At a time of year when teachers are normally gathering school supplies and brainstorming lesson plans, some are instead preparing a different type of paperwork. 

Their wills. 

“Catching COVID-19 could be a death sentence for me,” said one southern Ohio teacher living with Crohn’s disease. 

“I want to go back to work,” they added. “I just don’t want to die doing it.”

Anxious to return to his classroom during a pandemic, a language arts teacher in Dayton sought an alternative way to keep teaching the students he loved. 

He hoped to lead the class remotely, but administrators will not allow it. The school district has already decided its students — and thus, teachers — will return to school in-person this fall. 

The teacher was given a choice: return to the classroom or quit. 

These are the options shared by other worried educators and school professionals throughout Ohio. 

The state’s Department of Education is aware of the risks. The department has published guides this summer explaining school buildings present “a unique environment for the spread of COVID-19.”

“Illness among people in close settings can spread rapidly among the group and then into the community,” one page reads. 

“The risk is that this uptick in activity could result in a surge of new cases,” reads another.

“While the death rate from COVID-19 is extremely low among children,” the Department of Education acknowledges, “they are capable of transmitting the disease even if they show no symptoms.”

The state has opted against an online-only mandate for its 610 public school districts, instead choosing to give each of them the choice of how to operate this fall. Many have already committed to in-person classes, online-only instruction or some blending of the two. Others are still considering their options. 

The Ohio Capital Journal asked teachers to share their thoughts about returning to the classroom this year. Over the past two weeks, we heard from nearly 100 school employees, including teachers, counselors, therapists, paraprofessionals, coaches and one school principal. 

Some of those quoted in this story asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly about their workplace concerns. 

They worry about the logistics of going back, like inevitable staffing shortages upon an outbreak of COVID-19 at their school.

They worry about their students’ health, and the health of those who live with them.

They worry about their pocketbooks and the necessary costs of providing cleaning supplies to make their rooms as safe as possible.

They worry about their own safety. 

They fear the decision to return so quickly could cost them their lives.

‘We are viewed in society as glorified babysitters’

Ohio was the first state in America to send students home as a result of the new coronavirus, with Gov. Mike DeWine announcing the order on March 12.

With just a few days’ notice, districts shifted their instruction to online lesson plans. School districts relied on creative ways to give a fair opportunity for students to learn, with some providing tablets to students as well as Wi-Fi availability for those without access at home.

It was a stressful few months, said one high school language arts teacher in central Ohio. Students fell behind. The rapid change to online learning stressed them out. 

But the classroom got through it together, the teacher said, and most importantly they stayed safe.

At the time, most students had their parents or guardians at home with them due to widespread business closures as a result of the pandemic. 

Things have changed. The vast majority of businesses have been allowed to reopen — thus creating an economic pressure to bring the students back with many adults returning to work.

“It’s not fair to condemn us because the country is reopening too early and we are viewed in society as ‘glorified babysitters,’” commented one elementary school teacher from a mid-sized district in western Ohio. 

Now four months after the initial shutdown, some teachers believe their communities have coronavirus fatigue and are seeking to “return to normal.”

A sense of normalcy will be hard to come by even for schools hosting in-person classes. The state is strongly urging masks for students in third grade and higher (exceptions are given for health and developmental reasons). Schools must keep students socially distant whenever possible. There will likely be no field trips, no group activities or any shared materials. 

The central Ohio language arts teacher, whose kids struggled but slowly adapted to digital instruction, said he wishes school districts had used the time since April to “make online learning as best as we possibly can instead of wasting time trying to get kids back in schools for a weak imitation of school.”

Some charter and private schools are taking advantage, advertising themselves as offering a “traditional” opportunity for students to be in school five days per week this fall. Several teachers working at private schools said they felt their own pressures to return to class.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure felt by tuition-based schools to be on campus as much as possible to justify our existence,” one told the OCJ. “Who wants to pay for an online school?”

