Teachers speak out

Destinee McGhee cleans a table in her classroom at Kennedy Early Childhood Center on Monday.

The vast majority of educators who participated in a survey conducted by the state’s teachers union said they disagree with the idea of returning to traditional school operations this fall.

The Mississippi Association of Educators released the results of the survey on Monday, with 2,400 educators from all 82 Mississippi counties weighing in on the topic.

Respondents included teacher assistants, certified teachers, school administrators and district administrators. More than two-thirds of the participants were teachers, and the vast majority of those weren’t new hires.

The Mississippi Department of Education recently gave school districts three options for holding class — traditional in-person learning, online only or a hybrid of both. Most of the survey participants preferred virtual learning (41.6%) or the hybrid model (40.2%), with traditional five-day-a-week classes receiving the fewest votes in favor (18.2%).

The McComb and Amite County school districts recently settled on the hybrid model for holding classes this fall. North Pike chose traditional after receiving some backlash for an earlier decision to adopt the hybrid model.

South Pike is doing a mix of hybrid and traditional, with elementary-age students going to class five days a week and junior high and high school students being split into two groups and learning in-class two days a week and at home for three. Parklane Academy is going to school fives days a week as well.

All of the districts are allowing parents to choose a virtual-only option, but they cannot switch formats until after the first nine-week term.

Asked about their biggest needs to address teaching during the coronavirus pandemic, respondents said they are concerned about technology in the classroom, including a lack of tablets and other devices for each student so that students don’t have to share devices.

Among other concerns are a lack of internet access for students in rural and impoverished communities, which teachers worried can lead to an inequity in education.

“Internet access in the homes of our students. The majority of ours can't get it in their rural areas regardless of if they can afford it or not,” one respondent wrote.

None of the survey takers were identified.

Survey participants also said students need more counseling to understand why the changes are being put in place.

And many educators said they’d like to see more funding for personal protective equipment.

“Please don’t ask me to spend any more of my own money on supplies. Supply the ppe and the hand sanitizer. Give us our own testing supplies and our own onsite lab!” one survey taker wrote.

An overwhelming majority of educators — 94.9% — said they believe state testing should be suspended this school year.

“When asked about reopening schools, 86.3% of respondents expressed a negative sentiment about a traditional return to school buildings, advocating for schools to reopen at a later date and/or to reopen utilizing virtual learning,” the MAE wrote. “Respondents expressed feelings of unease and tension about a return to the classroom and, in the case of virtual learning, concerns about their ability to keep up with the demands of a new work environment. Respondents also cited their own medical histories, including pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, the health of their family, and the health of students as primary concerns.”

Just 6.9% of respondents said they favored returning to traditional learning without any modifications, saying that’s best for children’s mental health, security and a need for “normalcy.”

Another 6.8% said they’d support reopening schools as long as mask mandates, social distancing guidelines and adjusted school times are considered.

The MAE compiled a list of recommendations based on the survey results. They include requiring masks be worn in schools, providing protective gear to teachers and students, making sure schools have cleaning supplies, taking temperatures before entering buildings or boarding buses and testing those who exhibit symptoms.  

For school district and state officials and other education policymakers, the MAE recommends the state take steps to provide internet access and devices for every educator and student household or provide paper packets as an alternative. The organizations also recommends students have access to community healthcare, food, transportation and housing.

Teachers shared numerous concerns.

One special education teacher said some students have sensory disorders and won’t wear a mask throughout the school day. “I need help with that,” the teacher wrote.

Another wrote about the need for post-traumatic stress disorder counseling “because we are putting students at risk of developing ptsd.”

Another recommended using bond financing to pay for more technology in schools.

“I feel like a broken record. I want the kids to be safe. Whatever resources it takes to ensure that. If distance learning needs to be implemented, we need to make sure every student has access to good internet connections and devices capable of what we’re asking them to do,” another respondent wrote.

Some educators shared their own personal experiences with the virus.

“I’ve had the virus myself while being pregnant and it was the worst thing I have been through. We need to stop the spread!! If one teacher gets it, they have exposed almost 100 students plus whoever they came in contact with. Also with having maternity leave, I will have to use all of my days for that. If I were to get the virus again and have to be out for 14 more days, how would I feed my three kids that month?” an educator wrote.

“I think that it is dangerous to open schools in a traditional sense when the number of positive cases are still rising,” another wrote. “Sending a thousand children into a building all at once is not a good idea. It’s dangerous for students as well as the educators. It’s dangerous for the families of anyone associated with schools as well.”

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