implement social distancing guidelines, provide personal protective equipment to students and staff and offer rapid and diagnostic testing, according to a news release from earlier this month. It has already upgraded air filters in schools to meet CDC recommendations, according to the release.
But some educators are worried the plans in place are insufficient. They have raised concerns about the ventilation systems in schools, and whether students will be able to socially distance, said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators Association.
The union fiercely opposed Gov. Larry Hogan’s recommendation to reopen schools in March. Goldson’s decision to reopen in April is better, Dudley said, but it still comes with risks.
Even if teachers are vaccinated, they are not immune, and neither are their students, Dudley said.
“It’s different in the kids,” Dudley said. “They don’t know to tell their parents that they’re not feeling good.”
Educators are also worried about whether students will abide by the health precautions.
Middle school teacher Marvin Burton uses what he calls the “six to 16” method to think about how well students will follow restrictions: How would a six-year-old and a 16-year-old react to the COVID-19 guidelines put in place by the school?
The six-year-old might have difficulties keeping their mask on and staying six feet apart from others, Burton predicted. And a 16-year-old, in “their most rebellious state,” might want to closely interact with their peers, Burton added.
“If they don’t follow protocol, what? Are we going to kick them out?” Burton said. “We’re putting us off into a rock and a hard place.”
The timing of a return to in-person instruction could also be a cause for concern, Jones said. Her students can choose to return starting April 8, which is only one week after the system’s spring break. This might not allow for enough time for students to isolate if they and their families choose to travel or see family, she said.
And, it might not be fair to transition students to a hybrid learning model so far into the school year, Jones said.
“For the students I teach, they have settled,” Jones said. “They know what to do.”
Burton, who teaches sixth grade science at Drew-Freeman Middle School in Hillcrest Heights, raised concerns about the well-being of his own children, too. Burton expects he will take them into his school building with him some days to look after them — something PGCPS is allowing teachers to do.
Burton said he feels like he’s going to be teaching three classes at once: his children, the students in class in person and the students participating virtually.
Dudley wants parents and guardians who want their students to return to school as soon as possible to be reasonable about their expectations and consider their child’s safety.
“One thing people don’t understand: We’re not closed, we’re in distance learning,” Dudley said. “Teachers are teaching our butts off.”
Jones echoed Dudley’s thoughts, explaining how she stays up late figuring out how she can make virtual classes as interactive and effective as possible. She asked for parents and guardians to be understanding.
“It’s not easy for any of us, but we take it one day at a time, and I think there is a brighter tomorrow,” Jones said. “We are going to get there somehow.”