‘Educating in your preferred format is not essential.’

The state’s “Reset and Restart Education” planning guide lays out recommendations on how districts should operate should they choose to reopen. 

There are numerous requirements for schools in session. All staff members have to wear masks. Schools must provide hand-washing opportunities for everyone, and must offer hand sanitizer in “high-traffic areas” such as entrances to classrooms.

Families and caregivers of students, along with staff, have to notify the school if they have been exposed to COVID-19 or if someone in their home has been diagnosed with the disease.

Those with “known exposure to someone with diagnosed or presumed COVID-19 must self-quarantine at home for 14 days,” the guide states. 

With staff members coming in contact with so many students, those in touch with the Ohio Capital Journal see it as inevitable the school year will unravel. Teachers being home two weeks for every potential exposure may lead to teacher shortages.  

Numerous teachers, particularly those early in their careers, also expressed worry they would not have enough paid time off to properly quarantine when needed — or to recover if they do contract the virus and need to be home for an extended leave. These policies will evidently be left up to each district; the state guidelines say only that “school policies should be adjusted so as not to penalize students and personnel for required quarantine period(s).”

Chase Kiser, an elementary school physical education teacher in Muskingum County, said his school tries to keep things clean, but has to remind people that kids are kids. 

“I want to be in school and playing sports just as much as anyone,” said Kiser, who also coaches high school soccer, “but how anyone can look at the info coming out and say for certain that ‘schools are safe’ and ‘students are not as much of a risk’ … people saying these things simply have not been in an elementary school recently.”

The need for social distancing conflicts with the day-to-day activities within a school, Kiser pointed out. Even the simple act of helping to tie a kindergartner’s shoelaces during gym class presents a problem. 

Teachers around the state of Ohio predicted a major problem will be the issue of substitutes. Districts often face substitute teacher shortages during ordinary years, but this will almost certainly be worse during COVID-19. 

Substitutes’ ages trend older; many are retired teachers themselves. Being the most vulnerable to the virus, these educators may not want to risk teaching this year. 

The problems compound themselves. If a district cannot secure substitute teachers, who will fill in when full-time staff members are forced to quarantine? 

One substitute teacher from southwest Ohio described being unsure if they want to return this school year. 

“I have the opportunity to work in many buildings, meaning I could be exposed to several hundred students and dozens of staff members over the course of one week,” the substitute said. “That also means I could easily expose those same hundreds and dozens if I were to be sick and not realize it.”

The substitute worries about having to cover a classroom taught by someone who is quarantining.

“That adds an extra layer of uncertainty for me, as I won’t know the severity of the illness for the teacher whose room I’m in and whether it needs to have extra sanitation,” they said.

Making matters worse, the sub has asthma and is not covered under their district’s health insurance.

“Can I afford to get sick on (my) health insurance?” the person asked. “On the other hand, can I afford not to work to avoid the risk?”

Other logical concerns abound. How can students possibly stay socially distanced in lunchrooms, when masks will obviously not be worn? How about on a bus? 

If a school works on a rotation schedule, how will teachers have enough time to deep clean shared surfaces in the few minutes’ time before the next class?

Jacquelyn Blackstone, a reading specialist in Columbus, believes these issues point to a need to stick with online learning this fall. 

“Education is essential,” she said. “Educating in your preferred format is not essential.”

One elementary school music teacher, who said their district is “operating as normal” this fall, is trying to figure out how to navigate this pandemic. They teach kindergarten through sixth grade, meaning they come in contact with every student in the school at least once per week.

In their classroom, young students typically share an ensemble of instruments such as drums, mallets, sleigh bells and wooden blocks.

“Almost every instrument in my classroom is played with hands, and those instruments need shared between classes,” the teacher said. 

But that may prove impossible during COVID-19, with sharing items discouraged and intense cleaning required. 

“I don’t know how to teach elementary music without instruments available,” the teacher said. “I just feel so powerless.”

