Flimsy PPE, missing soap, non-compliant students: Teachers say some classrooms aren’t safe for in-person learning

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  • Students who have signed up for in-person learning have begun returning to schools.
  • Teachers say that while some critical safety measures have been implemented, they’re not enough to protect against the coronavirus.
  • Some have reported dead cockcroaches and substandard protective equipment in schools. 
  • Teachers say they are desperate for more cooperation from families, so children don’t get exposed outside of school and put students and staff at risk.
  • Sign up for our new parenting newsletter Insider Parenting here..

For parents opting for in-person learning for their children, the numerous Zoom meetings and thick coronavirus guidelines may paint a reassuring picture: sterile classrooms, staff dressed in layers of equipment, and extensive social distancing rules.

But four middle and high school teachers across the US say classrooms in their public and private schools don’t feel safe enough — and they won’t until administrators and parents take more serious and consistent preventative measures. 

“I definitely resent the attitude administrators and parents are taking toward teacher concerns and stress points,” said a science teacher who works at a Boise, Idaho private school, and asked to withhold her name because she’s not permitted to discuss school matters. “No one wants to talk about the risks, they just refer employees to the COVID response plan.”

Safety protocols and execution vary widely across US schools. Some have capped class sizes at 10, while others are filled to their pre-pandemic capacity of 30 students.

Schools flush with funds have invested in elaborate hygienic measures and additional janitorial staff. But poorer schools haven’t been able to do the same. 

Teachers say they’re worried about students who don’t comply with safety outside of school

Teachers are urging parents to present coronavirus precautions on a positive way.

Octavio Jones/Getty Images


Many educators say they’re most worried about non-compliant families who dismiss coronavirus risks at home, allow their children to engage in unsafe activities, and then send their kids to school where they can put teachers and other students at risk.

“Some parents are scared for their life, literally,” said Jennifer Kirk, a science teacher in a public school in Collinsville, Illinois. “And then other parents don’t think it’s real.”

In places where in-person education hasn’t even started yet, educators say they’re already concerned and don’t see how they’re going to congregate safely. 

New York City, the US’ largest public school system, has twice delayed its start date because buildings weren’t ready and schools were understaffed. But even with the extra time, Devora Courtney, a global history high school teacher in an underserved neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, doesn’t think it will be feasible to keep buildings sanitary. Even basic hygienic issues are still going unaddressed, she said.

New York City teachers have reported dead cockroaches and not enough soap in schools

On her first day back to prepare, Courtney noticed a dead cockroach in the corner of her classroom. On the following day, it was still there. Other teachers in New York City have reported water bugs and discolored water flowing from taps. Some teachers in New York City have said there’s no soap in the bathrooms. 

“I don’t see how this is going to work,” Courtney said. 

Keeping windows open to increase air circulation is one cheap, simple, and effective measure schools to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But this isn’t possible in all schools, especially in older school buildings, like Courtney’s. 

In most classrooms, two out of the five windows aren’t usable and have to remain shut because they have air conditioning units installed in them, she said. Many of the others are broken or stuck and don’t open at all. Cracking a working window isn’t an easy feat either. It often requires climbing up onto a chair and maneuvering it from there. 

Each of the teachers Insider interviewed said that they’ve received enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to cover them for now, but they also consider themselves “lucky.” They know of teachers and staff at other schools who haven’t gotten sufficient PPE or cleaning supplies, if any at all. 

Even teachers who have enough protective equipment say it won’t work if parents and students don’t comply with safety standards at home and in the community.

Octavio Jones/Getty Images


Some teachers also worry whether the cleaning and protective products they’ve received are safe — or effective. This is a concern for Courtney, who says she was given a tub of sanitizing wipes that should be used only while wearing gloves. Courtney only found that out after researching the brand because she found the label’s warnings disconcerting. 

The teachers had heard that they’d be getting N95 masks, but each teacher got one KN95 mask. (KN95 masks are similar to N95’s, but adhere to a regulatory standard in China.). Courtney was concerned about her mask’s quality, because it felt flimsy. Up to 70% of KN95 masks don’t meet US standards for effectiveness.

But Courtney is more worried about whether the school will be able to procure additional masks. Public school teachers have historically dipped into their own personal funds to equip themselves, and the classroom, with essential supplies. 

“What’s going to happen when we run out?” Courtney told Insider. “The school says it will be restocked, but I don’t believe it for a second.”

Being at a low-income school isn’t necessarily an indicator of how sanitary or prepared a school is.

At Kirk’s school, 60% of the students are poor and the science teacher said she was “pleasantly surprised” at how well-stocked and safe her lab feels. Students don’t have desks, and are separated by dividers that protect like sneeze guards. Spaced out stickers on the floor indicate where students should stand, and soap dispensers are refilled frequently.

Teachers need parents to be involved with how their children’s socialize after school

The behaviors children engage in outside of school, directly impact the safety of students and teachers in school.

Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images


But the measures are just one aspect, teachers say. They also want more collaboration from parents or else the efforts they’re putting forth won’t work. 

A teacher who works in a private school in New Jersey, who asked to remain anonymous because she’s not permitted to speak about specific cases, said a student in the school was unknowingly exposed to someone with the coronavirus outside of school. The exposed person then got together with other students over a recent weekend, and none of them practiced social distancing, which the family ended up sharing with administrators. 

“One person not socially distancing can shut down a school. They could kill teachers. They could kill students,” the teacher said. “We’re basically putting our life on the lines to teach the kids.”

Kirk, who, up until the first day of school, had been strictly quarantining with her infant niece who was released from the NICU early on in the pandemic, has similar concerns. 

“I’ve got a student who said: ‘I really want to come back, but my mom has a heart condition and it’s already hard for her to breathe. So I can’t bring COVID home to her.’ Then, another student came into my room and told me that he had a sleepover,” Kirk said. 

During the weeks that students are learning from home, students are often hanging out together, mostly unsupervised, the teacher from Boise said. She’s able to see what the students are up to during their Zoom sessions.

Teachers say they want parents to present school guidance and restrictions in a positive way, even if they disagree with them, so that students will get fully on board. They’re also urging parents to closely monitor who their children spend time with and how they interact with one another. 

“I’m desperate for parental compliance,” the private school teacher from New Jersey said. “That will make a tremendous difference.”

  • Read more:
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  • The 5 items every homeschooling parent needs to have on hand, according to experts
  • The YMCA provided childcare to 40,000 kids during lockdown and said it didn’t see any coronavirus outbreaks. Here are 11 precautions it took that worked.
  • Inside the underground nanny economy, where many women of color have few ways to fight workplace abuses and low wages, all made worse by the pandemic

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