Teachers with underlying health conditions express concerns over being forced back to teach in their classrooms.  (Shutterstock image)
Teachers with underlying health conditions express concerns over being forced back to teach in their classrooms. (Shutterstock image)

Some educators are told they still have to teach from an empty classroom, not a healthier home environment.

When Angelina Cruz heard the Racine Unified School District would begin this school year educating students online, she felt relief for her fellow teachers, many of whom had expressed fears about returning to classrooms for in-person instruction amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic. 

But the vast majority of district teachers and staff — including those with underlying health conditions putting them at high risk of contracting the contagious virus —  were forced to return to schools to start the fall semester on Tuesday despite the fact students are learning from home.

About 50 educators in her district with documented health problems have requested they be allowed to teach from home to reduce their chances of being infected with COVID-19, said Cruz, president of the Racine schools’ teachers union, Racine Educators United. 

While a team of administrators reviewing those requests has granted some staff members the ability to teach from their homes, others with health issues noted by physicians that make it more likely they could be infected with the virus have been told they must report to their classrooms and educate students virtually in those locations, Cruz said. 

Racine school board members have questioned why teachers with health concerns must teach from school. District administrators said teaching from their classrooms allows teachers access to technology assistance and noted schools are relatively safe spaces with no students there and frequent cleanings intended to prevent COVID-19 cases. 

Teachers should be allowed to choose whether to work from home or in their classrooms, Cruz said. 

“Simply by being in school buildings, those educators are placing themselves at risk,” she said. “I wish the health of teachers was being treated as something that is important right now. Currently it doesn’t necessarily feel like that is the case.” 

Two Racine teachers told UpNorthNews they and many others have health conditions that make them especially susceptible to catching COVID-19 but were told by district administrators they must report to their classrooms to teach. They did not want their names published because they said they fear retribution if they speak out about the issue. 

“I understand to a point why they want us in the classroom,” one teacher said, “but not when it endangers my health. I have multiple health problems. If I get this virus, I am going to be in real trouble.”

Teachers in a handful of other districts said they also are being forced to teach in classrooms—some in person and some in empty spaces as students learn online—despite having documented health problems that increase their chances of getting COVID-19.

In the Madison Metropolitan School District, more than 500 staff have been asked to be willing to be reassigned to fill gaps in educational and childcare needs this school year. If they don’t agree to those situations—some of which could involve in-person contact—they could be forced to resign. 

A district spokesman said about 70 percent of those staff members have agreed to their reassignments, and the remaining 30 percent were sent follow-up messages giving them the option of reassignment or resigning. 

Teachers and union representatives in some other districts said staff have been reassigned to address educational needs necessitated by COVID-19. While many school districts are using a face-to-face education model, others are using online-only, or a mix of both. 

Concerns about educators with health concerns in classrooms have grown as cases of the virus continue to rise in Wisconsin. Some school districts are already reporting cases of COVID-19 as the school year is just beginning. 

Most Eau Claire school district students are participating in a hybrid education model, combining in-person and online learning, but a recent surge of more than 600 students requesting virtual-only instruction forced the delay of the start of the school year for students using that model until next week. The school year began for the rest of the district’s more than 11,000 students on Tuesday.    

The district reassigned some teachers because of the last-minute addition of online students, Eau Claire school board President Tim Nordin said, but sought out as many volunteers as possible before making those decisions. Teachers will work in their same schools and with colleagues as much as possible, he said. 

“We really tried to work with our teachers as much as possible on this,” Nordin said. “Our staff really stepped up. Schools are facing a lot of challenges right, and it’s important to remember that we are all in this together.”

School districts across Wisconsin are facing myriad challenges in the face of the pandemic, in part because of the lack of a consistent state approach, said Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. As districts struggle with meeting the needs of students amid the pandemic, she hopes they are willing to work with teachers, including keeping them in healthy situations as much as possible. 

“This virus poses so many problems, and our teachers are being asked to do so much,” she said. “We need to do our best to ensure their health.”