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‘This isn’t safe’: a Pinellas County teacher worries about in-person learning during a pandemic

Jaymi Butler

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Pinellas County Schools
More than 100 people gathered outside a July 28 Pinellas County School Board meeting. They want to push back in-person learning until the county goes 14 days without new Covid-19 cases. Photo credit: Bryan Edwards Creative

As a high school science teacher with a doctorate in biology, Christy Foust has studiously monitored the spread of Covid-19. She’s watched the numbers continue to rise. And she fears what could happen if in-person learning resumes Aug. 24.

“I really am worried we’ll be going to the funerals of our students and our colleagues,” said Foust, a biology and chemistry teacher at St. Petersburg High School who has been a vocal advocate for virtual learning until Covid-19 is under control. “A bus driver died in Alachua County. A custodian in Leon County. This stuff is already happening. The examples are there. The data is there. This isn’t safe.”

Pinellas County families were given three choices on how to send their students back to school – in-person learning, MyPCS Online and Pinellas Virtual School. Foust has requested to teach MyPCS Online, which allows students to remain enrolled in their assigned school with all instruction being delivered virtually following a regular bell schedule. She hasn’t heard back yet, but even if her request is approved, she still has concerns. Unlike eLearning in the spring, where teachers delivered their lessons from home, MyPCS Online would require her to be in the classroom. 

“Even if not so many people are there, we’ll still have hundreds of people in the building at the same time,” she said. “To protect our community, we have to go back virtually.”

Foust is also worried about the logistics of teaching students in person and virtually at the same time. At first, MyPCS was presented as fully virtual learning, but now, as Foust understands it, she’ll have some students learning online and some in her classroom.

“I can’t be in front of a computer helping someone in front of a screen while helping students in the room,” she said. “It’s not physically possible and it will impact classroom management.”

If Foust had her choice, she’d like to see school go 100 percent virtual and allow teachers to teach from home, at least until Pinellas County puts together 14 days without any new cases of Covid-19. That hasn’t happened since the state began recording cases in mid March.

A growing concern

As soon as school ended in June – and even before then – Foust started wondering what the plans would be for the 2020-21 school year. Watching the numbers rise in early July, she started reaching out to other educators for their thoughts. While many of her peers have expressed that they miss their students, “I haven’t heard any teacher say they want to go back” to the classroom. 

With those concerns in mind, Foust helped organize a rally outside a Pinellas County School Board workshop in July. More than 100 demonstrators, mostly teachers, gathered outside district headquarters to protest the reopening plan. Foust carried a sign reading “Students can’t learn from a grave or an ICU.” 

“They talk about contingency plans knowing people will get sick,” she said of the school board. “If they realize that, why is the conversation even persisting on? That should be the end of the discussion.”

Another rally when the school board meets again Aug. 11 is in the planning stages. In the meantime, Foust plans to go directly to the source and attend a statewide rally outside the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee over the weekend.

“Why is DeSantis even sticking his nose into this issue?” Foust wondered. “I sort of understand that they don’t want to lose the funding, but you can’t spend money if people are dead.”

Foust is familiar with the arguments that have been made about students needing to be back in the classroom. She knows that many rely on the free meals they get at school. She’s aware that being out of the classroom could widen the achievement gap. She understands the benefits that in-school learning has on mental health. However, she questions why schools have to do all the heavy lifting to provide these services to the community.

“Other organizations need to pick up some of the slack,” she said. “If the government really expected schools to do all of this and to do it well, they’d give us the resources.”

What’s being forced to happen now in light of the pandemic, Foust said, is that “we’re addressing the symptoms” rather than the underlying problems tied to educational inequity. She hopes to see more emphasis placed on proactive solutions that involve the whole community, not just the schools, and that there’s funding to go along with it.

Looking ahead

Foust is encouraged by other large school districts, including Miami-Dade and Orange County, who have announced plans to open virtually, and she thinks lawsuits filed at the district and state level could have some impact on what might happen in Pinellas County. Late Tuesday, the Florida Education Association said it will ask a judge for a temporary injunction to delay the start of K-12 schools statewide. The union, which represents more than 137,000 teachers statewide, had previously filed a suit requesting a later start date.

Feeling supported by the community “who don’t want us or their kids to die” has been validating for Foust, and she’s also comforted to know that other people have her back when she stands up against reopening schools too soon.

“To see there are at least 100 others out there who think the way you do and value science is encouraging,” she said. “It’s empowering to go to rallies and realize you’re not alone.”

For more information, visit the Pinellas County for a Safe Return to Campus Facebook group. Administrative approval is required to join the group.

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1 Comment

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    Fightthe Fear

    August 4, 2020 at 3:43 pm

    Obviously there needs to be precautions. However, People, including this teacher, have been packing Walmarts, Publix, Restaurants and Bars. People have been Marching and Protesting en-masse, and the New Pier has been packed solid since it has opened. Other Countries, Cities and States have opened schools and so should we. Take precautions, and get back to normal, living in fear solves nothing. These poor kids have been incarcerated in the homes since March and the mental health of these children (and dare I say their parents) is at stake as well. The rate of Suicide is at its highest in 30 years according to a National Center for Health Statistics study. Its time to Adult Up, and get the process going back to normalhood, or whatever that may be.

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