St. Johns County teachers voice concerns over back-to-school plans

As COVID-19 continues to spread in the county and throughout the state at a record pace, Michelle Dillon has found that the number one concern of teachers is the health of students and family.

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – As president of the St. Johns County teacher’s union, Michelle Dillon has been hearing the concerns of teachers as the school district works to finalize plans to reopen schools in August.

As COVID-19 continues to spread in the county and throughout the state at a record pace, she’s found that the number one concern of teachers is the health of students and family.

“They miss their students terribly,” Dillon said. “So of course we want to go back, but once we know it’s the right time and it’s safe.”

Josh Kaspar, a St. Johns County teacher for 11 years, told News4Jax that, to him, staying safe means requiring masks for all teachers. Under current plans, masks are strongly encouraged for teachers. For students, they are also strongly encouraged in most situations.

“I think we should focus on what we can control, and we can control students and teachers wearing masks,” said Kaspar, who teaches biology. “The purpose of masks is to prevent spreading the virus to people around you, and because you can have the virus and not be symptomatic. We can’t wait until we’re sick to put a mask on.”

Reopening plans in St. Johns County were put on hold this week when the Florida Department of Education handed down a mandate that said schools must reopen brick-and-mortar classrooms at least five days a week. Dillon said she’s still not sure how that will affect teachers, but she is worried about the possibility of a “tremendous workload.”

“So we’re still wading through this murky waters right now what exactly is this going to look like with distance learning,” she said. “Am I going to be alone in my classroom and teaching kids who want to be at home, and then learning remote and having live children in the classroom? We don’t know what that looks like just yet.”

Catie Grimes, a kindergarten teacher at Mill Creek Academy is also worried about the workload this fall.

“It’s so much to do. When you ask that much of teachers and teachers aren’t going to say no,” Grimes said. “And I think that’s kind of the issue is that because teaching is a work of the heart and we chose it obviously not for the money, you know, it’s almost put us in between a rock and a hard place because of the fact that we love our children.”

St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson said Wednesday he’s taking that into consideration.

“That’s part of what we’re working through is to make sure that through a teacher perspective, that the workload is not overwhelming. That if a teacher is working with some students virtually that that workload is not in addition to what their normal number of students might be, that we’re careful about the volume of work that each teacher is responsible for. I think that will evolve, honestly, over time as students move in and out of the schools maybe based on the circumstances at that time,” Forson said.

Forson and Dillion both said making sure there are enough substitute teachers available is also going to be a focus moving forward. They agree that there are inevitably going to be cases where teachers contract COVID-19 and need to quarantine for two weeks.

“That’s an important issue,” Forson said. “It’s not just a matter of having a pool of substitute teachers, we work hard to continue to regenerate that pool.”

Dillon said that almost one-third of substitute teachers are over the age of 65.

“So they’re automatically in that high-risk category, and even if they’re not, there might just be that feeling, I just don’t want to return to the brick-and-mortar buildings,” she said. “But we need them more than ever, as we move forward in a scenario where teachers will get this virus, they will get sick and have to quarantine.”

Grimes said she’s not sure that there would be any measure taken to make her feel completely safe.

“We absolutely understand the importance of face-to-face instruction, but the safety and health of our students and our faculty and staff must come first because the instruction cannot happen if we don’t have healthy individuals there,” she added.

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