‘There seems no way to not put lives at risk…’

Educators who work with Ohio students who have various disabilities worry about the potential for spread.

Michelle Moreno, one such paraprofessional in northern Ohio, said she comes in close contact with “high-needs students” on a daily basis. She described having had students sneeze into her mouth and spit at her.

Some paraprofessionals work one-on-one with students, but others are shared by multiple classrooms. Moreno said she works in four different classrooms, with nearly two-dozen students in each, and also monitors students at lunch and recess. 

“I have had to reach into students’ mouths and take out various items before they swallowed them and caused harm,” Moreno said.

Moreno and other paraprofessionals who contacted the OCJ said these are the daily risks they accept in order to carry out the work they love.

“In order to follow my dream of working with children who have special needs, I took this job path,” said one occupational therapist for students ranging from 3 to 22 years old. “What I didn’t expect was to have a job that would literally put my life and my family’s life in danger.”

The occupational therapist said they travel to multiple buildings in their district. They worry about being exposed and having to quarantine, possibly leaving their schools temporarily without any such services.

A principal at a school serving young students with disabilities said they share many of these same concerns.

“My principal friends and I lie awake at night and are experiencing anxiety that is crushing,” they said. “We don’t want to fail our teachers or students, but every option of in-person instruction seems to come with high risk. But if we advocate for online learning we are villainized in the public eye.”

The principal said they are worried about students with special needs and medical issues and how to protect them.

“There seems no way to not put lives at risk and that weighs heavy on my heart every day,” they said.

A school counselor in central Ohio said their district will feature “blended learning” — with the student body splitting time between online classes and those in-person.

The counselor works one-on-one with students and feels mostly comfortable with their set-up at school.

“I think being able to work from my office will be good,” the counselor said. “I’ll still be able to meet with students individually. When I was working from home in the spring, it was difficult because students don’t feel as comfortable talking to a counselor through Zoom or phone calls.”

But the possibility of an outbreak remains a concern.

“If districts don’t have a good plan to address this,” the counselor said, “then the school year could fall apart very quickly.”

Looking ahead

School districts have many things to consider and do not have much time to decide.

For those which made decisions back in May and June to return in the fall, when the COVID-19 statistics in Ohio were not as alarming, the recent spikes have been an unwelcome development.

Districts throughout the state have conducted surveys with local parents and guardians to seek input on how to proceed. Teacher unions at certain districts have urged caution for the fall. One such union serving over 500 teachers and staff members at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District recently issued demands that the district commit to online-only instruction for at least the first semester. 

The Athens City School District in southeast Ohio is planning to start its year with virtual learning, as will the Middletown City School District north of Cincinnati. 

Other districts are going with the blended approach as a way to minimize spread, or are offering both online and in-person options for families to choose from.

The planning meetings themselves have not been without controversy. Several teachers noted to the OCJ their districts feel it is safe to return to school this fall, yet have exclusively hosted staff meetings remotely in having come to that decision.

Others complained of planning meetings being held in-person this summer with few wearing masks or staying distant from one another. 

By and large, educators said they want to be back in school this fall.

If it is safe to do so.

Rebecca Stutzman, an intervention specialist in Cincinnati, said she does “not know a single teacher who would not drop everything to go back to school tomorrow if it was safe. We miss our students and we worry about them daily during the school year, during breaks, and over the summer.”

But Stutzman and countless others like her in Ohio are worried — about their students, their families, their pocketbooks, their health. And they feel that few, if anyone at all, are listening. 

“Please,” Stutzman said, “do not make us offer our lives any more than we already do.”

In Dayton, a language arts teacher felt stuck. He suffers from anxiety, and the concerns about the virus made the thought of getting exposed in the classroom nearly unbearable. 

He sought an opportunity to teach online, but was denied. Faced with the choice of returning to school or resigning, the teacher made a difficult decision. 

He quit. 

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent six and a half years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.