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How Educators In Public Schools Are Navigating Teaching During The COVID-19 Pandemic


President Biden wants to reopen schools across the country within his first hundred days in office, so he's already signed executive actions to free up funding and increase PPE and testing for school districts. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release new guidelines about how schools can reopen safely. So how are teachers feeling about all this? Well, we brought a few of them together to ask - three teachers from very different districts, very different situations. Maxie Hollingsworth (ph) in Houston just returned to her classroom, and this was after teaching remotely since last spring.

MAXIE HOLLINGSWORTH: God, it was good to see the kids. But it's not the same because I'm constantly telling pre-K, kinder and first grade and second grade, you know, pull up your mask, sweet pea, pinch here. You know, it's - their masks are too big. They're loose. They don't fit properly. They pull down their mask to cough or sneeze.

CORNISH: Mike Reinholdt (ph) teaches special education in Davenport, Iowa, and he's physically in the classroom, but his students cycle through virtual, in-person and a hybrid of the two.

MIKE REINHOLDT: Relearning how to gauge understanding through a virtual format is a new challenge. Learning how to motivate students to make sure that they're completing work is a very big challenge as well. I mean, we're changing the mindset on how teaching works.

CORNISH: Pam Gaddy (ph) in Baltimore is still teaching remotely for now, so she and her colleagues have had to improvise.

PAM GADDY: There are teachers who are meeting with kids in cars with their parents, one parking space away, talking to the kids through car windows to try to help the kids. We're still doing what we were doing before. We're just a lot more creative about it.

CORNISH: And the thing they're all thinking about - vaccines. I asked them about comments made last week by the director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky. She said that schools can safely reopen without teachers getting vaccinated. Maxie Hollingsworth from Houston started off the conversation.

HOLLINGSWORTH: I was livid when I saw that. I was livid. I mean, how dare she? Everyone is saying that schools must reopen, but teachers are not a priority for vaccines. That is insane.

CORNISH: Well, she was essentially arguing that mask wearing, social distancing - that there are mitigation efforts that make it possible for schools to be open. But I wanted to put that to you because you can't get higher than the CDC director, right?

HOLLINGSWORTH: You can if you're in the classroom because here's the reality. The reality is this. We still have cases. My entire fifth grade was out last week. Half of the fourth-grade students were out last week. Half of the third-grade students were out last week. And one full kindergarten class was out last week. So you can't tell me that teachers don't need to be vaccinated.

CORNISH: And they were out because of the threat of COVID? Or - you're not saying those were active cases...

HOLLINGSWORTH: Those were active COVID cases that we were out. So if we're shutting down half the school for cases like that, you can't tell me that it doesn't make sense for us to be priority. And we're not here in Texas. I live in Texas where teachers are not a priority. But the governor has been demanding that schools fully reopen.

REINHOLDT: And I think what I would say just jumping off your last point here is I can almost understand where the CDC director is coming from, but we cannot - with 100% in-person learning, we cannot guarantee 6-foot distancing. We cannot guarantee the masks. I mean, if you've ever been in a kindergarten classroom, they don't know where to throw tissues, you know, to throw them in the trash can, much less keep a mask on their face 100% of the time.

CORNISH: Pam, can I hear from you? Because you teach older kids.

GADDY: Yeah. That's - I mean, I wish the kids would just follow instructions. We have so many, you know, young adults who believe they're adults. So they're going to do what they want to do, regardless. But my school has over 1,400 students. So how do we navigate even just transitioning into hallways? Teachers have to stand in hallways to monitor behavior. Well, we can't be 6 feet apart in the hallways in that manner. And in my state, the governor has even had the audacity to say, well, if teachers don't want to go back, we'll figure out a way to penalize them, like take some of their pay or something of that nature. You're threatening me now. You're not vaccinating me - because that would help just, you know, ease my mind just a little. But then you threaten my pay or my certification. How do you justify that?

CORNISH: You know, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, took to the floor speech recently, and he said this - federal money is not the obstacle. The obstacle is lack of willpower. And he said, quote, "not among students, not among parents, just among the rich, powerful unions that donate large sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities." Do you see the conversation starting to come down to unions and teachers versus everyone else?

GADDY: That has been the argument for several years now - union busting - that the unions are putting money into...

CORNISH: Well, he's basically arguing that unions are getting in the way of school reopenings.

GADDY: Well, so are politicians. You're getting in the way of school opening, too, because, one, this rollout could have been a lot easier. The rollout should have been earlier. We should have done things differently in the very beginning of this that may have alleviated the return to school in the fall. So everyone is getting in the way of everyone, and we just want to blame everyone. And we are not going to take (unintelligible) the union. How else are teachers getting their voices heard?

CORNISH: Mike, can I have you jump in here, the view from Davenport?

REINHOLDT: Yeah. So the unions are all about safety. We want to make sure that our members are safe. We want to make sure that our students are safe. So I really appreciate our union standing up for the rights and the safety of our membership to make sure that everybody stays safe or as safe as we possibly can because the loss of one single life, whether that be a student, a teacher, a staff member, a custodian, a secretary, is one too many.

CORNISH: But what's your response to Senator McConnell saying that this is about willpower and this is about unions exerting power?

HOLLINGSWORTH: There's no lack of willpower. I haven't heard anyone say we don't want to teach. That's not the issue. We want to teach, and we want to teach in a safe environment. And the thing is we've shown up. We've shown up virtually. We've shown up in person. And we've changed the way we teach with no foundation in this. People don't criticize inventors when they fail and fail and fail and fail and struggle, you know, when it takes them five, 10 years to get something right. But the teaching profession has been beat up in the last 11 months for the way that we have served our students. And we've served it with a tremendous amount of sacrifice, so it's offensive to me that people would say that this is a lack of willpower.

CORNISH: The other side of this is this ongoing conversation where experts are seeing learning gaps widened for low-income students and people who have the least resources to succeed in online school. How do you balance those things as you're thinking about this, that there's a learning and mental health emergency for kids? Pam?

GADDY: Those have been issues we've stressed well before COVID. Those things didn't just pop up because of COVID.

CORNISH: But some of them have gotten worse under COVID.

GADDY: They have. But had we been working on a true plan prior to maybe it wouldn't be as bad. But now you're trying to run around and fix it. But yet, we still - it's still funding. It's still about the funding. We have teachers - in my county, we have teachers who live in remote areas that they don't have access to Wi-Fi. But this didn't just pop up March 13 in the state of Maryland. This was already here.

REINHOLDT: I would kind of reiterate what Pam said. I mean, we've always known that there's a gap. And it's very challenging to see students struggle, to see students have these mental health emergencies. Just to see students on a safety perspective, not being able to see them on a daily basis, is a very scary circumstance for, I think, any teacher. So yeah, we definitely recognize the challenge here. But ultimately, we won't be able to make up those learning gaps if people don't come out of this pandemic.

CORNISH: That was Mike Reinholdt of Davenport, Iowa; Maxie Hollingsworth of Houston, Texas; and Pam Gaddy of Baltimore, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.