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Donna Horton-Berry: COVID puts teachers at risk

Donna Horton-Berry: COVID puts teachers at risk

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Public schools serve all students. Period. Affluent students have as much right to attend as students living below the poverty line.

In the schools in which I’ve worked over a 33-year career, there are very roughly 10% of students from affluent families, 40-60% from traditionally middle-class families and 30-50% from economically disadvantaged households.

During the pandemic, students from affluent and middle-class families have the option of safely learning from home using virtual instruction. Those students have technology available to them along with adequate nutrition, supervision, health care, shelter and clothing. We can assume that 50-60% of students will be fine with virtual learning.

Students from households with fewer advantages have non-academic needs that schools can satisfy with supports that are built into the system. A great many students need supervision while their parent(s) are working. They also need shelter, food and targeted instruction. Many students need more intensive supports such as referrals to public health services, child-abuse intervention, coordination with juvenile justice and mental health services. These students need bus transportation to and from school and the positive affirmations that they receive from school staff.

I get it … I really do. Some students live in such chaotic situations that their very lives are at risk. Many others are in charge of raising younger siblings because parents need to work two jobs to keep food and heat in the household. Our students face things every day that most of us would not even believe and most of them persevere by themselves.

Young people from all backgrounds are infected with COVID at similar rates and 99.9% of them have few if any symptoms. Emerging research tells us that young people are the safest. There are still questions about young children being carriers, but there are no alarm bells at this time. We can all hope and pray that our assumptions about children remain true.

Bringing students back into school buildings is the cause of unimaginable stress for school staff. Mortality data has not changed. Less than 2% of people who get the virus die with it. What is unknown is how the disease affects the body over time. There are stories in the news of survivors who spent 90 days in the hospital, people who lost limbs, 25-year-old athletes with permanent scarring in their lungs, people who tested positive and who had no symptom but who have heart attacks or strokes from blood clots a few months later. No one knows if having COVID will result in survivors having effects that will manifest next year or 20 years from now. Will those who have recovered have a pre-existing condition that makes them susceptible to other diseases over time? Will surviving COVID be a co-morbidity?

Students need to be in school. They need to be greeted by a smiling bus driver and have a well-balanced breakfast. They need a school nurse who can take their temperature and call home if they have a fever. They need to be socialized with other students in a functioning community of peers and successful adults.

The problem is, they are running out of teachers. Teachers and school staff are the people who make the system work and policy makers seem to treat them as if they are disposable.

One of the assumptions that school boards and administrators make is that COVID safety protocols can be followed in school. Have they even been in a classroom? As a former school administrator, I would doubt that all the adults in school buildings follow safety guidelines!

My recommendation is for 100% remote learning until all school staff and students can be vaccinated. The developers of the SAT have made changes to the test and colleges and universities have changed their requirements as well. Public schools need alternative grading and “emergency standards” for advancement.

It is enough to take a break while we survive COVID. No one should have to feel as if they are risking their very lives to keep children in school. Our community needs to develop supports for all people living on the edge, whether they are 5 or 15 or 50. Schools shouldn’t have to be the entity that keeps young people and families safe and school system employees shouldn’t be required to risk their lives and those of their own families to compensate.

Donna Horton-Berry is the former principal of Carter High School.

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