In-person learning is tough lesson for inner-city schools

Optimally public, parochial and private schools will return to a learning environment where families attend live school graduations in auditoriums and public venues packed with proud parents and students beaming in glossy gowns and caps with tassels. That day will come … even for inner city schools.

In school districts across the country in 2021, devoted educators are painfully aware and understandably concerned about those in-between years and the risks of prematurely returning to in-person teaching in elementary, middle school and high school students due to the threat presented health threat to students and educators in the classroom.

In Cobb County, GA where schools reopened on Jan. 25 – at the height of the COVID-19 school controversy – five teachers died from COVID-19, three of those after having face-to-face interactions with unmasked school officials.

“We are responsible for the physical, academic, social, and emotional wellbeing of our students and, during this time of COVID we have to put the physical first,” explained Lisa Morgan of the Georgia Educators Association.

In Detroit, the Detroit Public Schools Community District will begin transitioning back to in-person learning by reopening its Learning Centers at all schools and grade levels on Wednesday, Feb. 24.

Teachers in Chicago refused to return to live-in- class instruction until city leaders and union officials reached an agreement to reopen schools after months of failed negotiations as teachers in the nation’s third-largest school system demanded a number of COVID-19 mitigation measures.

“We continue[d] to teach remotely because of our members’ unity, their commitment to their school communities, and their fearless solidarity,” Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement on Monday. “Our members’ resolve on the ground allowed us to make real progress at the bargaining table today on a number of the most difficult issues of this negotiation.”

The union’s rank-and-file teachers and support staff approved the agreement on Tuesday, with 68 percent of voting members endorsing the deal. However, while 13,681 of 20,275 votes were in favor of the deal, more than 5,000 members did not vote.

But for lawmakers and educators embroiled in the debate about whether remote learning is working, the overwhelming consensus is that students, particularly families and students with limited resources for online learning are losing and teachers are being asked or ordered to return to the classroom.

Teachers reluctant to return to face-to-face in classroom instruction legitimately argue that the risks to their personal health and wellbeing of themselves, their students and the families of students is also a “social injustice.”

No doubt students in every U.S. school district are impacted by the energy and social engagement fueled by in-person and peer-to-peer interactions, a significant number of inner-city educators – from Atlanta to New York and Chicago to New Orleans – are reluctant to go back into the classroom.

Atlanta Public School teachers have been back in classrooms since mid-January in urban areas across the country but they continue to express strong concern about decisions and the directives passed down to them.

Rightfully, teachers and school personnel now have priority status for COVID vaccinations in-school districts around the country.  But some express resentment regarding doubt about their commitment to the profession and minimizing their concern for their young charges.

“I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t want to be in the classroom. This has been difficult. But they’re scared, too,” said music teacher Lisa Judkins, president of the Trinity Area Education Association in Pennsylvania.

“You’re in a closed space with a large amount of students, and you know they’re doing outside activities, seeing multiple people, doing dance and sports, and you’re not sure if they’re adhering to protocols. It’s concerning, especially for staff that have family members who are older, or who have underlying conditions themselves.”

Conversely, political officials around the country are echoing the sentiment of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (D), telling teachers that they need to “suck it up” and return to the classroom so that in-person learning can resume despite concerns about COVID-19. Bloomberg went on to site that “poor [minority kids] are harmed the most” by the disruption in education.

“They will never recover from this and they had a bad education experience anyways,” Bloomberg said as he argued that children from less affluent families did not have good schools available to them and are particularly hindered by lack of access to technology.

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