Back to class: Many teachers apprehensive about return, but SCS says buildings are safe

Investigations

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County students were given the choice to go back to the classroom this Monday — but teachers didn’t have an option.

They are expected to be back in the building, and WREG found out it’s causing some to resign or take a leave of absence.

This week, a caravan of cars cruised around the Shelby County School’s headquarters, with horns honking and signs calling attention to their concern.

“There is great apprehension among teachers in this district,” said Keith Williams, who leads one of the teacher’s unions Memphis-Shelby County Education Association. “Because many of them have co morbidities. I mean a large number of teachers do.”

Williams said many teachers he’s talked to fear they’ll be exposed to COVID or risk bringing it home to their family.

“We have about 250 to 300 teachers who can retire. They’ve met all the qualifications for such. There’s a very real possibility they just might do that,” he said.

Since the return to school date was announced, WREG learned some teachers resigned or took a leave of absence.

That includes two of Rebekah Butler’s teachers at White Station High. They told students they didn’t feel comfortable returning to campus.

“I actually cried a little bit,” Butler said. “Because I really loved both of these teachers, because they were such an impact for the students and for me personally. They really showed they cared about us.”

She said what’s even more stressful is that they’re weeks from their AP test, and no instructor logged on this week to teach them.

“I am concerned about my schoolwork,” she said.

Sherry Blumberg’s son also goes to White Station.

“To find out a policy is causing them to lose some of their favorite teachers and highly effective teachers in the middle of the school year was very upsetting,” Blumberg said.

It’s upsetting to others, too. SCS students launched an online petition asking the district to reconsider a mandatory return for teachers. At last check, there were more than 12,000 signatures.

“I’m not sure how many students are struggling with this right now but I could see it being a really huge issue,” Butler said.

The WREG Investigators asked SCS how many teachers have recently left, but we are still waiting to hear back.

What we do know is that, according to data we recently received, at the start of the 2019-2020 school year there were 125 teacher vacancies.

That number was cut in half at the beginning of this school year, but it quickly increased. In November, there were 135 teacher reported vacancies.

SCS says they are working to get all “classrooms covered.”

“We have not been heard. We have been not been asked. We have not had a seat at the table,” Williams said.

The state stripped teachers’ bargaining rights a decade ago, and Williams said the district hasn’t asked for his union’s opinion on reopening plans.

Teachers were given a survey last fall and 80% of those who responded stated they didn’t want to go back to campus just yet.

At first, SCS district officials were going to allow them to do that, floating the idea of temporary workers to monitor classrooms for those who opted to stay home.

But mounting pressure from the governor, threats of funding cuts, and recent state legislation that could force districts to reopen changed things.

“We are taking every opportunity to prioritize our teachers,” SCS Superintendent Joris Ray said. He repeated that Tuesday when the first round of teachers received COVID-19 vaccines.

SCS provided an interview with a teacher who says she’s comfortable with returning.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to get back into the classroom,” Peggy Taylor said.

Many teachers begged to get a vaccine before their return, and Ray says he pushed to make it happen.

“This is what we’ve advocated since Day 1,” Ray said. His comments on school safety measures are below:

SCS also stressed in a statement their “buildings are safe.” And they will perform temperature checks, use social distancing, offering PPE, enhanced cleaning and engineering controls like partitions and sneeze guards.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Stephen Threlkeld told us those protocols will stem the spread if done right, and said even though the CDC doesn’t requires vaccinating teachers before returning, it’s vital.

“Because we need them to be safe and we need them to feel confident that they’re going to be safe,” he said.

SCS told us they held “sessions to address questions and acknowledge concerns” teacher may have.

They will also evaluate each teacher’s concern about returning and will be “addressing exceptional circumstances on an individual basis.” But they didn’t say who decides to grant exemptions.

“I have not run across one that they have considered. I have people who are on dialysis, taking chemotherapy. Those are serious conditions, so if they don’t qualify, I don’t know who would,” Williams said.

So for now, teachers are expected to be there Monday in the building, teaching the same way they have been — virtually through the Microsoft Teams platform.

The students that are going back to class Monday will still be logging onto their computers and their teachers will teach them via Teams.  SCS says the’ll have charging stations set up but students should bring their tablets fully charged.

Because the Families First Coronavirus Response Act expired at the end of 2020, SCS said teachers will have to take their own sick leave for any COVID-19 related days off.

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