Survey shows teacher concerns as school districts struggle with pandemic

School buses for Sandusky City Schools. Photo from Sandusky City Schools website.

Ohio teachers have made themselves clear: They worry greatly about the spread of COVID-19 in their schools. 

They acknowledge the challenges of remote learning are plentiful. They understand the potential social and emotional impact to young students being stuck at home rather than at school with their classmates.

However, their health fears of the virus remain even greater. 

That is among the conclusions of a recent survey of educators conducted by the Ohio Federation of Teachers. The union sent out the survey on July 22 to nearly 12,000 members who work in K-12 education. Responses were returned between then and Aug. 9, a time period in which school districts around Ohio continued deliberating plans for the fall.

In lieu of a statewide plan, the Ohio Department of Education is allowing each school district to decide how best to navigate the coming semester amid the coronavirus pandemic. For those choosing in-person instruction, the state is requiring various mitigation efforts be taken. This includes mandatory masks for teachers and students, along with ample cleaning and access to hand sanitizer. 

This map from the Ohio Department of Education, updated through Aug. 6, shows the decisions by school districts on what to do this fall.

Some districts have opted to return with a fiveday, in-person school week. Others, particularly in the more populated areas, are choosing to keep students home and conduct the semester through remote/online methods. 

Many others are going with a hybrid option, such as splitting the school body in half and alternating days of in-person instruction. This reduces the number of people in a building, allowing for safe social distancing. 

In a select few districts, families have the choice of sending children back or enrolling in an online program instead. 

For the districts allowing for at least some in-person instruction, though, teachers there are given little choice but to return.

That is against the wishes of around 1,700 OFT members who completed the recent survey. 

Many of the survey results mirror the anxious comments heard by the Ohio Capital Journal last month from nearly 100 teachers and other school workers.

Asked to identify their “major concerns” about returning to an in-person environment, most respondents said they are anxious about the “unknown long-term effects of COVID-19” for themselves, their family members and students. The vast majority say they worry about the potential for community spread should their schools reopen.

Around 1 in 3 say they consider themselves to be in a “high risk population for COVID-19.” Nearly half say a family or household member is at high risk of the virus. 

They were asked which method of learning they would be “most comfortable with” this fall. 

Just 8% said the most comfortable option was returning to a five-day school week with the whole student body. 

A whopping two-thirds of respondents said their preference was to stick with distance learning. 

The remaining 25% said they would be most comfortable with a blended learning option (mixing online with in-person opportunities), either for the whole semester or at least until cases in their area “decline significantly.”

Those surveyed were also asked to detail their concerns with distance learning, despite it being their approved method. 

A majority said they fear their students falling behind on academic progress if at home. They worry about the social and emotional impacts of them not being able to socialize with classmates at recess or in the lunchroom. 

While schools try to provide an equal playing environment for students, the teachers are concerned that being at home they are exposed to the disparities in income and access to technology. 

During the spring, when Ohio suddenly moved to online learning, students without adequate internet access at home had a difficult time making the transition. Some students resorted to using Wi-Fi connections in a school or business parking lot to complete their online assignments. 

The state is now offering $50 million in BroadbandOhio Connectivity grant funding. Schools are encouraged to apply, with money going to paying for students’ home internet connections and installing public Wi-Fi infrastructure, among other related needs.

For some teachers, there is a concern about additional disparities due to race, ethnicity or language. 

There is also the concern of not being able to provide students with access to meals and other wraparound services like counseling and healthcare. 

The full survey results are available here