NASHVILLE, TN– The teachers’ union surveyed 620 Metro elementary, special education teachers, and staff. They asked them if they felt safe from COVID-19. Sixty percent said “No”. An even higher percentage (76%) want to stop in-person classes and go entirely virtual.
MNPS had planned to return to in-person classes after fall break but Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle decided to delay that for grades 5-8 because of rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in Metro elementary schools.
On Tuesday November 3, Battle announced there would be another delay.
“This past week, we’ve seen an increase in the number of cases in our schools, especially of students or staff having to quarantine as a result of being a close contact with a COVID-19 positive person or showing symptoms of COVID-19,” Battle said.
Between October 26 and November 1,694 students were quarantined, 28 tested positive for the coronavirus; 214 staff were quarantined and 42 tested positive. Public health experts say middle schoolers are more susceptible and more likely to catch the virus because they change classrooms frequently and have lockers in the hallways.
School Board Member Franchata Bush has been pushing to re-open all Metro schools to in-person instruction. “Transitioning our most vulnerable youngest learners back in person safely was the right decision,” Bush said. She said the virus will be with us for a long time and that the district must find a way to continue to educate our children safely. She also said grades 5-8 should go back to in-person classes as soon as possible.
“There is little to no evidence schools are super spreaders. We have put safety precautions in place for every school and if there are concerns, we will make accommodations to ensure safety for teachers, students and our staff,” Bush said. The MNEA says the infection numbers prove otherwise.
“The reason that we did this survey is that Fran Bush and her “Let Parents Choose” group has been saying all kinds of things about why we have to be back in the building,” said Amanda Kail, president of Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA).
Kail said Bush claims teachers want to be back teaching face-to-face. So the MNEA decided to ask them.
“A lot of people like to talk theoretically. They like to say ’It’ll be fine’ but they are not actually teachers in the classroom,” Kail said.
She said the union initially talked to a number of elementary teachers who did say they wanted to be back in the classroom. “But now that they are back, they have changed their minds,” Kail said.
Elementary and special education teachers are the only ones who are now with students in classrooms and they report things are not back to normal.
One 4th grade teacher has two classes with 28 students each. “These are the largest rosters I have ever had, and I have taught 4th grade every year. After buying $200+ of supplies in the last week to keep my students’ materials separated but organized, it quickly became apparent that there is not enough floor tape in the world to safely navigate this situation.”
One 1st grade teacher said her students are not able to get up and move. “My first graders are confined to their seats the entire day. They are literally so bored and checked out by our early lunchtime that it’s hard to get them to listen to anything. They are twirling in their seats, making noises, anything to try to entertain themselves.”
Kail said conditions are not good in Metro classrooms. “They are quarantining so many people they don’t’ have enough teachers to keep the classes going,” Kail said. She said ELS specialists and paraprofessionals are covering for teachers who are in quarantine or sick with COVID-19.
Choosing virtual or in-person instruction has had unforeseen consequences. “If a student is quarantined they don’t have a teacher for two weeks,” Kail said. If you are an in-person student, you can’t just switch to virtual if you have to quarantine.
Battle said quarantined kids can work virtually from home and contact tracing and quarantine steps are available here: https://www.mnps.org/covid19-diagnosis. COVID-19 tracking data in schools is available here: https://www.mnps.org/covid19
“We will continue working with the Health Department, which oversees our school nurse program and contact tracing, to monitor cases in our school to determine whether transmission is occurring inside of our buildings to ensure a safe working and learning environment,” Battle said.
So much is happening Kail said there is a lot of chaos because MNPS is trying to do both virtual and in-person instruction with limited resources.
“It would make sense to do what Memphis is doing, to do what Atlanta has done, to just go ahead and make a decision to go completely virtual for at least a semester,” she said.
“Otherwise you have a situation where parents don’t know from one week to the next when their kid will be going back, if their kid will be going back, and I think that makes it very difficult for them to plan because they have to figure out childcare and what their kid is going to be doing,” Kail said.
Closing schools for one semester may not be enough. The number of COVID cases in the U.S. has risen higher than its July peak. The New York Times reported that cases in Tennessee are high and have stayed high during October. Last week, Tennessee recorded the highest number of COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began. If the second wave of the coronavirus becomes worse than the first one, schools may close for the entire year, especially if no vaccine becomes available before next summer.
Responding to surges in coronavirus cases, school districts in New York, Michigan, New Jersey, and Utah have closed schools. Seven states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have state-ordered or partial closures in effect, according to Education Week.
The Fairfax Education Association in Virginia wants to keep classrooms closed until Fall 2021. Three Rutherford County high schools closed last week due to COVID outbreaks and were scheduled to reopen this week. Two Metro elementary schools, Churchwell Museum Magnet and A.Z. Kelly Elementary closed October 16 for two weeks due to coronavirus outbreaks.
This story was posted October 31 and updated November 5, 2020.