New methods pose challenges and health risks for teachers returning to school

As New Jersey schools start releasing reopening plans, teachers have to grapple with a job that’s asking them to risk their health and teach in a way they’ve never done before.

“Most teachers are fearful to go back. They don’t want to go back. Even if they themselves don’t have any underlying health conditions they have families, so they’re worried about bringing something home. And people are also afraid of, maybe I might not die, but I also don’t want to have chronic lung disease for the rest of my life,” said Lauren Sbarro-Fernandez, a high school teacher in Mercer County.

Most plans will include a hybrid model where students alternate days in-school and at-home. In-person will have students at their desks most of the day, 6 feet apart, no group instruction.

“I’m a little bit worried about how we’ll actually be able to do science in the classroom. How I’ll be able to group students together to do their work. A lot of times I will present them with a question or an argument and the students will work together to try to solve that,” Sbarro-Fernandez said.

Group learning is a common teaching method that spans age groups and subjects.

“It’s not school like it used to be. They’re laying on the rug doing writing. We have rocking chairs. We have bean bag chairs, and they sit around the room and do their work in those. I hang things around the room and they have to go around and collect short ‘e’ words, or long ‘I’ words. They’re up and moving. All of that has to come to an end,” said first grade teacher Jody Walsh.

Some teachers will have to teach to a classroom and a virtual audience — two very different styles of teaching that require different methods to engage the students. It also means doubling daily lesson plans to reach both groups.

“Students would be getting less of an education because their teacher is drawn so thin trying to teach in class while also virtual. It’s hard to engage your students on the computer when you’re also trying to answer student questions in class,” said Sbarro-Fernandez.

Masks are also a huge concern for teachers who worry about liability if a student won’t keep it on. And some kids with sensory problems simply can’t tolerate them.

“Last year I had a child with a speech problem. How will the masks impact that? How will masks impact phonics? These kids are just learning the sounds of the letters. Just learning to read. Some of them are very soft-spoken even without a mask. How do I get close enough to actually hear them?” Walsh said.

And the big question is what happens when someone gets sick? Does an entire classroom shut down? Does the whole school shut down?

“If I have to quarantine, will I have to use my sick days? What if I run out of sick days?” asked Sbarro-Fernandez.

The risk of getting sick has Walsh and many older teachers seriously considering retirement. It’s something younger teachers simply can’t to do. But districts could be left with teacher shortages. The state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, is now pushing back on the timeline.

“I am not going to say that we are going to be ready on a certain date in September. And what I’m hearing overwhelmingly is that districts are scrambling. They want to open in an in-person setting, but they know it’s looking like they can’t do it full scale,” said NJEA President Marie Blistan.

The governor will announce later this week how parents can opt out of in-person instruction, but there is no such accommodation yet for teachers.