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Labor Voices: In-person school is coming, but classrooms must be safe first

Paula Herbart  |  The Detroit News

Since the beginning of the pandemic, educators have longed to safely return to the classroom for in-person learning. Virtual learning options — while vastly-improved thanks to the hard work of educators — are no match for the academic and overall benefits that come with face-to-face class time.

Burnout is widespread among educators navigating pandemic learning. In a recent educator roundtable, one teacher described these past months as the worst experience of her professional life. Several others said they were frustrated and depressed. While some feel the experience of teaching online has made them better teachers, they worry that the delay in learning among a portion of their students during the pandemic will be felt in classrooms for years.

One of the more memorable comments came from a teacher who said virtual teaching is like teaching blindfolded with students failing to turn on their cameras and offering very little feedback as the teacher tries to teach.

Similarly, many parents are experiencing the challenges of virtual learning, too — and in the process have developed a greater appreciation for the work educators do every day for Michigan’s students.

While we all long for a return to normalcy, this pandemic isn’t over. To return to in-person learning we must be conscious of efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. Within school walls, we must continue to make the health and safety of students, families and school employees our top priority.

We support Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s call for schools to offer in-person learning options, as much as feasible, by March 1. These efforts must be well-planned and as safe as possible for all involved, with utmost attention paid to the latest public health data and virus mitigation measures particularly with a new highly-transmittable coronavirus appearing in the United States.

K-12 school employees are now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines, a critical step for the safe resumption of in-person learning. The vaccination process will take time though, and does not mean strict safety measures can be abandoned.

Last week’s revised safety guidance for schools makes clear that we must remain committed to virus mitigation: mandatory mask wearing; social distancing; hygiene and sanitization; and attention to air and water quality in schools. To further protect safety and contain potential outbreaks, the state is also making rapid, weekly testing for employees available to school districts.

As both learning institutions and employers, our schools have an obligation to protect students and educators alike. Many are doing so but those that aren’t must continue to face consequences, such as South Lake School District that last week received a MIOSHA citation for coronavirus safety violations.

Aside from safety measures, educators desperately need support to deal with the immense workload caused by the pandemic, especially where districts are offering both virtual and in-person options. Already a pre-COVID crisis, the shortage of educators in our state is getting worse as burnt-out teachers leave for retirement or other professions. As we navigate physical health needs, we must also provide resources to help teachers and support staff be successful.

Thankfully, the federal government has finally made the investment to help fully implement strict infection-control protocols and provide additional resources for educators and students.

The choice of how and when to safely return to in-person learning is a local decision that rests with school boards that must work in concert with educators, health professionals and their communities in making sound decisions. Protecting school employees and the students they serve must be school districts’ guidepost in any return to in-person learning.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.