Indiana educators brace to return to classrooms despite coronavirus health risks

Indiana parents who are worried about health risks from the coronavirus have a tough but straightforward choice — enroll their children in brick-and-mortar schools this year or keep them home in remote programs. But for teachers and school staff, working from home often isn’t an option.

Instead, staffers who are at increased risk for severe illness from the coronavirus are facing difficult choices about whether to return to school in person, seek medical leave — or leave their jobs altogether. Even in schools and districts that are offering virtual programs, it’s unclear how many teachers will be dedicated to remote instruction and whether those positions will go to teachers who are high risk. For support staff, like bus drivers or food service workers, it may be impossible to do their jobs remotely.

With few good options, some educators are bracing themselves to return to classrooms despite health risks. Others are pushing for Indiana school systems to delay reopening altogether or begin the year remotely.

“We have the ability to do our jobs remotely,” said Amber Seibert, a high school English teacher in Indianapolis who thinks schools should start the year virtually. “If there’s an alternative where no one could possibly die, why is that not our first choice?”

The 11 school districts in Marion County joined together in June to announce that they would reopen on time with online and in-person options for families. But in the weeks since, as COVID-19 cases rise in Indiana and nationally, districts have begun changing their plans. So far, two have delayed their reopening to buy more time to prepare, and Washington Township will start the year entirely remotely, after days of advocacy from teachers who felt that reopening campuses was unsafe.

Whether to reopen schools became increasingly politicized after President Trump began threatening to withhold funds from schools returning to remote instruction. Across Indiana, teachers and parents are divided over whether schools should reopen campuses as they weigh the health risks against the substantial downside of switching to all-virtual learning. But because concerned parents have the option to enroll their children in virtual programs, districts are likely to see the most pushback against returning to classrooms from teachers and staff.

Just what options staff have varies widely based on their contract, job, and health concern. Employees with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 may be entitled to accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those accommodations vary, but they could include masks, remote work, or leaves of absence.

Resistance to reopening is gaining steam. The Indiana State Teachers Association met with Gov. Eric Holcomb this week to discuss safety concerns ahead of school reopenings.

Last week, Seibert and a former colleague launched a private Facebook group for educators, staff, parents, students, and community members who want to delay in person school reopening. Eight days later, it has over 10,000 members.

Seibert said that she is at high risk for severe illness if she contracts COVID-19, and she does not feel safe returning to school in person, where she expects to teach about 150 students. She’s considering options like applying for remote teaching jobs.

Although she hopes remote positions go to teachers who are vulnerable, she’s not sure how districts would determine who is most at risk. As more and more young people are hospitalized, “I kind of feel like everyone’s at risk,” she said.

It’s unclear how many remote learning jobs will be available. In Indianapolis Public Schools, which has about 1,700 educators, officials expect to hire fewer than 20 dedicated remote teachers with school-based teachers supplementing their instruction. Teachers who are COVID vulnerable won’t have priority, and the district will make hiring decisions based on who is the best prepared to offer remote instruction.

“We want to make sure that teachers who are providing remote learning are teachers who are comfortable in that online space,” Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said last week. “It’s a very different space than what teachers traditionally have had to do.”

That’s also the approach in Wayne Township, an Indianapolis district with about 17,000 students. Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Shenia Suggs said that although she expects some teachers to apply for remote positions because of health concerns, Wayne plans to hire virtual teachers based on who is comfortable in that role.

If staff do have health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, they should speak to their doctor and to the human resources department, Suggs said. The district will work to make accommodations, and they may be eligible for time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. That’s typically unpaid leave, but staff can use accrued sick days.

“This is all new territory for us,” Suggs said. Some jobs are simply harder to modify than others. “You can’t drive a bus from home or prepare meals from home.”

Wayne Township teacher Alison Case, who is 61 and has diabetes, believes she would be eligible for leave and has months of sick days banked. Still, she’s not considering staying home. “I miss my kids. I feel like, they’re going back. I’m going to go back,” she said. “We’re kind of all in this together.”

Case said she would prefer if the district began the year virtually or delayed reopening until September. But there are other educators who want school to reopen in person, and she understands why leaders think returning to classrooms is best for students and families, Case said. “I’m glad I’m not the one that has to be ultimately responsible to make that call,” she added.

Indianapolis special education assistant Marie, who asked to be identified only by her middle name because she is concerned about losing her job, said that she wants to see schools delay returning to classrooms. But if they don’t, she plans to go to work in person because she cannot afford to take unpaid leave or quit her job.

Marie has an autoimmune disorder that makes her more likely to get infected with COVID and more likely to have severe symptoms if she does contract it. Even without a global pandemic, she is hospitalized several days a year with illnesses, and she routinely uses all of her sick days. On top of her own health concerns, Marie’s daughter is immunosuppressed because she was born prematurely.

Her district did a good job of planning for the reopening, but she’s still worried, Marie said. “There’s just so much we don’t know about this disease.”

GlenEva Dunham, president of the Indiana affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said that workers with health conditions that compromise their immune systems should talk to their doctors and ask for accommodations, including potentially taking leave.

But Dunham pointed out that people in other fields that are considered essential — including lower-paid staff in meatpacking plants and grocery stores — are already back or never stopped working. “Our people make a good salary,” she said.

Districts can take steps to make schools safer, such as requiring masks, said Dunham, who leads the union in Gary. If there are problems in schools, they can close again, she said. “It’s hard. You are stuck in between a rock and a hard place and lives are on the line.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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