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Teachers worry about spreading COVID-19 to students with special needs, their own families

Teachers who work with students with special needs are concerned they can't properly follow CDC safety guidelines.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — All of Tampa Bay's school districts have now delayed the start of school, but teachers are still worried that's not enough time to make sure entering an in-person classroom is safe.

Pinellas County Schools were the latest to announce their start date was shifted to August 24th, but two Pinellas County employees reached out to 10 Tampa Bay to voice their concerns.

Both asked not to be named for fear of causing a rift with school administrators. 

One is a speech language pathologist within the Pinellas County School District and has been working in the district for more than a decade. The other is a special needs middle school teacher. They both have immunocompromised children at home.

Both teachers work with children with varying degrees of special needs and because of the need for individualized instruction and sometimes closer contact than a traditional classroom, these teachers worry about being able to safely follow CDC guidelines in practice. They say they don't have enough supplies or time to prepare.

The speech language pathologist worked with others in the district to outline some of their concerns with putting the CDC's classroom safety guidelines into practice. For example, the CDC says, "Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces...use of shared objects should be limited when possible or cleaned between use. Ensure adequate supplies to minimize sharing." 

The SLP said the current reality is, "SLPs have a limited set of therapy materials that are regularly shared between students and groups. SLPs typically schedule group sessions in a back-to-back format with minimal transition time between sessions in order to meet all the legally required IEP minutes for our large caseloads, which does not allow for proper disinfection." 

There are limited spots within the Pinellas County School district for ESEs, or exceptional student education instructors and specialists like speech language pathologists to teach virtually.  Both teachers who spoke to 10 Tampa Bay are hoping for these spots so they can protect their immunocompromised children from COVID-19. They both decided to keep their school-aged children home from school this year to maintain their health.

These teachers understand the need for sending students who require individualized therapy or instruction back to a classroom but worry about the health and safety of those students who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19.

"We understand that teletherapy isn't the best option for some of these students, so coming to school is necessary, but when we do therapy, we can't wear masks because they need to see our mouths move," said the speech language pathologist, "It's sad because they [the school district] has not brought us into the planning." 

"A big concern is that it's up to the parents to do a self-check of any symptoms, but as a parent, there have been times, and I'm not the only parent who has ever done this, I've sent my kids to school when they're sick because of limitations of my job and schedule. I understand that. I get it. I get it from both sides of the table. The problem is now, we don't know the difference between a 'regular' germ or the coronavirus," said the ESE teacher. 

Since they feel COVID-19 is still too prevalent across Tampa Bay to safely return to school, both teachers have decided to keep their own children at home. Both teachers have requested virtual teaching assignments, but are working on plans if they don't get one. The speech language pathologist is ready to take a leave of absence from their position to avoid exposing their children to the coronavirus and the ESE teacher will work with their partner to switch working schedules to care for their children.

The Pinellas County School district provided this statement:

"We are in the process of collecting information from all instructional staff in regards to their requests for possible alternative assignments. Each position and situation will need to be addressed specifically to their duties and the availability of alternative assignments."

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