More robust coronavirus guidelines needed to protect high-risk educators

Special education teacher Pamela Mele finished breast cancer treatments a year ago. Since then, the New York educactor has been hospitalized twice for noncoronavirus illnesses and is considered high-risk for COVID-19.

She’s not alone.

From the onset of the pandemic, people who had chronic medical conditions, also including diabetes, lung disease and heart disease, faced increased instances of being hospitalized with COIVD-19 and put into intensive care, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And, according to an American Enterprise Institute report, educators in the coronavirus vulnerable age range of 65 years or older include over 18% of public and private school teachers and 27% of all principals. For private schools specifically, 25% of teachers and 44% of principals are a vulnerable age.

Mele is worried about returning to in-person instruction at the 600-student urban school district where she works in New York’s Capital Region. Special education teachers work in close proximity to student-often should to shoulder. 

“I can’t imagine how we’re going to spread out students and staff. We don’t have enough space for all our classes sometimes, let alone walking through the halls,” she said. “I also work with kids who flip out and walk out of class for no reason. I can’t imagine getting them to wear masks.”

Looking for guidance

Mele said she and some of her peers are willing to return to the classroom if their school implements specific safety protocols. An American Federation of Teachers (AFT) poll conducted in June showed 76% of nearly 1,200 K-12 educators, paraprofessionals and higher education faculty and staff surveyed feel comfortable going back to school if certain safety procedures are met.

“It’s too high-risk to send everyone back, but some populations like special needs students and English as a second language students need to be in-person,” she said. “If we had testing and we were guaranteed small groups with the same students, I would be okay with going back.”

While there is national guidance and information on best practices for reopening schools safely, it’s been sparse or limited in its scope.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has not formalized guidance or protocols, according to Bob Farrace, the association’s media relations representative. “This remains a big gap. We are all swimming with the same questions,” said Farrace.

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) has released a legal guidebook focused on the implications of operating school districts under a pandemic. It includes considerations for personnel such as how the Family Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and worker’s comp play a role in working in school buildings during the coronavirus.

“A lot of guides we’ve seen have been about operational issues like how far to space desks and social distancing,” said Francisco Negrón, NSBA’s chief legal officer. “School districts are the largest employers in the country, and this guide will address how COVID-19 is impacting legal issues, one of which is employees.”

The CDC in June released K-12 Schools and Childcare Programs FAQs for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents,” a brief eight-page document. Suggestions highlight the importance of reinforcing health procedures but there are no best practices or specific actionable recommendations.  

Negrón has heard districts discuss plexiglass barriers on buses to protect drivers. Enclosures can also be installed in offices and cafeterias to protect staff but are likely impractical in classrooms. 

AASA, The School Superintendents Association, has formulated a set of national guidelines through the work of its COVID-19 Recovery Taskforce. Morcease J. Beasley, superintendent of Clayton County Public Schools (CCPS) in Georgia, served on the task force and used the recommendations to develop his district’s 2020-21 Reopening Resources Guide.

CCPS is the fifth-largest district in Georgia with 55,000 students and 7,000 employees. Flexibility and contingency planning is key, according to Beasley. 

“We’re asking everyone to stay connected with their supervisor and be communicative and clear on what their situation is,” he said. “We don’t know day-to-day who is at risk, so we’re asking them to communicate.”

Educators and staff with health concerns, either for themselves or a family member, could request an accommodation to continue working virtually after schools reopen. The ADA application now includes COVID-19 specific requests relating to personal and family reasons and personal discomfort. 

“We have an internal review process to review those requests for accommodation and to grant those requests when they can limit exposure and the person is able to perform the essential duties of the job without undue hardship to the district,” Beasley said. “Any of us, superintendents included, may need to know how to get paid under those reasons.”

Health and safety first

Superintendents and principals have a lot to consider. High-risk teachers and staff or those caring for vulnerable loved ones are part of an ever-growing list of concerns. Providing access to personal protection equipment (PPE) is a priority for many adminstrators. 

AASA president-elect Kristi (Sandvik) Wilson, superintendent at the Buckeye Elementary School District in Arizona, is allowing staff to choose the PPE that makes them feel most comfortable. Beyond temperature checks, masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, Buckeye Elementary employees can request face shields, gowns and more.

“We want to give our people a choice,” she said. “If there is something they want and we can get it, we want them to know we will have it for them.”

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