Most Teachers Concerned About In-Person School; 2 In 3 Want To Start The Year Online

Aug 6, 2020
Originally published on August 6, 2020 10:34 am

As the school year starts in many districts across the country, a new national poll of teachers from NPR/Ipsos finds overwhelming trepidation about returning to the physical classroom.

Eighty-two percent of K-12 teachers say they are concerned about returning to in-person teaching this fall, and two-thirds prefer to teach primarily remotely. On the latter point, teachers are aligned with parents and the general public: Another recent NPR/Ipsos poll found two-thirds of respondents thought schools in their area should be primarily remote, including 62% of parents of children under 18.

The teacher poll was conducted July 21-24 and included 505 respondents. Half teach at low-income schools.

When it comes to going back to the classroom, 77% of teachers are worried about risking their own health. Robin Stauffer is one of them. She's taught high school English for four decades, most recently in Katy, Texas, a suburb west of Houston. She says working with kids has kept her young and lighthearted, and she has a strong sense of mission "to be the type of teacher that I wish I would have had when I was in public school, to kind of right the wrongs that I experienced."


But she's also 66 years old and has diabetes, both of which make her more vulnerable to the coronavirus. According to the U.S. Department of Education, almost 30% of teachers are 50 and older, putting them in a higher-risk category for the virus.

"I just don't trust the school district to safeguard my health during this pandemic," Stauffer says.

In the poll, 78% of teachers said they are concerned specifically about accessing sufficient personal protective equipment and even cleaning materials for teaching in person.

Stauffer says her district cut custodial staff several years ago, and after that it was often up to teachers to clean their own rooms. "They don't supply hand sanitizer. They don't supply wipes. None of these supplies were ever given to us. You just use what you had or what teachers themselves purchased." She says she doubts her school will be able to keep up with the increased cleaning measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Charlie McGeehan, a high school teacher in Philadelphia, has similar concerns. In an email to NPR, he said, "Much of my hesitation comes from the persistent underfunding of my district, and its proven inability to provide for the safety of staff and students." McGeehan notes that several school buildings in the School District of Philadelphia closed for asbestos cleanup in the last school year, and one teacher settled with the district for $850,000 over her mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to the toxin.

"These issues have been ongoing, and repeatedly raised, for more than 30 years — and they still persist," McGeehan says.

In addition to their health concerns about coming back, teachers are also worried that coronavirus safety measures will interfere with teaching and learning. Seventy-three percent of teachers say they are concerned about connecting with students while wearing a mask. And 84% of teachers say they are likely to have difficulty enforcing social distancing among their students.


"I want to go back, and I don't want to go back," says Felicia Tinsley, who teaches elementary school students with special needs in Chester County, S.C. She expects to navigate a steep learning curve with her students. "You have to teach kids how to wear masks properly and teach them '6 feet apart.' ... We're going to be doing, basically, instructions on how to operate in our new society."

Tinsley says it may be especially difficult for her to enforce mask wearing because the topic has been politicized in her area of the country. "Some people, they have their own beliefs," she says.

She plans to impress the seriousness of the issue on her students by letting them know she contracted the virus.

McGeehan, in Philadelphia, has a different concern around mask enforcement: "As a white teacher who works with predominantly Black students, I think a lot about the ways that I exert control in my classroom — and how that manifests white supremacy and racism. ... [I'm] considering going back to a school environment where I'm asked to constantly police how far away students are from each other, whether or not they are wearing masks, where they're allowed to go during the day, etc. If this is the type of classroom I'm going to have to facilitate, is in-person learning worth all the risks?"

By nearly a 2-to-1 margin, teachers prefer the idea of teaching online to coming back in person. One bright spot in the poll is that, compared with the spring, 4 out of 5 teachers feel more prepared to teach online this fall. And 70% think their school district's online or distance-learning effort is headed in the right direction.


"Every teacher in the nation basically was thrown into some crash course in March and April," says Danielle Simpson, who teaches fourth grade at Crescent Academy International, an Islamic private school in Canton, Mich. Going into the fall, she says, the bar is going to be raised.

"I've been taking some courses online and watching professional development webinars to give myself a boost. And there's probably a lot of other teachers doing that, too," she says. "We're developing students' digital citizenship skills, which will support them after graduation."

Jenny White, who teaches middle school English language arts in Fort Worth, Texas, has also been doing professional development to design more collaborative online classes. She says she's relieved the school year will be starting remote-only in her district, because she feels her classes will be more interactive and less stilted online than in a classroom, where she would have to enforce social distancing and children would be speaking through masks.

It will be "not so fun for them" in person, she predicts: "We won't be able to allow them to sit with their friends. There's not going to be chances really for collaboration, where they get to work in groups and have those real rich conversations that they need to have, especially in language arts."

And yet more than half of surveyed teachers, 55%, say they cannot properly do their job online. Eighty-four percent say online learning creates gaps in opportunities for students. And 83% are also concerned about connecting with students they've never met when online classes begin this fall.

Nearly half of the respondents have their own children at home, and 57% of those parent-teachers agree with the statement, "I cannot properly do my job from home while also taking care of my own child(ren)." Meanwhile, fewer than half of teachers, 43%, feel comfortable sending their own children to school this fall.

