OKLAHOMA CITY — Jami Cole jokes that she’ll be the teacher who returns to school in a bubble.

Cole, a fifth-grade teacher in Duncan, said she’ll likely be wearing a face mask and shield. Her husband, Drew, who teaches at the high school, is planning to build a plastic shield that will fit around her desk.

Cole suffers from an autoimmune disease. Her husband has leukemia. Both are particularly susceptible to complications from COVID-19.

“Now that we’re seeing a rise in cases, I think our anxiety is rising along with that,” Cole said. “Absolutely, teachers are very concerned (about returning), and I think it’s just because of the rising cases that we’re seeing.”

For months, thousands of teachers have protected their health primarily by teaching students remotely. But now, the state’s public school system is facing a sudden reckoning as more districts announce plans to resume in-person schooling even as COVID-19 case numbers balloon.

Many teachers, meanwhile, must make an agonizing choice between protecting their health or returning to the classroom.

More than 8 in 10 Oklahoma public school teachers and support staff report concern about their health if schools reopen again next month, according to a recent survey from the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teacher’s union.

Nearly 1 in 3 respondents said they are particularly susceptible to complications if they contract COVID-19, the organization’s June survey found.

Katherine Bishop, vice president of the state’s Education Association, said educators’ concerns are only growing as the start of school looms and positive COVID-19 numbers explode.

“It’s such a conundrum educators are in,” Bishop said.

Uncertainty and anxiety

Teachers want to return, but they’re concerned about the safety of everyone in the building. They’re worried asymptomatic youth will spread the virus unknowingly to teachers and students, with them unwittingly taking it home to their families, Bishop said.

Jena Nelson, the state’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, is meeting virtually with public school teachers across the state.

“They are very concerned,” said Nelson, who most recently taught middle school in Deer Creek. “They’re concerned about their student safety. They’re concerned about their home safety. They’re concerned about passing it on to their families at home.”

She said some teachers are on the fence right now about whether they’re going to come back this year. These concerned educators are either immunocompromised or care for someone else vulnerable at home.

Everyone is waiting anxiously to see what their local district plans are before they make any final decisions.

“Everybody wants to know what it will look like when I go back to my classroom,” Nelson said.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the state School Boards Association, said districts are “working fast and furious” on reopening plans in what has been a “roller coaster of a pandemic.”

“Schools have been very concerned about putting all the safeguards possible to protect their older staff members and those with underlying health conditions,” he said.

As districts are finalizing plans, officials are waiting on new reopening guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State health recommendations for public schools also are expected in the coming weeks.

Hime said everyone understandably wants answers today. With rapidly evolving COVID-19 science and guidance, districts are reluctant to announce permanent-sounding plans six to eight weeks before school starts.

“I think the sense of uncertainty does add to anxiety,” Hime said. “It’s new for all of us. I believe that school officials are doing everything they can to collect data and create the best plan possible to protect students, their staff and to create options as the situation changes.”

In the frontlines

Cole, the Duncan teacher, also runs a popular Oklahoma education Facebook group with 65,000 members.

She said educators are watching closely as districts begin to unveil reopening plans. Teachers want to see what safeguards will be put in place to protect not only instructors, but students and families.

Cole’s district tentatively plans to offer students three attendance options that range from in-person to 100 percent virtual to a mix of the two.

Logistical questions linger across the state, Cole said.

Educators wonder who will step in to teach if they fall ill. Advocates say the pandemic only will exacerbate the state's ongoing substitute teacher shortage.

They’re also extremely worried that existing sick leave policies aren’t adequate, Cole said. Those exposed to COVID-19 may be forced to self-quarantine for days or face lengthy recoveries. Teachers with decades of experience may have a lot of sick time banked, but newer educators may not.

Also, Cole said many teachers feel like they’ve been excluded from the reopening discussion — even though they’ll be the ones on the frontlines.

“A lot of teachers have felt that we’re being overlooked,” Cole said. “We’re the silent ones. We’re going to be the ones that are in trenches. We only want what’s best for our students and our families as well.”

The Oklahoma Media Center is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners. The OMC’s first project is Changing Course: Education & COVID. This story is part of that effort.

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