Teachers on the North Shore say they want nothing more than for life to return to normal and for children to be back in the classroom when school resumes next month — but not at the expense of the health of students, families and themselves. 

"There are still many unknowns, and a month from now we would be back in our classrooms. We find the more questions we answer, the more questions we have," said Jody Sheehan, who teaches second grade at the Highlands Elementary School in Danvers, where she is also vice president of the Danvers Teachers Association. 

Sheehan said the consensus among North of Boston educators was "we all want to be back," but they want to make sure it's safe for students and staff. Danvers was among the 30-plus area teachers unions signing on to a statement calling for "a gradual phased-in approach that is tied to public health and safety benchmarks."

"As educators, we cannot risk a premature return to in-person learning that will result in educators, students, or their families getting sick and dying," the letter said.

State officials have agreed to delay the opening of schools by two weeks and to shorten the school year to 170 days, but educators say that's not enough time. They also say the state needs to do more to provide things like adequate ventilation and space for social distancing, particularly in poorer school districts that serve predominantly minority children, before schools can safely reopen.

Julia Brotherton, 62, president of the Beverly Teachers Association, said she and other members believe that no one should return to physical classrooms until both the infection rate remains at 2% or less, and until schools are equipped with adequate air filtration. 

"We're looking to the CDC guidelines for the control of airborne respiratory viruses which require HEPA filtration at a rate of six complete air exchanges per hour," Brotherton said in an email. "Most of Beverly schools' teaching spaces don't yet have this level of filtration."

Brotherton, who is a history teacher at Beverly High School with 30 years of experience, acknowledged the challenges school districts face and the resulting hardships. She said she would love nothing more than to safely return to the classroom. 

"I really miss teaching in person," said Brotherton in an interview. "Teaching online is a whole other beast ... there's a huge learning curve." But she says it's not worth the risk, both to more veteran teachers like herself and younger teachers with families and children of their own at home, or to students and their families.

Jenni Clock, an English as a Second Language teacher at Salem's New Liberty Innovation School, an alternative high school, said the situation has left her "very conflicted."

"At New Liberty, we desperately want to see our students," who range in age from 14 to 21. "We know having them able to go to school is an important part of getting to the graduation finish line, and we know that puts them at a health risk," said Clock. But there is also a risk that they would not finish high school, and not receive the social and emotional support they need if classes do not resume.

"Throughout COVID and this summer we’ve made some in-roads around using the relationships we already had to make some progress with remote experiences, but the number of students we’re reaching is way too small," said Clock, 48, who has been a teacher since 1995. The school went to some extreme lengths to reach out to students and make at least weekly and sometimes daily contact. It was not always successful. 

Safety, remote learning concerns

"Teachers are feeling like they’re being asked or told to go back, but the right and adequate safety measures aren't in place," said Salem Teachers Union president Ann Berman.

Berman, 57, has been a teacher since 1986, and in Salem for 25 years, most recently at the Bates School where she teaches music. Berman said teachers in the district want appropriate personal protective equipment for their jobs and face coverings.

Some teachers must have closer contact with their students than a classroom teacher, for example, "a speech pathologist can’t work from six feet away. They also need to be able to have their face exposed to the student and the student’s face exposed to them in order to diagnose what’s going on, and even if the district provides KN95 masks, that isn’t going to help them. They need Plexiglas shields."

Some students with severe needs require physical assistance throughout the day, meaning teachers will need protective covering for their clothing and access to 100-degree running water to wash their hands, said Berman. 

Berman also said the union wants assurances that ventilation systems are running properly, something that was an issue prior to the pandemic. 

Some teachers in the district are in the high-risk age group. Others have medical issues or have family members who are vulnerable to the virus, said Berman. 

"It isn’t that anyone wants out of our job," said Berman. "As educators we all know what the best things for our students are, but they can’t do their job correctly if they're concerned about getting sick."

Berman pointed to reports of schools opening and then having to close within two or three days.

"Kids do transmit this disease," Berman said. "It’s becoming more and more prolific in the United States."

She and others also expressed frustration at the direction things have gone during the summer, feeling that they lost time that could have been used to develop more effective remote learning plans. 

Teachers said they also need time and training to create more robust online learning lesson plans.

"We spent time creating three models and I feel personally that we wasted time," said Berman. "We should’ve been working on the hardest model first, the remote model, and perfecting it."

Mary Henry, a Peabody High School teacher for more than two decades, said every teacher wants to go back to the job in person. 

"That's why we're teachers, we love kids," said Henry, 58, president of the Peabody Federation of Teachers. "We don't want to go back if it's not safe." 

As in other districts, ventilation is a major concern. "The district has worked very hard, but our schools are old. Can they provide proper ventilation?" 

And while she credits the district for coming up with a plan to create 6 feet instead of the minimum 3 feet of social distancing, it will still be challenging to keep children separated throughout the school days. 

"We want children to be safe," said Henry. "The science is evolving." 

"Going back is great, in theory," she said. However, "we feel that until we can say it's safe, until we know it's safe — professional sports has testing every day and they can't stop it. They're still learning how children are affected. There's more that we don't know than we do know."

"I don't think we're ready," said Henry.

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