It's late July and across the country, tense conversations are taking place between teachers, parents, politicians, and state officials about reopening public schools. Coronavirus cases are spiking across the country, especially in states like Arizona, Florida, Texas, California, and Mississippi, and as reopening plans nevertheless push forward, there's real fear that it's only going to get worse. For teachers, this means coming to grips with the reality that they may be forced to re-enter the classroom before case numbers significantly decrease in their cities and states. Some are so scared of this that they're working on their wills in preparation.
To get a better sense of what teachers are going through right now and what we can do to support them, we spoke to Katrina, a high school algebra teacher in Texas, who also has a son in high school, and is the president of her local teachers union chapter. A few hours after we spoke, her school board officially approved a request from teachers for the first eight weeks back to be online. She's relieved, but she also knows that schools like hers are under significant pressure — from parents desperate for respite as well as local and national leaders, including President Trump — to resume in-person learning ASAP. In fact, Trump has even threatened to cut funding for schools that don't fully resume in the fall. And while she says she wants to be back in the classroom with her students, she's concerned about getting sick, or bringing the virus home to her family, and she's not sure how plans for social distancing or mask-wearing will play out in the reality of the school day.
Refinery29: What grade and subject do you teach, and how long have you been teaching for?
Katrina: This year, I'm going to be teaching 11th and 12th graders. I'll be teaching Algebra II and Advanced Quantitative Reasoning. And I've been teaching since 2012. I specialize in teaching students from other countries.
Texas schools are slated to re-open at the end of August, right?
Yes, that's when we're supposed to. Texas law doesn't allow you to start earlier than the fourth Monday of August.
How are you feeling about the prospect of going back? Do you think, given the coronavirus numbers in the state, that it makes sense to head back to the classroom right now?
Well, given the numbers in the state now, it makes no sense to come back. There are too many people getting sick. And all of the people that keep on talking about how kids don't transmit this — well, most of us have been keeping our kids home. That's why they're not transmitting it. I have my own son and he doesn't go out — he's pretty much been homebound since March, unless we really need to go out, and even then, normally he stays home. It's not a comfortable thing to put your kid at risk. And even if the kids do have a less likely chance of transmitting it, the teachers and employees don't. They can still get it and they will die from it. They can still transmit it. And the kids can still bring it home to their guardians, to their families, to their friends. It's just a circle that doesn't need to happen. A lot of people are saying well, you know, you still go to Home Depot. Sure, but you don't stay there for eight hours. And my school has about 3,400 students, and about 300 to 400 employees. That's not the type of situation you want to put yourself in. And they're asking us to do that.
Do you know what kind of measures they're planning to put in place to make it safer once you do go back?
I know they are purchasing PPE for us. They are trying to put plexiglass wherever possible. They are doing temperature scanners kids getting on the bus and kids entering the schools. I think that they're going to try and do these six feet [apart] desks, but they haven't put that out yet because they're still trying to figure all of that out, if it's even plausible.
Also, we'll have the first eight weeks online — I know our superintendent doesn't want to go back until our county is down to a Stage 2. But it's up to the Texas Education Agency if we'll still get funding if we wait until Stage 2. So that's another issue, we've got to figure out how to get our funding. Because it's not just Trump, our governor [Greg Abbott] also said that. I mean, it starts with [Trump]. But they're trying to have accountability for us to teach our students, and I mean, I would personally prefer to be in my classroom with my students. But I also don't want to bring home something to my family that could kill one of us.
[In a statement to Refinery29, a representative for the Texas Education Agency said: "Please see the press release issued last week detailing new reopening guidance, including a local option for a remote-only start to the 2020-2021 academic year. The press release coincides with revised public health guidelines that provide a framework for students, teachers, and staff to safely return to school campuses for daily, in-person instruction."]
It might be a little easier with high school students than with younger kids, but do you think it will be possible to get students to social distance, or commit to wearing a mask for eight hours a day? How do you think that will work?
Honestly, I think it depends on their parents. If their parents instill that in them at home, then I don't see it being a problem. If their parents don't instill it in them at home, then I see it being a fight. And I mean, kids are kids. You're happy to see your friends. You don't want to sit six feet away from someone all day long. It's part of being human. You want to touch and talk, you want to give someone a hug. I can see them possibly doing it for a little bit — two, three days — but then you get used to being back in school, to doing whatever you want, and I see it going downhill pretty quickly.
