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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The debate over whether and how much to re-open schools in the fall has put teachers in the precarious position of choosing between their own safety and the pressures from some parents and local officials.

Why it matters: Teachers are the core of K-12 education. The people we depend on to educate our society's children may end up bearing the brunt of both the risk and the workload.

What's happening: With coronavirus cases spiking in many parts of the U.S., districts are weighing the feasibility of keeping classes all virtual, as Los Angeles and San Diego are doing, or conducting a rotation of in-person and remote lessons.

While all back-to-school options have pros and cons, there are specific worries for teachers.

1. Exposure: Despite a child's overall low health risk if they contract COVID-19, scientists still do not conclusively know if schools could become hotspots for more vulnerable populations.

  • Schools are on a time and money crunch for better ventilation, more disinfectant and masks and proper social distancing techniques. If a cluster of cases do occur, teachers and parents are short on answers about how to isolate students and contact trace.
  • Districts were already facing staffing shortages before the pandemic. And nearly 1.5 million teachers have a condition that puts them at increased risk of serious illness from coronavirus, per a Kaiser Family Foundation study. A separate KFF study out today found that 3.3 million adults age 65 or older live in a household with school-age children.
  • A study in Germany found that infections in schools had not led to outbreaks in the community. But an analysis of a surge of cases in Israel found that nearly half the reported cases in June were traced back to illness in schools.
"We as teachers prepare for active shooters, tornadoes, fires and I’m fully prepared to take a bullet or shield a child from falling debris during a tornado. But if I somehow get it and I’m asymptomatic and I get a student sick and something happens to them or one of their family members, that's a guilt I would carry with me forever."
— Michelle Albright, a second grade teacher from northwest Indiana

2. Difficulty of a hybrid approach: Many school districts like New York City are opting to split school between in-person and online to minimize exposure. That's an effective but more burdensome approach for teachers, top teachers union chief Randi Weingarten told Axios' Dan Primack Monday.

  • In-person contact with a teacher can make a big difference for students struggling with a concept or who need one-on-one time.
  • But many teachers will have to prepare virtual and in-person lessons and ensure the same learning outcomes for students in both settings — a tall order.

3. Child care availability: Teachers with children of their own are concerned about how to care for them when they are teaching.

  • States could choose to provide child care services for educators as essential employees, but it's unclear what non-school child care options will be available in areas with high infection rates or where day care centers have struggled to stay in business.

4. Concerns of other school staff: Bus drivers, custodians, classroom aides, administrative staff, cafeteria workers, school nurses and substitute teachers may come in contact with more children throughout the day because they are less likely than teachers to be confined to a single classroom.

What to watch: School districts ought to be finding other roles for teachers who are not comfortable returning to the classroom, such as reassigning them to virtual-only roles or providing one-on-one online tutoring sessions with students, said John Bailey, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former domestic policy adviser during the George W. Bush administration.

  • But there's not much time to sort that out on top of getting teachers the professional development they need for effective remote learning.
  • "What I worry about is that we squandered the few months we had to make sure we can think through these challenges," Bailey said. "This was one of the most obvious challenges facing schools with reopening and we should have been thinking about that for the last several months. Instead it's creeping up on districts."

The bottom line: Due to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic, teachers are worried about the uncertainties and, in some cases, lack of clear planning should conditions worsen. That may drive some to quit teaching altogether.

  • "You’ve got 25% of teachers who may be in either a high-risk situation because of pre-existing conditions or because of age, and a lot of them, if they can, they may just check out and say 'nobody’s taking care of me. I can’t go back,'" Weingarten said.

Go deeper

Oct 23, 2020 - Health

Fauci: Trump hasn't been to a COVID task force meeting in months

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Trump has not attended a White House coronavirus task force meeting in “several months,” NIAID director Anthony Fauci told MSNBC on Friday.

Why it matters: At the beginning of the pandemic, the task force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, met every day, but in the "last several weeks," members have held virtual meetings once a week, Fauci said, even as the number of new cases continues to surge in the country.

Oct 23, 2020 - Health

How to help save 130,000 lives

People wear face masks outside Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Nearly 130,000 fewer people will die of COVID-19 this winter if 95% of Americans wear face masks in public, according to research published Friday.

Why it matters: “Increasing mask use is one of the best strategies that we have right now to delay the imposition of social distancing mandates," Dr. Christopher Murray of the University of Washington told the N.Y. Times.

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