Maryland teachers want more protections before returning to fully opened schools

Teachers say they want to be back in school with their students, but a survey of members of Maryland’s teachers union revealed 77% of those asked don’t believe schools can be reopened safely in the next few months.

According to a survey of 2,317 members of the Maryland State Education Association, or MSEA, school employees want to see a number of safety precautions taken before in-person teaching resumes and all students return for classroom instruction.

Daily disinfecting, including cleaning door handles, surfaces and bathrooms, should be standard, according to 94% of those surveyed. Another 94% said hand sanitizer should be available throughout school buildings, and 92% of respondents said they wanted anyone who tests positive for the virus to be isolated and expected contact tracing to be standard.

Other precautions that teachers want to see, according to the survey, include personal protective equipment, such as gloves and masks for students and staff and Plexiglas barriers for shared office spaces. And 64% said they wanted added mental health staff to help with “student and educator trauma.”

At a virtual news conference, Cheryl Bost, president of the MSEA, said when it comes to reopening schools, education leaders should, “Be realistic. Without an investment in safety and with a surge in positive cases, it is impossible to see how we will safely and sustainably have a large-scale physical reopening of schools.”

MSEA released a checklist that it said schools should use as a bench mark to determine whether and how schools should open.

Bost said, “Yes, making our schools (safe) costs money. But neglecting the safety of our students and our educators and their families costs lives.”

Bost said the demands of trying to provide instruction during the pandemic are “causing impossible workloads and burnout.”

Pam Gaddy, a Baltimore County teacher and member of MSEA, said, “Teachers are afraid to call in because they don’t want to overburden their colleagues.” But she noted, “these good intentions put us in jeopardy” because that could mean sick teachers show up to work, possibly spreading the virus.

Gaddy and Melinda Kearns, a teacher from Saint Mary’s County, discussed the current workload in schools that are either fully virtual or like Saint Mary’s County, that are moving to the hybrid model.

Gaddy said her workload has more than doubled this year.

“I am regularly working from early morning until late into the night and through the weekends, just to keep up.”

Kearns said, “Educators are working hard, and are caught between political agendas, our school district’s decisions and ongoing debates on social media.” She said it’s exhausting, and “it’s compounded by a workload that keeps growing.”

Earlier on Monday, the Maryland State Department of Education’s board voted in support of a statement from state superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon that urges school systems to bring students back into the classroom.

The vote was largely symbolic, affirming Salmon’s earlier recommendations in documents on reopening schools that were released in August and in June.

Salmon spoke before the vote saying that there are those who disagree that schools should reopen, and that for those people, anything other than having zero cases of COVID-19 in a school is unacceptable.

“But zero was never a realistic expectation,” Salmon said. “Even if there was no spread in schools, we’d see some cases because students and teachers can contract the disease outside of school.”

Salmon made reference to hearing from parents with children crying in frustration over their computers during online instruction. She said she was also concerned for families that didn’t have the financial resources to do things, such as form pods with hired tutors to help their own children with virtual learning.

Of the state’s 24 school systems, 19 have moved to bring small groups of students back for in classroom instruction or are beginning to implement a hybrid model of learning, with some students getting instruction at home, others in class on a rotating basis.

Prince George’s County plans on sticking with virtual learning through the end of the first semester, and Montgomery County is considering how to bring students back while remaining in the online format for now.

Dr. Vermelle Greene, a state school board member from Charles County, expressed her support for getting kids back into the classroom and voiced concern over the learning loss experienced by students, particularly among “our Black and brown children.”

Board member Rachel McCusker, a teacher in Carroll County, took issue with one statement by Salmon who said teachers are getting planning time to deal with the new reality of teaching in settings that will include the hybrid model.

“I do not have more planning time, I have less,” McCusker said.

Like the members of the Maryland State Education Association who talked about putting more time into their preparation and instruction, McCusker noted she was putting in long hours Monday through Friday, and full days on the weekends, all to keep pace with the demands of hybrid instruction.

“I will tell you that teachers are under water right now — under water.”

But McCusker added, “I will say on a positive note, the students have been happy to come back to the classroom, and we have been happy to welcome them.”

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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