This year, the return to the classroom, normally a time for idle chatter about just-ended vacations, is now a time for talk about vaccinations, masks, life and death.
For many D.C. teachers, the start of the 2021 school year is a time of reckoning. Will anti-virus injections, social distancing, plastic partitions and masks protect from COVID-19? Are new DCPS public health rules hurdles or barriers?
“For my son, for me and my house, I don’t trust the protocols because I used to work there,” says Patricia Stamper, elementary school teacher in D.C.
Stamper was a D.C. public elementary schools teacher but switched to a charter school in D.C. because, she said, she doesn’t trust the way D.C. public schools is handling the virus. Stamper removed her son from D.C. public schools, too, because she said she fears for his safety.
Once part of the ranks of 4,100 D.C. school teachers, she is adjusting to a post and new rules, where teachers and administrative staff are required to be vaccinated, to wear masks, submit for temperature checks and, possibly, undergo testing for COVID-19 each week.
Still, teachers’ views vary about safety in an environment in which approved COVID-19 vaccines don’t exist for those under the age of twelve.
Eulyn Thomas, a DCPS elementary school teacher, said she is confident the 2021-2022 school year will be successful. She believes that elementary school children need to be back in the classroom face-to-face with their peers and teachers to receive a well-rounded education.
“We can see them, and we can help them much more. Being online was a challenge for the kids… and I think it has been a very very hard time for them. They are not with their friends [and] are at home all of the time. There’s a special bond between teachers and elementary school students that I think they didn’t quite get online,” said Thomas.
In Thomas’ classroom, there are 12 students, and they will be seated three feet apart and children are required to wear masks and keep their distance from other students as much as possible.
Thomas says COVID-19 testing will be available onsite for teachers and students where teachers who are not vaccinated must agree to weekly testing. Students and teachers will be screened daily for COVID-19 symptoms and parents are also not allowed to enter the building to control possible spreading of the virus.
In the event a student tests positive for the virus, Thomas says they have the flexibility to still learn at home because each student is given their own laptop to take home and still learn like their classmates while the teacher is in the classroom.
Ventilation, social distancing and contact tracing are just a few of the concerns that the Washington Teacher’s Union has about returning to the classroom. Most schools are returning at regular capacity and social distancing may be more difficult to control in compact spaces.
“Most importantly teachers want to make sure they are safe but more importantly they want to make sure our little ones are safe. We want to make sure that once schools open, they stay open because we know if we keep closing that is going to be a setback for everyone,” said Washington Teacher’s Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons.
“The way it looks now, I think we’re OK, but you never know what’s going to happen. If things get worse, I don’t know what they’re going to do,” says Thomas.