Teachers Support In-Person Learning, When Safe

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Education , COVID-19

Teachers from Monomoy, Nauset, Truro and Provincetown gathered at the Orleans Rotary last Wednesday to protest the call to return to in-person learning. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

Too Early To Return To The Classroom, They Say

ORLEANS Under drizzly skies last Wednesday, more than two dozen teachers from Monomoy, Nauset and other Lower Cape school districts staged a protest at the Orleans Rotary to express concerns about returning to the classroom during the pandemic. The teachers argue that they’re eager to see their students in person again, but not if doing so puts the school community at risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Cars honked as they passed the teachers, who were holding signs reading, “Don’t Force Kids to Learn from Our Mistakes,” “Gov. Baker, Listen To The MTA,” and “Longing to be Face to Face with My Students, But Only When It’s Safe.”

The protest was organized by the Mass. Teachers Association and the Cape and Islands Area Mass. Educator Actor Network, and was one of 11 demonstrations around the region held that day.

Cheri Armstrong, a teacher at Monomoy Regional Middle School, said teachers are eager to get back in the classroom interacting with kids, but only when it’s safe to do so.

“I love to work,” she said. And while the schools have safety protocols in place (see related story), if there are any COVID-19 outbreaks, “the consequences are catastrophic,” she said.

Brooke Styche of the Barnstable Teachers’ Association said that while teachers in her district have had a voice in their reopening plan, “and through excellent collaboration we feel Barnstable is doing this the right way —the safe way for all — we know other Cape and Islands districts have not been so fortunate. Therefore, it is imperative that Barnstable stands in solidarity with educator unions across our region.”

For many of those at the protest, key questions remain unanswered by school districts, like how traffic flow will be handled in the hallways or at lunchtime, what the procedures are in an emergency, how effective the schools’ heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems will be at moving air, or what happens in rooms without windows.

Briefing Chatham selectmen last week, Monomoy Schools Superintendent Scott Carpenter said all of the rooftop HVAC systems in all the district’s buildings are operating properly, “and every window in every school building that is meant to be able to open, can open.” Most districts can’t make that claim, he added.

“Scott Carpenter and every other superintendent have done a phenomenal job,” devising safety plans for their districts, Armstrong said. “The problem is, safety is relative.” Large gatherings of people anywhere present an opportunity for COVID-19 to spread. That possibility is a real one, “no matter how many precautions you take,” she said.

The district’s protocols for preventing the spread of the coronavirus are comprehensive, but “they’re only as good as the weakest link,” Armstrong said. Screening youngsters and staff for COVID symptoms will be no easy task, she said. Armstrong suffers from a common allergy to ragweed, but if she develops those symptoms this year, they can’t just be dismissed, she said.

Until the pandemic is under control, or “until you can tell me how a gathering at school is different from any summer party, or going to a restaurant or a bar,” Armstrong won’t be convinced that it’s safe to return to the classroom, she said.

In a news release, Chelsea Craig, president of the Sandwich Education Association, said too many questions remain.

“We love your children, our students, and the work we do,” she wrote. “We want to return to our classrooms, but not until it’s safe.”

Armstrong acknowledged that it’s tough teaching remotely using Zoom, recorded videos and other similar approaches. “But returning under these conditions is not optimal, either,” she said.