Allison Webb carefully removed the photographs and maps from her Sequoyah High School classroom’s bulletin board, one item at a time.
Webb sighed. It was just her and her college age daughter in the room where she’d taught Spanish and French for 20 years. Together, they slowly dismantled the displays and emptied the bookshelves, cabinets and teacher’s desk at the back of the room. Neither said much. The day had come to pack up and say goodbye to a career Webb said she loved.
The ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic and the disease it causes, COVID-19, along with the Cherokee County School District’s policies about protecting students and staff from the virus, made it impossible to continue teaching, Webb said. “I’m heartbroken, but my health and life are irreplaceable,” she said. Webb resigned from her teaching job two weeks ago, after what she described as weeks of anxiety and sleepless nights.
Schools in Cherokee County resume Monday. While staff and faculty will be required to wear masks when they cannot be at least 6 feet away from others, students are encouraged to wear them, but masks will not be required. “It’s optional for them, and that’s a serious problem,” Webb said.
Schools across the state closed in March when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit and students in Cherokee County spent the final months of the school year in distance learning, with extracurricular and sports events canceled.
For the start of fall term, Cherokee County schools offered at-home distance learning online as an option, and about a quarter of parents have chosen it for their children.
Superintendent Brian Hightower has said repeatedly he is confident the system’s plan for in-school instruction is safe.
“We have adopted recommended measures to keep our students and staff safe. We already have spent millions on these safety efforts, with more to be spent, totaling at least $4 million,” Hightower said this week in a public message on the system’s website.
“Out of 2,000 students in this school, 1,500 will be returning in person — without a mandatory mask requirement,” which was frightening, Webb said. Cherokee, Forsyth and Paulding counties are among area school systems reopening with face-to-face classes. Cobb and Fulton counties are among those in the area that opted to begin the year with virtual learning at home.
“I feel betrayed and bullied, and I’m not alone,” Webb said, as she placed her keepsake photos into moving boxes for the trip home. Several other teachers from Sequoyah and others in the system had either resigned or plan to leave in the coming weeks, she said. “It’s not the mediocre teachers, it’s the quality teachers with years of experience who are leaving,” she said. “The students are the ones who get short-changed.”
“When we invest in teaching, we think about how to motivate the kids and how to engage them. That takes a lot of time and thought,” she said. “To know that our school district did not spend the same sort of time and effort to find ways to keep teachers safe in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic was sad and frightening.” Neither she nor other teachers were asked their health concerns before the system released its reopening plans, she said.
Hightower has said the plan was developed with input from a wide variety of sources, such as the CDC, Georgia Department of Public Health, and others, including teachers.
Earlier this summer the school system surveyed parents of students on if they preferred to have in-person learning, or distance learning. By a large majority, parents preferred to have their children in school buildings, school officials have said.
Webb looked over her classroom that was filled with desks.
“There will be 32 students in this small classroom. There is no way physical way to distance them properly to keep them safe, or protect myself. I have to be able to move among the students and interact with them and answer their questions. The class size would need to be reduced to meet the safety guidelines,” she said.
School system officials have said that while the government-recommended 6 feet of space between people may not be possible at all times in school buildings, or on buses, students and staff will be strongly encouraged to maintain that distance whenever possible and to wear a mask when it’s not. The system is providing two reusable, washable masks to all students and staff in the system.
Webb and a handful of colleagues started a private Facebook group for those who felt the county’s reopening protocols were inadequate. The group quickly grew to more than 700 teachers from Cherokee and adjacent counties. Hundreds of teachers expressed their fears and frustrations. Teachers who reluctantly chose to leave their profession out of safety concerns were far outnumbered by those who said they had no choice for financial reasons, and planned to return to classrooms despite their anxiety.
Nationally, 1 in 4 teachers are at increased risk for serious illness if they become infected with the coronavirus, according to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. This figure includes educators who are older than 65 or who have an underlying health condition that makes them more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.
“Given the difficulty of maintaining social distancing in a crowded school environment, these at-risk teachers may be reluctant to return to their schools until infection rates fall to much lower levels. At the same time, teaching is not a particularly high-paying profession, so many teachers may feel economically compelled to return to their schools if they reopen, even if those teachers do not feel safe,” the report concluded.
Webb said her decision to resign came after her youngest daughter expressed angst about her elderly grandparents.
“She said, ‘If this is the last year my grandmother is alive, I don’t want to be afraid that I would make her sick. I want to stay home.’ That’s huge, because she had all sorts of hopes for her senior year,” Webb said. “I realized family is the most important thing to me. I don’t want to bring my parents harm because a student passed the infection on to me, and then I pass it on to them.”
Olivia Vacid, 46, is a Cherokee County general science teacher from Acworth with 20 years’ experience. She plans to return to her job despite her rising anxiety.
“My personal fear is that I’m going to die before my career is over, that this tiny virus is what’s going to take me out, and not old age or some horrific accident. I don’t understand the county’s refusal to mandate masking for students. It’s such a simple thing. My fear is that half of my students will carry it home to their families, where they may be living with someone who has a compromised immune system or is elderly,” she said. “I have no problem being in the building. I have a problem being in the building with unmasked students.”
Chris Grass, 55, taught in Cherokee County for 30 years, most recently as a long-term substitute teacher.
“It’s been like a family for 32 years, which why it feels like a betrayal and hurt so many teachers,” Grass said. “I know teachers who are scared to death. It’s like Russian roulette once the students come back to school, and they don’t have to wear masks. It’s not a question of if someone gets the virus in school, it’s when.” The school administration has hundreds of teachers ready to fill vacancies if teachers quit, she said. “We are expendable, and experienced teachers are not valued,” she said.
Hightower has called claims that administrators and members of the school board don’t care about the health and concerns of teachers untrue and hurtful.
“For the administrators, the priority about students going back to school — which it is for us as well. But is it so the parents can get back to work and the economy can continue? That needs to happen, but in a safe way,” Grass said. “Our administrators have made it so our faculty meetings are on-line rather than in-person, so we don’t have to be in the same room.They’re worried about safety in one way, yet they’ll put all these kids in a classroom without requiring masks. “
Grass said she won’t return unless the county revises its coronavirus protection plan.
In a message to parents, Hightower addressed the issue of teachers making the decision not to return to the classroom because of concerns about coronvirus.
“If a teacher opts to take leave, they are still a part of our family, and we care about them,” Hightower wrote. “If your child’s teacher takes leave or resigns, we will do our best to fill that important role with a qualified teacher from our applicant pool or our team of long-time substitute teachers. We have 500 retired teachers, parents and community members signed up to serve as temporary substitute teachers if needed.”