On the Frontline: School employees speak out

As school districts continue to plan for in-person instruction, employees ranging from teachers to custodians are wondering what the return to classrooms will look like amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, personnel speaks out.

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TEACHER UNION SHARES CONCERNS

The Houston Federation of Teachers has been vocal about the need to ensure the safety of students and personnel in area schools.

The HFT represents approximately 13,000 non-administrative employees, including teachers, paraprofessionals, clerks, food service and custodial workers and bus drivers.

In Q&A with the Defender, HTF President Zeph Capo discussed concerns about returning to classrooms.

Defender: Are you confident that area school districts are doing everything they

can to be prepared to resume in-person instruction? 

READ HOW SOME SCHOOL DISTRICTS ARE TACKLING COVID-19

Capo: Some school districts are doing much better than others when it comes to putting the health and safety of students and staff as their priority. Others have chosen

Zeph Capo
Zeph Capo

to ignore medical advice when it comes to the timing of re-opening campuses, particularly in areas like Houston where we have been experiencing high levels of community spread.  

Houston ISD actually has done a much better job than most on developing and implementing its plan in comparison to other area districts. 

“I work with special education students and my duties require that I be closer than 6 feet from them. Additionally, my duties require me to travel to several campuses and all grade levels so I’m concerned that while most campuses are vigilant with safety precautions a student/teacher may slip through the cracks and I unwittingly bring it from one campus to another.” –  Michelle Goodman 

Defender: What do you find are teachers’ biggest concerns?

Capo: Many teachers are very concerned about reopening prior to our local community being able to contain the virus. There is a general lack of trust that the state or perhaps even the districts will be able to deliver on such things as appropriate PPE, proper cleaning, effective implementation of safe strategies to control the spread.  Many of our schools prior to closing had difficulty ensuring there was soap and paper towels in the bathrooms.  

There is real concern from teachers with factors that put them into high-risk categories that districts will not honor their federally protected requests for accommodations to teach virtually.  Further, we’ve seen in some schools that have opened for in-person activities that there hasn’t been a universal respect for safety protocols such as social distancing and wearing masks in all common areas.  This correlates with area districts that have chosen to ignore health advice where larger numbers of staff members also seem to believe they can’t or won’t be impacted.

Certain communities that haven’t been hit as hard don’t seem to have the level of respect for the virus as those from communities who have been hit harder by the virus.  

Defender: What are your recommendations for reopening schools safely?

Capo: Schools should not re-open until we’ve met the guidelines outlined by our county health officials.  Our area medical professionals are the ones we would expect to best understand how to lower the spread and keep everyone safe.  School districts, like all major institutions, should set the example for wearing masks, practicing reasonable social distancing, limiting in-person activities when alternative methods to continue the work are available.  

“I have 25-plus students in all seven of my classes. Social distancing?? I seriously doubt it.” – Gladys Denise Brown

This virus doesn’t care about our economy, jobs, politics or personal comfort levels.  It is our job to care as much or more about our fellow humans than ourselves and take care of one another like we are each other’s family.  This is especially true when it comes to our children. 

FOOD SERVICE CUSTODIAL AND TRANSPORTATION PERSONNEL STRESS SAFETY

The men and women who clean and maintain buildings, prepare food in cafeterias and drive and monitor buses will be on the front lines when schools reopen for face-to-face instruction.

Wretha Thomas, president of Houston Educational Support Personnel (HE

Wretha Thomas
Wretha Thomas

SP), is concerned about the safety of the union’s members.

“The schools aren’t ready to be opened up because they don’t have a plan designed to get COVID-19 under control,” she said.

HESP represents 1,300 HISD food service, custodial and transportation employees. Thomas, a former school housekeeper and bus driver, stresses “safety first” during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is a disease that everyone is trying to deal with,” she said. “Until we get a vaccine, we’re all living outside the bubble.”

Thomas’ fears are echoed by Aprell Johnson, a bus attendant and HESP union representative. Johnson is concerned because Harris County remains in the “red zone.”

“I work in PR for a school district and we started two weeks ago. All the fears we had dissipated when the kids were back in the classroom. There were fears of contracting COVID, kids not wearing masks even though it is mandated in my district, teachers calling out in number, not enough wifi for remote learners, not enough substitutes to fill in for teachers and para-pros, parents not complying with the no visitor mandate, not having enough sanitizer, gloves, spray bottles, cleaning equipment, etc. None of that has happened. It has been the easiest start to the year (per spot surveys of teachers and principals).” – Ro King

The county has benchmarks to help determine the current level of risk of COVID-19 transmission, and the system includes four levels of risk: 1, red; 2, orange; 3, yellow; and 4, green. Harris County remains at Level 1 –Severe Uncontrolled Community Transmission.

“Everyone needs to just stay at home and wait,” Johnson said. “I understand that we want to get children back to school as soon as possible but I just can’t see it.

“I sit in the back of the bus with special needs children. Sometimes we might sit next to each other. How is HISD going to keep me safe? There’s no way. I will have children sitting right in front of me, behind me and beside me. It’s not 6 feet; it’s [barely] 6 inches. The buses are small.”

Thomas describes bus drivers and attendants as the “alpha and omega, because they’re the first ones the kids see in the morning and last ones they see in the afternoon.”

As a safety precaution, Thomas presented HISD with a proposal to allow bus drivers to take students’ temperatures before they get on buses. She is awaiting the district’s response.

Thomas and Johnson feel the district should stick with online learning as long as possible.

“My recommendation for going back into the classroom is to wait until Houston is at least in the yellow or green zone,” Johnson said. “I don’t see what the big rush is.”

NATIONAL EDUCATORS BLAST RUSH TO OPEN

Defender News Service

The president-elect of the National Education Association – the nation’s largest professional employee organization – said school safety remains a major concern and criticized President Donald Trump for rushing to reopen America’s classrooms.

Becky Pringle
Becky Pringle

“There is no way to keep children apart, rooms clean, check for sick kids and teach efficiently. Expecting kids to obey all the rules is dreaming – they don’t comprehend or care about the consequences. [As a retired teacher] I love the story of three kindergartners who came home with different masks than they left home with because they exchanged with each other because their friends’ masks were ‘cuter’ than the one they left home with. Each teacher deserves 1) hazard pay, 2) higher salary and 3) an aide for each classroom – just for starters!” – Alberta Rencher

Becky Pringle, a Philadelphia science teacher, will lead an organization that represents nearly 3 million educators. She said the pandemic has tested the profound trust the nation places in educators.

“And here we are, being bullied from the highest office in the land to reopen school buildings and campuses when we now have evidence that they’re unsafe…,” she said.

Pringle said the NEA can no longer wait for real leadership to address the pandemic.

“We must be those leaders,” she said. “We’re done waiting for Donald Trump to come to his senses and stop this reckless rush to reopen our school buildings. We’re done waiting for Betsy DeVos to have a clue, or care about our students…we’re done being forced to make the false choice between living and learning; blamed for the failure of this administration to bridge the gaps in equity and fairness. We’re done.”

Pringle said she has video-conferenced with thousands of educators who are “nervous” and “anxious” about school safety.

“NEA will support your demands that you get what you need to safely do the jobs you love,” she said. “And we need you to keep standing up for what’s right. And I commit to you the resources to use your teacher voice and fight.”

Main photo by: Jimmie Aggison