APS teachers question proposed January return to in-person instruction

Whether students will be back in classrooms in late January is still unknown as COVID-19 cases are still on the rise even as initial doses of vaccines have arrived in the state. With the general public not expected to be inoculated until later in 2021, we spoke to some Atlanta Public Schools’ teachers who are questioning the system’s decision to resume in-person instruction.

Joseph Doughtery, a sixth grade social studies teacher at David T. Howard Middle School, questioned the timing of the return when we spoke to him in mid-December.

“I think we should remain virtual, because the reason we are virtual in the first place is for the safety and health of students, teachers and staff, and that hasn’t changed. The pandemic is at its worst,” Dougherty said. “The only argument to be made is there is a certain level of education the students are losing, and the farther in the school year you go, the more detrimental it can be, but I don’t think that outweighs the health and safety of everyone involved at all.”

Another APS teacher, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of repercussion, has “no faith” in the administration’s ability to bring students back.

“I don’t get it. If we are this close to a vaccine, why are we going back at all?” the APS teacher asked. “I am not satisfied with an answer I have received on the safety of going back. What happens if a kid brings in Covid? There are so many unanswered questions. I haven’t heard anything. I haven’t heard any type of protocol other than ‘we are going back.’”

Among teachers, health and safety is one of the biggest concerns. Andrew Copeland, a psychology teacher at Grady High School, understands the “greater need” to go back in-person.

“There are kids that need places to stay, they need stability, they need food, especially younger kids,” Copeland said. “Personally, I have been very cautious with Covid. I have done a lot of stuff to prevent it. My opinion is always going to be that I am scared, and it’s definitely increasing my risk of getting it.”

David Dorsey, an eighth grade Georgia studies teacher at David T. Howard Middle School has mixed feelings about seeing his students for the first time and keeping his family safe.
“On one hand, no job is worth your life or your family’s life. On the other hand, I am so ready to meet my students,” Dorsey said. “I am worried about bringing something home. I couldn’t live with myself if I brought something home to my kids.”

The responsibility of caring for students during a pandemic is a heavy burden. Doughtery recognizes “it’s a super big challenge to be public health officials and teachers in a school.”
Some teachers feel as though APS is not doing enough to prepare for the return to school buildings.

“We are four or five weeks away, what are the actual plans in place, what does that really look like and how often does cleaning happen?” asked Tracy Holmes, an eighth grade English teacher at David T. Howard Middle School. “You need to have something like that already in place, we don’t want to come back face to face, then two weeks later have to go back to virtual.”

Holmes wants to go back to in-person instruction, but she wants to be safe and acknowledge that teachers still have to come home to families and loved ones.

“I am sure that APS is working on something, but I want to know what that system will be and how will the students be protected,” Holmes said. “They have these steps, but could you give me a little bit more details because these are people’s lives.”

Families will have the option of returning to in-person learning or continuing with virtual school. This creates a new hybrid teaching format.

“I’m not comfortable with teaching both in-person and online,” said an APS teacher who chose to remain anonymous. “The students that are in-person will be in the same classroom with different schedules from mine and each other. It will be difficult to effectively manage in-person and virtual students simultaneously.”

Hybrid teaching could require training for teachers, but the start of the next semester is weeks away.

“If we go back, when are you teaching us how to teach us this new model?” an APS teacher asked. “I don’t have time to go to training. We already had to figure out last year at the last minute, but this is enough.”

According to Doughtery, “there’s a chance that hybrid is even worse than virtual.”
“In Fulton County, I know some teachers who teach to a classroom of about six in-person and about twenty on camera, so their attention is on the virtual side of things, so the kids in the classroom are getting the secondary attention,” Doughtery said. “I wonder how much both of those settings are taking away from each other, so everyone is kind of getting a worse version of education in that case, but that’s all to be determined.”

The hope for APS to remain virtual is a common sentiment among teachers.
“Personally, I am shocked they are deciding that this is time to go back especially with the vaccine on the horizon,” Dorsey said. “I am hoping that we wait until everyone is vaccinated until the kids go back, but I know that’s not a very popular answer.”

Doughtery agrees that the timing is concerning.

“It’s not going to get much better post-Christmas and News Year’s than the numbers are now, so I don’t think there’s going to be some turn around for them to say, ‘ok it’s safe to come back now,’” Doughtery said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we remained virtual for at least a couple months or all the way into the school year.”

One APS teacher says, “you don’t pay teachers well enough to call us front line workers.”