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Athens educators express health concerns as they return to classrooms

A group of Clarke County educators -- comprising both elementary and secondary, eastside and westside -- have collaborated to craft the following letter outlining concerns about the current school district mandate requiring teachers and staff to return to their buildings starting Monday, Aug. 10, instead of continuing to work remotely until community transmission of the virus has decreased to safer levels. The letter was presented to Schools Superintendent Xernona Thomas Sunday evening.

The teachers and staff of CCSD applaud the evolving policies related to school reopening. We are grateful for the district’s decision to open with remote learning and protect our students and their families. We are grateful that those with childcare hardships have the flexibility to work remotely. We are grateful that our colleagues who are medically at-risk are being given the same option. These compromises are admirable, but they are not equitable and they are not sufficient in protecting the CCSD and larger Athens communities. Any CCSD staff member who is required to enter school buildings is at risk and increasing the potential for community spread and undue pressure on an already fragile public health system. The decision to require virtual teaching from the classroom is unacceptable, dangerous, and of serious public concern. We ask that the CCSD administration remove the requirement for all teachers and staff to work from school buildings based on community transmission rates, emerging science on infectious aerosols, and the unnecessary nature of doing so. In both the town hall meeting and the board work session, our Director of Nursing, Amy Roark, explained that by all metrics the state of Georgia currently has substantial levels of community transmission. Two strategies recommended by the CDC for reducing the risk of transmission in workplaces during this level of spread are to “implement flexible worksites” and “deliver services remotely.” We do not need to look far to see how in-person pre-planning has gone in other districts. Teachers in both Gwinnett and Barrow counties were required to work on campus and the consequences were immediate. These metrics are clear—requiring teachers to return to the 1 classroom unnecessarily endangers the Athens community.

Additionally, recent studies indicate that the infectious aerosols containing COVID-19 can remain airborne for extended periods of time. Experts recommend avoiding shared indoor spaces whenever possible. Shared HVAC and poorly ventilated spaces are a major factor in the spread of the virus, and surface cleaning and distancing will not provide enough protection . Teachers and staff 2 will have to walk along shared hallways, and use the same restrooms, kitchens, copy rooms, resources, and doorknobs. Collaborative teachers share classrooms. Counselors, instructional coaches, and staff work in small interconnected office suites and are in contact with other staff constantly. While our custodians will work tirelessly to clean surfaces, they cannot clean the air we are sharing. This mandate adds to their workload and increases their risk and the risk to their families. While CCSD’s facilities and maintenance staff have been working on our HVAC systems, it was confirmed in this week’s town hall session that our air quality remains untested and inconsistent across the district. Given the state of our ventilation systems and shared spaces, teachers should continue to wear their masks even in the isolation of their own classrooms. It is highly ineffective to teach students synchronously, record videos for asynchronous delivery, or conduct meetings while wearing a mask. Masks muffle voices and conceal facial expressions creating barriers to connection and understanding. To that end, it would be preferable for us to work from home so that we can engage in meetings and content creation with our masks off. Teaching virtually in masks negates any rationale requiring teachers to work from school buildings. It is simply not necessary and a danger to the larger community.

1 and 2

In some cases, teachers or staff may need to be in their buildings, and we wholeheartedly believe that we must take explicit action to preserve the safety of staff who cannot do their work from home. Our custodial and nutrition staff will be much safer with fewer people in their buildings. Also, our library media specialists and student support technicians are currently working on site to get ready for device distribution. Finally, some teachers and staff will need to be in their buildings for access to materials, technology, phones, or internet connectivity. Why is CCSD willing to risk the lives and health of our staff, custodians, teachers, and maintenance workers by requiring all to be present regardless of need? If CCSD truly wants what is best for our students, why is the safety of all employees working to support them not the first priority? And why put their families and community at a higher risk?

Outside of education, professionals all over the nation are trusted to work remotely. Private companies large and small, government offices, law firms, and even state educational agencies have announced that their employees will remain remote whenever possible for the foreseeable future. What rationale and evidence supports the decision to bring teachers into buildings for virtual instruction? If it is an accountability issue, then should that not be addressed directly with the individual teachers who had an issue with working remotely previously? We respectfully ask that CCSD allow all teachers and staff who are able to work remotely to continue doing so with access to their buildings as needed. When community transmission statistics indicate that our district is ready to transition to the phased plan for in-person instruction, the teachers and staff needed for each phase could begin transitioning into buildings as well.

Shouldn’t our school system model socially responsible behaviors? Why is CCSD willing to further burden our community and medical infrastructure by asking all teachers to return to campus while still teaching virtually? How is asking teachers to report to their classrooms a risk worth taking? Why would teaching online from a classroom be pedagogically better than teaching online from a home office space? It is hard to see any benefits of the current arrangement that will outweigh the risks. Forcing teachers to work in an unsafe environment for accountability purposes speaks to a lack of respect for the teachers of CCSD as professionals. We know what we need to do our jobs, and, as experienced professionals, we should be trusted to make decisions that positively impact not only our effectiveness as teachers but also our health and safety and that of the greater Athens community. We respectfully ask that you respond to these issues of public concern.

Respectfully Signed,

Brian Ash, Melissa Authement, Michelle Beatty, Felix Bell, Jennifer Biddle, Shana Biggs, Kelli Bivins, Anna Bray, Abby Brink. Grace Brownlee Crumpton, Jill Buchanan-Louney, Kimberly Carmack, Lindsay Coleman-Taylor, Christian Cordon, Emily Costley, Scotty Diesch, Nestor Domingo, Marina Doneda, Kathy Erickson, Marie Eskridge, Amy Evans, Jesse Evans, Aaron M. Farnham, Tina Favors, Natalia Ferrando, Jennifer Fishburn, Rebecca Floyd, Rita Foretich, Heather Garland, Logan Garrett, Lori Garrett-Hatfield, Claude Gonzalez, Christine Graziano, Geneva Hinkle, Erin Horton, Tanya Hudson, Kalli James-Wyrick, Katie Johnson, Laura Lee Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Peg Johnson, Courtney Jones, Cyndi Kelly, Adrienne Kitchens, Susan Lane, Dave Martin, Lisa Mason, Karen McDonald, Meghan McNeeley, Mary Claire Mixon, Jamie Momeyer, Ashley Na, Brendan Nordgren, Sarah Parido, Tina Pattersson, Beth Pifer-Mills, Michelle Pisarik, Melanie Powers, Amanda Price, Cori Pringle, Andy Plemmons, David Ragsdale, Annie Reeves Bradberry, Melissa Rowland, Evelyn Rushing, Ella Salt, Catherine Shinholser, Elliot Slane, Kasey Solis, G. Stickney, Chris Sugiuchi, Jason Taylor, Jennifer Tesler Boyd, Shannon Thompson, Ashli Walker, Roenessa, Witcher, Lauren Wood, Chris Woodward

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1 Comment

I understand teachers/staff are worried, but they should look to the nurses and doctors who have been working in far more extreme conditions then CCSD will be. We all need to have some perspective here. If someone doesn’t wish to work, they have the option to quit. There will be someone else who is happy to have that job. I know I would, since I am furloughed from my job. If we all wear a mask and social distance, you will be on. Getting CV19, is not a death sentence. If you have several co-morbidities, you may wish to wear gloves and a N-95 mask.

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