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Most Teachers Concerned About In-Person School; 2 In 3 Want To Start The Year Online

A masked teacher balances on the tip of sharpened pencils.

As the school year starts in many districts across the country, a new national poll of teachers from NPR/Ipsos finds overwhelming trepidation about returning to the physical classroom.

Eighty-two percent of K-12 teachers say they are concerned about returning to in-person teaching this fall, and two-thirds prefer to teach primarily remotely. On the latter point, teachers are aligned with parents and the general public: Another recent NPR/Ipsos poll found two-thirds of respondents thought schools in their area should be primarily remote, including 62% of parents of children under 18.

The teacher poll was conducted July 21-24 and included 505 respondents. Half teach at low-income schools.

When it comes to going back to the classroom, 77% of teachers are worried about risking their own health. Robin Stauffer is one of them. She's taught high school English for four decades, most recently in Katy, Texas, a suburb west of Houston. She says working with kids has kept her young and lighthearted, and she has a strong sense of mission "to be the type of teacher that I wish I would have had when I was in public school, to kind of right the wrongs that I experienced."

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But she's also 66 years old and has diabetes, both of which make her more vulnerable to the coronavirus. According to the U.S. Department of Education, almost 30% of teachers are 50 and older, putting them in a higher-risk category for the virus.

"I just don't trust the school district to safeguard my health during this pandemic," Stauffer says.

In the poll, 78% of teachers said they are concerned specifically about accessing sufficient personal protective equipment and even cleaning materials for teaching in person.

Stauffer says her district cut custodial staff several years ago, and after that it was often up to teachers to clean their own rooms. "They don't supply hand sanitizer. They don't supply wipes. None of these supplies were ever given to us. You just use what you had or what teachers themselves purchased." She says she doubts her school will be able to keep up with the increased cleaning measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Charlie McGeehan, a high school teacher in Philadelphia, has similar concerns. In an email to NPR, he said, "Much of my hesitation comes from the persistent underfunding of my district, and its proven inability to provide for the safety of staff and students." McGeehan notes that several school buildings in the School District of Philadelphia closed for asbestos cleanup in the last school year, and one teacher settled with the district for $850,000 over her mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to the toxin.

"These issues have been ongoing, and repeatedly raised, for more than 30 years — and they still persist," McGeehan says.

In addition to their health concerns about coming back, teachers are also worried that coronavirus safety measures will interfere with teaching and learning. Seventy-three percent of teachers say they are concerned about connecting with students while wearing a mask. And 84% of teachers say they are likely to have difficulty enforcing social distancing among their students.

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"I want to go back, and I don't want to go back," says Felicia Tinsley, who teaches elementary school students with special needs in Chester County, S.C. She expects to navigate a steep learning curve with her students. "You have to teach kids how to wear masks properly and teach them '6 feet apart.' ... We're going to be doing, basically, instructions on how to operate in our new society."

Tinsley says it may be especially difficult for her to enforce mask wearing because the topic has been politicized in her area of the country. "Some people, they have their own beliefs," she says.

She plans to impress the seriousness of the issue on her students by letting them know she contracted the virus.

McGeehan, in Philadelphia, has a different concern around mask enforcement: "As a white teacher who works with predominantly Black students, I think a lot about the ways that I exert control in my classroom — and how that manifests white supremacy and racism. ... [I'm] considering going back to a school environment where I'm asked to constantly police how far away students are from each other, whether or not they are wearing masks, where they're allowed to go during the day, etc. If this is the type of classroom I'm going to have to facilitate, is in-person learning worth all the risks?"

By nearly a 2-to-1 margin, teachers prefer the idea of teaching online to coming back in person. One bright spot in the poll is that, compared with the spring, 4 out of 5 teachers feel more prepared to teach online this fall. And 70% think their school district's online or distance-learning effort is headed in the right direction.

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"Every teacher in the nation basically was thrown into some crash course in March and April," says Danielle Simpson, who teaches fourth grade at Crescent Academy International, an Islamic private school in Canton, Mich. Going into the fall, she says, the bar is going to be raised.

"I've been taking some courses online and watching professional development webinars to give myself a boost. And there's probably a lot of other teachers doing that, too," she says. "We're developing students' digital citizenship skills, which will support them after graduation."

Jenny White, who teaches middle school English language arts in Fort Worth, Texas, has also been doing professional development to design more collaborative online classes. She says she's relieved the school year will be starting remote-only in her district, because she feels her classes will be more interactive and less stilted online than in a classroom, where she would have to enforce social distancing and children would be speaking through masks.

It will be "not so fun for them" in person, she predicts: "We won't be able to allow them to sit with their friends. There's not going to be chances really for collaboration, where they get to work in groups and have those real rich conversations that they need to have, especially in language arts."

And yet more than half of surveyed teachers, 55%, say they cannot properly do their job online. Eighty-four percent say online learning creates gaps in opportunities for students. And 83% are also concerned about connecting with students they've never met when online classes begin this fall.

Nearly half of the respondents have their own children at home, and 57% of those parent-teachers agree with the statement, "I cannot properly do my job from home while also taking care of my own child(ren)." Meanwhile, fewer than half of teachers, 43%, feel comfortable sending their own children to school this fall.

"I do not believe there is any reasonable plan that could be made that would keep my son safe," says Eric Schavrda, who visits multiple campuses to teach the visually impaired in Austin, Texas. He says he doesn't see a way to do his job safely either.

"Unless daily tests of all students and contact tracing support were to be available statewide, there is no way to ensure a safe return to school," he says.

Caught between anxieties about returning to school and about teaching remotely, U.S. teachers have been feeling a lot of uncertainty. In the third week of July, when in many places teachers would normally be working on lesson plans and dusting off classroom decorations, just 11% said their school district's plan for how to start the school year during the pandemic was finalized and clear.

Simpson, in Michigan, says, "There's certain things that still haven't been answered" as of the first week of August. Her school is planning to open at the end of August with a hybrid schedule, with three rotating cohorts of students. "With this new rotating schedule, it feels like I'm going to lose some of my prep time from before. So that's one of the things that I'm still waiting to hear about."

Eighty-three percent of instructors are also concerned the plans will change after the year starts.

Tinsley, in South Carolina, is resigned to that — she says her district has already pushed back the start of the school year and gone from offering five days a week in person to a hybrid schedule. "I'll just see what happens, because every day something changes," she says.

Despite all the difficulties, 70% of respondents tell NPR/Ipsos that if they could pick a career all over again, they would still choose to be teachers. And just 16% say they would leave the profession if they were called back to the classroom. Stauffer, in Texas, made that hard decision.

She says she was upset, sad and torn, but her health concerns won out. She decided to retire and had to say goodbye to her students over Zoom.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.