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'Our Students Are In Danger': Some Texas Teachers Are Concerned About Returning To Class

Masked third-graders work on computers at Tibbals Elementary School in Murphy, Texas, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero
Masked third-graders work on computers at Tibbals Elementary School in Murphy, Texas, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Teachers and students across Texas return to the classroom next month, and for the most part things will be back to normal — or at least the way they were pre-pandemic.

Classes will be conducted in person and many districts have already ditched pandemic-era health and safety policies.

But with coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations trending upward again across the state, some educators have concerns about how safe it will be to return to in-person learning this fall.

Ovidia Molina is the president of the Texas State Teachers Association. She said Gov. Greg Abbott's order in May barring schools from issuing their own mask mandates, is effectively the state prohibiting schools from keeping their staff, students and community safe from the coronavirus.

“Our students are in danger, the educators are in danger and then the people that we interact with outside in the community,” Molina said. “So when we're talking about keeping our school safe, it's because we want to keep our community safe.”

Abbott defends his order. One statement he issued said, “We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans' liberty to choose whether or not they mask up.”

Abbott also pointed to the fact that vaccines are helping mitigate the spread of the virus, but children under 12 still are not eligible to be vaccinated.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a reportthis week, recommending that every student over the age of two wear a mask at school, whether they are vaccinated or not. The group also recommended teachers and staff wear masks, unless they have a condition that prevents them from doing so.

Molina said Texas educators have been expressing their fears and concerns about returning to class with fewer safety measures in place, but elected officials are too wrapped up in the politics of the issue.

“Everything that we've asked for, for security for our educators and our students, has gone on deaf ears,” she said. “We don't know who [Abbott's] listening to, but he's definitely not listening to educators.”

Richardson ISD superintendent Jeannie Stone said some parents are also nervous to send kids back to school right now. In a video update to the district, she said concerns mainly center around the lack of a mask requirement.

"W will continue to actively encourage everyone to wear masks, just as the CDC recommends," Stone said. "We will also continue to actively monitor pandemic guidance from schools from the state of Texas and our health authorities."

Stone also said that Richardson ISD has had thousands of students back in classrooms for summer school, but there's only been one positive case reported. She said the same policies implemented over the summer will be in place this fall to keep students, faculty and staff safe.

Clint Bond, a spokesperson for the Fort Worth school district, says if teachers or parents are nervous about returning to the classroom next month, they haven’t mentioned it in that district. At a resource fair the district held recently, Bond said he heard a lot of positive feedback from parents who are excited their children will be back learning face-to-face.

Bond said the district will also welcome anyone wearing a mask if they choose.

Many Texas districts canceled plans for virtual learning this year, because during the Texas legislature’s regular session lawmakers failed to approve funding to expand online teaching.

Meghan Cone, assistant communications director for Frisco ISD, said in an email that the district had originally planned to expand its virtual learning curriculum, but stopped pursuing the plans once the funding fell through.

That’s the case for Mansfield ISD too.

Molina said not having online learning limits the options schools have to teach students if outbreaks do happen.

“That's another fear that we have, is the lack of options,” she said. “Not just for our students, for our educators, who may either have something themselves that could possibly put them in danger of death or a family member, as well as our students having that in their families.”

Got a tip? Email Rebekah Morr at rmorr@kera.org. You can follow her on Twitter @bekah_morr.

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Bekah Morr is KERA's Morning Edition producer. She came to KERA from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a news assistant at Weekend All Things Considered. While there, she produced stories and segments for a national audience, covering everything from rising suicide rates among police officers, to abuse allegations against Nike coaches and everything in between. Before that, she interned for a year on Think with Krys Boyd, helping to research, write and produce the daily talk-show. A graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, Bekah spent her formative journalism years working at the student news organization The Shorthorn. As editor in chief, she helped create the publication’s first, full-color magazine.