"I do not believe there is any reasonable plan that could be made that would keep my son safe," says Eric Schavrda, who visits multiple campuses to teach the visually impaired in Austin, Texas. He says he doesn't see a way to do his job safely either.

"Unless daily tests of all students and contact tracing support were to be available statewide, there is no way to ensure a safe return to school," he says.

Caught between anxieties about returning to school and about teaching remotely, U.S. teachers have been feeling a lot of uncertainty. In the third week of July, when in many places teachers would normally be working on lesson plans and dusting off classroom decorations, just 11% said their school district's plan for how to start the school year during the pandemic was finalized and clear.

Simpson, in Michigan, says, "There's certain things that still haven't been answered" as of the first week of August. Her school is planning to open at the end of August with a hybrid schedule, with three rotating cohorts of students. "With this new rotating schedule, it feels like I'm going to lose some of my prep time from before. So that's one of the things that I'm still waiting to hear about."

Eighty-three percent of instructors are also concerned the plans will change after the year starts.

Tinsley, in South Carolina, is resigned to that — she says her district has already pushed back the start of the school year and gone from offering five days a week in person to a hybrid schedule. "I'll just see what happens, because every day something changes," she says.

Despite all the difficulties, 70% of respondents tell NPR/Ipsos that if they could pick a career all over again, they would still choose to be teachers. And just 16% say they would leave the profession if they were called back to the classroom. Stauffer, in Texas, made that hard decision.

She says she was upset, sad and torn, but her health concerns won out. She decided to retire and had to say goodbye to her students over Zoom.

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Chicago education officials are reversing course. It's the latest big school district planning to start the school year all remote. And now a new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that 2 out of 3 teachers say that's the right call. The national poll found overwhelming trepidation among teachers when it comes to returning to in-person classrooms. Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Education desk is here to talk more about the poll's findings. Hi, Anya.


MARTIN: What's at the root of the concern here?

KAMENETZ: Well, 77% of teachers are worried about risking their own health if they were to come back to the classroom. And almost exactly the same number don't trust that the resources are going to be there to keep them safe. So they said they're concerned specifically about accessing personal protective equipment, masks, even cleaning supplies. And keep in mind, reopening safely does bring a lot of new costs. And many schools are in a budget crunch right now because of the recession, and they've only received a little bit of the federal coronavirus funds so far.

MARTIN: So concerns for their own physical safety, their own health, which is a big one. Other concerns revealed in the poll?

KAMENETZ: Yes. For returning to the classroom, teachers were concerned about just the logistics of teaching while socially distanced - how do you create, you know, a live, spontaneous classroom while people are 6 feet apart - and also policing kids around following the rules. So 84% of teachers said they don't think that they're going to be able to or it's going to be hard to enforce social distancing among their students. For example, I talked to Felicia Tinsley, who teaches elementary special education students in Chester County, S.C.

FELICIA TINSLEY: I want to go back and then I don't want to go back because you will have to teach kids how to wear masks properly and teach them basically instructions on how to operate in our new society.

KAMENETZ: She says in South Carolina, mask wearing is really a polarizing issue. And so she wants to tell her students that it's a really serious phenomenon they have to pay attention to because she herself had the coronavirus.

MARTIN: Wow. So she speaks from experience. All right. What about the concerns teachers have over online instruction? This wasn't easy for a lot of them.

KAMENETZ: That's right. So even as they say they would prefer to return to online teaching, two-thirds of teachers said they would prefer that, but 84% are worried about the learning gaps that might open up even wider. And that also tracks with what we know about persistent gaps in accessing, you know, materials, equipment, Wi-Fi. And similarly, 4 out of 5 teachers agreed that, you know, they don't know how they're going to get to know their new students. Last year, they left off with students they'd been teaching, you know, since the fall. This year, it's a whole new class of kids. And then more than half of our teachers who were also parents said they can't do their jobs while also taking care of their kids.

MARTIN: Right. There's that. So schools are still making changes. I mean, this late some schools are just now deciding what fall's going to look like. I imagine that uncertainty is tough for teachers, too.

KAMENETZ: It really is. You know, the uncertainty itself is a huge problem for teachers just as it is, you know, for families and really for everyone during the pandemic. For Felicia Tinsley, for example, in South Carolina, her school district has already switched from going five days a week to going just a couple of days a week and also pushed back the start of the school year.

TINSLEY: And I said I'll just see what happens because every day something changes.

KAMENETZ: Four out of five teachers told us they're worried that the plan's going to change again, even after the school year starts.

MARTIN: So - I don't know - it's human nature to ask this. Were there any bright spots in this poll, Anya?

KAMENETZ: You know, when it comes to remote learning, I was really interested to learn that 4 out of 5 teachers say they think it's going to go better this fall because they're more prepared. So here's Danielle Simpson. She teaches fourth grade at Crescent Academy International. That's an Islamic private school in Michigan. And she says she's been taking courses and webinars to just up her online teaching game. And she feels confident.

DANIELLE SIMPSON: Teachers and admin are still going to be able to give their dedication to the students, even with this constantly changing circumstances that we have.

KAMENETZ: So, you know, despite everything that's been coming at them, teachers like Simpson are pretty determined to stick with this and persevere this fall and just see what they can accomplish.

MARTIN: Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Education desk. Thank you, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.