TAMPA, Fla. — Following the state's Department of Education's order, school districts across Tampa Bay are pushing for in-person learning to begin at the start of the school year, but teachers say they don't have enough answers to feel safe enough to go back into classrooms.
"Are we going to offer them face shields? Gowns, gloves? Are we prepared to deal with our infrastructure, like hand washing stations? Touchless hand sanitizer, touchless garbage cans? Are we going to manufacture our schools to have one way hallways? Are we going to deal with smaller class sizes? These are all questions teachers have and we have no answers," said Fedrick Ingram, the president of the Florida Education Association.
"Teachers are angry and in fact, they should be," said Ingram. He says the timeline, just four weeks until classes are supposed to begin with an in-person option for students, is too short to come up with the answers teachers and school staff need in order to feel prepared and safe.
The federal government and Florida's leaders have been pushing for schools to reopen in August. Teachers like Brian Coleman, who teaches online classes for Pinellas County Schools, say in-person classes are not a safe option as Florida's positive coronavirus case numbers lead the nation.
"What happens if a teacher gets sick? What happens if a student gets sick? Who has to quarantine? When do we close schools again?" questioned Coleman. He's leading a demonstration of Pinellas teachers and parents ahead of the district's school board meeting on Tuesday.
Coleman wants answers from the district and a detailed plan of not only how students are going to be kept safe, but how school staff are being supported to implement a CDC-recommended standard of safety.
"Teachers love their jobs, teachers have to go back. You know what they're doing right now? With their lesson plans, they're preparing living wills. They're preparing wills to make sure that if anything happens to them, their families are taken care of. That's what's happening right now in the state of Florida with teachers and educational support professionals and cafeteria workers and bus drivers who don't do this for money," said Ingram.
He says he's talked to several teachers who are preparing wills ahead of possible in-person instruction. He also says some teachers are considering not even going back to teaching this year, sacrificing their pensions for their health and safety.
"I think we ought to look at a delayed start time," said Ingram.
He says the only way to keep teachers and students safe from COVID-19 is to postpone the start of in-person classes and begin instruction online. That would give districts more time to come up with better plans, state lawmakers to push for appropriate school funding for personal protective gear and for the number of coronavirus cases to drop.
Both Coleman and Ingram say they have not received any answers to questions they have about returning to school, such as whether or not sick leave will be covered, if substitute teachers are going to be available, if funding will be made available to hire more teachers, more bus drivers and more staff to comply with social distancing.
School boards across the Tampa Bay area will have important meetings in the coming weeks, hopefully to answer some of those questions.
Coleman questioned the school boards themselves, meeting virtually, "If it's safe to open schools, why aren't you in the building right now? Tell me that. Why isn't the entire building open if it's safe to go back with 90,000 kids?"