Fear and anxiety as San Jose teachers prepare for first day
Steffanie White, a fifth-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School, joins dozens of people who held a caravan protest outside as San José Unified School District trustees met Thursday. Photo by Katie Lauer.

    Less than a week before school begins, visual arts teacher Katherine Leung is overcome with anxiety about her future instead of focusing on lesson planning, engaging with families and getting ready.

    Leung is at high risk of contracting the deadly coronavirus, she told San José Spotlight.

    “We just want choice for teachers who want to work at home,” said Leung, who teaches at Herbert Hoover Middle School. “People want to make reasons for why some people should go back and some people shouldn’t. That’s a dehumanizing view of what COVID is and the reality of it.”

    San José Unified School District recently announced its nearly 1,600 teachers will instruct six weeks of distance learning from their empty classrooms starting Wednesday – more than 150 days after the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shuttered classrooms in March. By mid-July, Santa Clara County had recorded more than 11,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 300 new cases daily.

    She’s not alone in her concerns. As Leung continues to hear about rejected requests to work from home, she said teachers have voiced their concerns to no avail. A caravan protest was organized Thursday ahead of the school board meeting.

    Fifth-grade teacher Steffanie White said COVID-19 has her nervous to go to the grocery store, so the idea of being stuck in a school sharing air with other teachers and staff is a no-go.

    “Just the idea of leaving my home makes me nervous, let alone eight hours in an empty, isolated classroom,” the Washington Elementary School instructor said. “They think that they’re giving us safety measures and ensuring our safety, but the only safe place really at this point is to stay at home.”

    If she’s forced to return to class, she said her fear of contracting the virus will hinder her ability to meaningfully teach.

    “When you’re not comfortable, you cannot operate at your optimum level,” she said.

    The only silver lining, Leung said, is that administrators have made improvements in online management platforms and video conferencing software. “A lot of the fears about quality I feel are being handled because now we’re all on the same page,” Leung said. “It’s much different than cleaning up the mess in March.”

    Still, many questions linger: How will they evaluate student attendance? What does recess look like? How will shared spaces be navigated in the teacher’s lounge?

    Third-grade teacher Matthew Seymour said he expects teaching 8-year-olds at home will be like “building the plane as you fly” – but as a site representative for the San Jose Teachers Association, he said a number of people remain worried about the challenges that plan poses.

    Many teachers would rather stay home, especially those who lack access to childcare, need to care for other family members and don’t want to increase their risks of catching the infectious coronavirus.

    Multiple teachers feared sharing their concerns would mean retaliation from the district.

    “There’s obviously a lot of concern, a lot of anxiety and people are finding it difficult to to focus on just getting ready,” said Seymour, who teaches at Hacienda Environmental Science Magnet elementary. “They’re really nervous about having all that exposure and taking (an infection) back to their families or themselves.”

    Matthew Seymour, a third-grade teacher at Hacienda Environmental Science Magnet elementary, stands outside of his classroom in San Jose. Photo by Katie Lauer.

    Seymour said 15% of teachers indicated they had submitted paperwork to quit since the shelter-in-place orders began in March. He said said another 35% of teachers are considering options for leaves of absence or not returning at all – half of the staff which would need to be replaced by substitutes.

    District staff said Thursday, however, that the school is expected to be fully staffed by opening.

    Giving teachers the independence to make the most responsible decision for themselves would make going back to school much easier, Seymour added.

    “I personally don’t see a major difference between what somebody could achieve working distance education, whether broadcasting from their computer at home or in their classroom,” he said. “The biggest thing that people need to focus on here is what is going to be safe for the community and for our teachers.”

    San José Unified School District, which serves more around 28,000 students across 41 schools, has held steadfast that the best option is to have instructors teach in empty classrooms. The district’s rationale is physical work locations provide more technologic and logistic advantages, according to Deputy Superintendent Stephen McMahon.

    “We want to make sure we do start with the highest possible delivery system for instruction, which is the classroom,” McMahon said at a recent school board meeting. “The tools are going to be there, the Wi-Fi system is going to be tested, and we can provide immediate support because we know where you’re at.”

    After dozens of public comments during Thursday’s board meeting – all in support of offering teachers a choice regarding working conditions – Superintendent Nancy Albarrán said the decision for on-site instruction is in response to parent concerns of underwhelming performance in the spring.

    Albarrán said she understands concerns for health and safety of teachers, but said there is no perfect model to follow. Instead, teachers and staff will have to make compromises to fulfill their responsibilities to students.

    “This isn’t about not trusting individuals, it’s about being responsive to the needs that have been laid out,” Albarrán said. “I understand the concern. I also understand the responsibility that we are charged to deliver. Our job as public servants is to do the best we can to meet those expectations and set up the conditions for everyone to be successful in the fall.”

    District staff reported they have received 718 requests to work from home. As of Thursday, 79 staff members were approved, while 45 requests have been denied.

    San Jose Teachers Association president Patrick Bernhardt said he told administrators in July that the plan to force teachers back into classrooms would mean teachers would call in sick, transfer or quit the profession entirely – ultimately resulting in not enough teachers to run the district.

    A district survey confirmed that concern: 81% of teachers supported at-home instruction, while 54% of parents said they would opt to keep students home.

    Now that teachers, parents and students are making sacrifices with online learning, the union leader said the main focus should be reducing mental and physical obstacles hindering teachers from putting 100% of their effort into their jobs.

    “Nobody thinks this is the best way to do education but at the moment it’s the only safe way to do education,” Bernhardt said. “Whatever we can do to reduce the fear, anxiety and other obstacles that they have to worry about and let them focus just on the teaching and learning, the better it’s going to be for everybody.”

    Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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