Are you concerned that, for some of the kids you're working with, they're getting very different messaging at home about things like wearing a mask?
Yeah. Like, "oh it's not that big of a deal." But, you know, one of my co-worker's husbands just died earlier this week, and another co-worker's dad just died earlier this week. It's something that's coming and it's getting worse.
When state officials and other decision-makers are having conversations about re-opening, have teachers been involved?
I'm the president of my union, and we've been fighting all summer long. We meet monthly with the superintendent and her board, letting them know exactly what we think needs to be done. We've done everything we can to fight this idea of going back.
I know in some states, teachers with health conditions are being allowed to stay remote, even if their schools are reopening. Is that the case in Texas?
I think it is, but that's with a whole bunch of caveats. I haven't heard of anybody trying to set that up yet [in my area]. And if they are, it's going to be a long process — I know one of the other presidents of another area union, he has health issues, as does his wife, and it's a long process. It's definitely causing — [there's a lot of questions like], "Well how are you going to do your duty? Are you going to make someone else do your duty for you?" They're having to work out, not just how to teach or how to counsel (one of them is a counselor), but how are you going to do everything else you're supposed to do while you're here on this campus? You've got to have a really good case. You need to know your contract inside and out so you can fight it correctly.
I've seen some news reports of teachers making end of life plans prior to the start of school, because they're afraid of getting sick at school. Is that something you've heard of, or considered for yourself?
I do have a lot of friends who have been doing their wills. Honestly, I don't want to, because I don't want to think that could happen. I just don't want to worry about that. I know it possibly could. But I have my husband, so he would have to take care of stuff anyway. If I were a single mom, I would definitely be doing that. But since I have my spouse, I'm not as worried about filling out my will. But I have considered writing letters to my children. Like, if something happens to me, that type of stuff.
I'm sure there are many, but what's your biggest concern about going back?
Getting my son sick. He has asthma and that puts him at a high risk. If I'm talking about a school concern, what causes me the most stress is how am I going to successfully teach these students? Because, I mean, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: You need to feel secure. You need to be safe. You need to be fed. All these things that the students need. And, right now, learning my material is not at the top of what they need. So how do we make sure that the kids are taken care of enough so that they can learn this material so they can move on? That's what keeps me up at night.
Do you know people who are leaving or talking about leaving the teaching profession?
A lot of people are just finding other jobs, or trying to. I'm trying to convince them not to, I'm not sure if it's working. One of our [union] members was talking to me and was saying, "I feel like I'm being held hostage. Like I either go to work or I get penalized. And I don't like this feeling of, you have to do this, you could die, but we don't care." I've done my best to talk people out of leaving. But, I mean, it's a personal decision. I tell the school board or the superintendent what's going on, and I told the president of the school board what's going on. So they're aware that we've got this issue. But it's hard to move because the Texas Education Agency comes out with something new almost every two days. They change their minds. So how are you supposed to make plans when every two days it changes? It's been going like this for at least a month, maybe two months, where there's this constant change. It could be so much simpler if they left it up to the school district to be smart with their communities, to figure out how best to serve their community and just do it instead of having these constant changing regulations that they need to abide by.
Is there something you wish more people understood about what it's like to be a teacher right now?
That we get paid and we don't have to work over the summer. That's not true. We give the school district permission to hold that part of our money so we can get paid over the summer. We love our students. We're in it for the kids. And I told my students before, like when we do the drills for if there's an active shooter and they're like, well, what would happen if someone came in? I say, they'd have to get past me. They're like, really? And I'm like yes, I will die for you guys gladly if somebody is in here trying to kill you guys. I will get in the middle of it. You guys don't have to worry about that. But this isn't like a bullet. This is a virus that can take out my entire class. It can take out all of my colleagues. It's different than an active shooter. I can't train and teach my kids how to stay away from this all the time. Fear keeps kids safer. When there's an active shooter, when you're doing these drills, the fear keeps them quiet. The fear keeps them to the side. But the fear of something that you can't see, it's just intangible. And it is hard for them to understand unless they're taught it. And you get taught that at home. We want to be with our students. We want to be able to teach them correctly. We want to keep them safe. And we want to be able to identify, you know, disabilities that they might have, or food insecurities, or if they're being abused, we want to help them get away from that. But we want to make sure it's safe for them and for us. And I just wish people understood that. We're not hospital workers, we're not doctors, we're not nurses. We came into this to teach the future generations to be doctors and nurses, not to be the ones on death's doorstep.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity