Will schools be safe?: Teachers share fears as they prepare for NJ schools opening

Hannan Adely

Michelle Polo-Thorpe takes 14 vitamins a day as part of a health regime to try to boost her immune system before returning to work in the fall. Affected by chronic Lyme disease, the Paterson middle school teacher fears that if she catches COVID-19, it could be devastating.

“I’m definitely worried about returning to school,” said Polo-Thorpe. “Obviously, we all want to get back to normal, but if it’s not safe it causes a lot of anxiety.”

Across the state, educators, bus drivers, classroom aides and other staff are voicing concerns and fears over plans to reopen schools amid a pandemic that has killed about 145,000 Americans since March. A “refuse to return” movement is growing and pressure is building on the state to provide more health and safety protections and to delay opening.

Some workers have health conditions that expose them to greater risk if they fall ill from the coronavirus. Others fear they might sicken elderly or immune-compromised family members at home. They worry, too, about students spreading the virus when they leave school buildings.

Polo-Thorpe wants to be there in person to build a rapport with students so they are motivated to work hard and be comfortable reaching out for help, but she worries.

Michelle Polo-Thorpe, a 7th grade Language Arts Teacher at Don Bosco Technology Academy, who lives with Lyme Disease and has a compromised immune system, sorts out the supplements that she takes.

“I think most teachers will agree it is great to teach in person,” Polo-Thorpe said. “However, if it’s not going to be safe, if the staff have to worry about the safety of their families, it’s not worth it.”

For now, she is eating healthy, consuming vitamins, sipping ginger tea and taking Epsom-salt baths to build up her strength and immunity. She has also secured her own masks, gloves and a face shield to prepare for September.

“If they get the flu, I get the flu,” said Polo-Thorpe, 43. “If they get a stomach virus, I get a stomach virus. But this year obviously it’s scary. This year, you can get sick and God forbid die or be out of commission for months.”

She can't forget that Gerald Glisson, the principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, was only in his 40s when he died May 3 after testing positive for COVID-19.

“That’s what really scared me," she said.

Writing their wills

Jessica, a special education teacher in an affluent Bergen County district, said she was planning to return to school because she needs the income, but she believes it is too soon to reopen.

“The numbers of [COVID] cases are still in the triple digits every day,” said Jessica, who asked that her last name be withheld because her district does not want teachers to talk to the press. “The fact is, we haven’t gone a day in New Jersey without people dying.

“It just doesn’t feel like it’s a smart move to open up schools. It just feels like we are putting kids and teachers at risk when we have an alternative, when we know we can teach from home.”

The uncertainty and mixed messages about the risk associated with reopening school also worried her. She pointed to reports of virus outbreaks in other states, including at a Missouri camp where 82 kids and counselors tested positive.

“My mind is running overtime with what if, what if,” the high school teacher said.

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She and her husband, who is also a teacher, were so concerned that they drafted their wills and designated guardianship for their children.

Jessica said she sympathizes with parents who have to work and need to bring their children somewhere during the day. She also feels bad for students isolated at home away from friends.

But other scenarios are far more dreaded, she said.

“It would be worse for them to bury a friend or bury a teacher,” she said. “God forbid the guilt if they were the one who passed it on. It would be a thousand times worse.”

Will teachers return?

Teachers and staff say they want to return, but only if the right precautions are in place.

In a June survey by the American Federation of Teachers, about three in four educators said they would be comfortable returning to classrooms if schools had measures in place like social distancing and adequate ventilation, cleaning and face coverings.

Jessica Foster, a teacher’s aide in Cliffside Park, said her school was committed to social distancing and has been disinfecting rooms all summer. She wants to go back, feeling that hands-on learning is better for students and educators.

“I’m prepared,” she said. “If it means wearing a mask all day, I’m willing to do that. Don’t get me wrong. I am scared because you never know what can happen, but my school principal and custodians are doing everything they can to make sure we’re all comfortable with coming back.”

Michelle Polo-Thorpe, a 7th grade Language Arts Teacher at Don Bosco Technology Academy, who lives with Lyme Disease and has a compromised immune system, worries about returning to work in the fall. Photographed at her home in Paterson on 07/20/20.

Chrissy Kosar, a bus driver in Washington Township in Gloucester County, said she was ready to drive children to school again, but she wants officials to do the maximum to keep everyone safe.

She realizes that in her line of work, that’s a huge challenge. Once children buckle seatbelts and she hits the road, it will be hard to enforce mask wearing, she said. There is no bus monitor on her route and some of the children are so small she can’t even see them behind the vinyl seats in her rearview mirror.

“They share everything,” Kosar said. “They’re friendly. To tell a 5-year-old you have to social distance, it’s going to be impossible.”

She is horrified by the thought that she, or a student, might spread the virus. Her husband, a stroke survivor who uses a wheelchair, is vulnerable, she said.

Kosar is active with NJ21, an education advocacy group that is planning a week of action starting Monday to pressure local and state leaders to do more about school safety. Actions include phone campaigns, letter writing and a car rally under the banner “Only when it’s safe.”

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They are also rallying for more funding for schools so they can pay for cleaning supplies, protective equipment and other costs associated with containing the virus.

 “We have to get students in a more normal way of learning,” Kosar said. “It’s not good to have remote learning at home all the time. Students need the socialization they get in school. We have to have accommodations in place, but it comes at a cost.”

‘Wait and watch’

One in five teachers said they were unlikely to return to reopened classrooms this fall in a USA Today poll in May. Around New Jersey, however, superintendents said they had not seen a spike in the teachers resigning or retiring early. But they worry that could change.

Teachers are in a “wait and watch” pattern, said Robert Barbier, a Garfield High School teacher and a vice president at the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey.

“People are waiting to see what their districts’ reopening plan is and to see if they are comfortable with it,” he said.

School districts must release plans to families four weeks before the start of school under state guidelines, but some have already unveiled theirs. Delores Connors, 48, a reading teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Teaneck, said she was waiting for details from her district.

"If I felt there were guidelines that presented a safe environment then I’d go back,” she said. “I think what would make me feel safe is a smaller class environment, making sure things are sanitized and that protective covering is available.

“I also know children are resilient and step up to any environment they are faced with. I am just trying to be as optimistic as possible.”

Hannan Adely is an education and diversity reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: adely@northjersey.com Twitter: @adelyreporter