Tennessee teachers feel ill-equipped for classroom teaching in COVID era

TAMPA, FL - JULY 16: Middle school teacher Brittany Myers stands in protest in front of the Hillsborough County Schools District Office on July 16, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. Teachers and administrators from Hillsborough County Schools rallied against the reopening of schools due to health and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Although the school year began just a few weeks ago, teachers have many unanswered questions about keeping themselves and students safely while COVID-19 remains unchecked. 

Lauren Jordan, a teacher with  the Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, feels safe, although only for the moment, she adds. So far Jordan had remotely taught her special needs students. Her school gave parents the option of remote or classroom learning. For the latter only 50 children were to be in the school building at any given time. 

But this will end soon. Jordan’s special-needs students will begin in-person classes to meet their Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) requirements, and although Jordan admits remote learning is a lot less stressful and safe, her students couldn’t get the attention they needed. With this change comes a slew of questions. How do you ask 25 children to socially distance themselves from their friends in one classroom? asked Jordan.

“I’m thinking if I can utilize our outside spaces, I’m going to try to do that to give us a break from being in the classroom, and maybe see if I can make it a little bit safer,” said Jordan, who teaches 6th grade.  

Lauren Jordan, a Franklin teachers, worries about the classroom experience for her special needs students, from socially distanced learning to processing trauma.

Children are in a vastly different learning environment than usual and it’s being left to teachers to walk them through the pandemic. Jordan worries most of her school time will be used to heal the emotional trauma of life suddenly stopping. For her special-needs students, Jordan had always focused on social and emotional learning but will now take extra steps to bring awareness to their feelings and needs.

“There’a a lot of aspects that don’t have anything to do with education,” said Jordan.

And then there’s asking children to keep clean, asking them to use a mask since it’s not required, and constantly spraying down the classrooms. There’s the likelihood that teachers will become glorified babysitters, said Jordan.

Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Beth Brown has already received complaints that state assistance, such as sanitation kits, haven’t arrived as quickly as they need to. 

Teachers were given “sock” masks from the state, which Jordan refused to use and instead stuck in her drawer. 

There’s still an expectation that teachers are to buy the necessities for their students that the state won’t provide. 

“I have not seen any district that’s been able to assure [teachers’] safety,” said Brown, adding that teachers have been forced to buy their own cleaning supplies to make classrooms safe.  

Educators are missing in the conversation about COVID-19 in schools, said Brown.

Beth Brown, president, Tennessee Education Association (Photo: TEA)
Beth Brown, president, Tennessee Education Association (Photo: TEA)

Oftentimes teachers weren’t given the choice of remote learning. Exceptions were made for teachers with medical issues, but it was strongly implied that teachers would have to provide a pretty good medical reason, added Jordan. 

Standardized testing provides another question, since teachers and students alike are graded at the end of the year. Officials with the Williamson County Schools asked for leniency this year, but Gov. Bill Lee declined to grant it. 

Despite school districts spending the past several months planning reopening, widespread outbreaks have caused several schools to shut down in Rutherford County, according to Brown. 

“One of the things that we have to acknowledge is that the virus is not contained in our state,” said Brown. 

Then there’s the question of what to do if one child in a home gets infected, do you quarantine all other children in the household and the classrooms they’re attached to? And what happens when teachers run out of sick days, especially if several outbreaks occur?

“We are also seeing across the state a large number of educators who have been exposed and are under quarantine,” said Brown. 

These questions weren’t answered before schools opened.

The TEA issued guidance on safely returning to school based on a Harvard study, which found that if there’s 25 or more new cases per 100,000 population, it is not safe to reopen school buildings.

“The bottom line is that infection rates are not under control and it is inevitable that when school buildings reopen in person, when infection rates are as high as they are in areas of the state, there will be infections,” said Brown, adding that it’s impossible for districts to map out every scenario.