Anderson Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jill Nalywaiko works to get her new room in order for the start of school. Here, she prepares packets for students to have at home for the virtual start of classes. John P. Cleary | The Herald Bulletin
Anderson Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jill Nalywaiko works to get her new room in order for the start of school. Here, she prepares packets for students to have at home for the virtual start of classes. John P. Cleary | The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON – Kindergarten, with youngsters who have perpetually runny noses, the urge to touch everything and the frequent need for hugs, is just the sort of place where the novel coronavirus is likely to thrive.

But that doesn’t bother teacher Jill Nalywaiko, a 31-year veteran at Anderson Community Schools who will embark on her 11th year at Anderson Elementary School when school starts Aug. 5.

“I wish we could go back into the buildings at the start of the year like every other year,” she said. “I am personally not really concerned very much. And I know each person feels very differently about their own health and the risks that they could take.”

Some of her colleagues throughout the district registered their concerns at the July 14 ACS Board of Trustees meeting where they said the emphasis in reopening the schools has centered on the belief that children aren’t hit as hard medically by COVID-19 if they become ill.

The teachers, uncertain about recommendations rather than mandates to wear masks and challenges with social distancing, said little attention has been given to adults who work in schools and are at risk of complications if they become ill.

At the meeting, which was conducted remotely, ACS made the decision to start school virtually and wait until Sept. 9 to reassess the possibility of returning to classrooms. Prior to that decision, the district had planned to start school with in-person classes, in addition to a virtual option for families.

Just like medical personnel on the front lines of the COVID crisis, teachers say they are at particular risk of exposure because of the number of children in close proximity as they work. Like medical workers, they fear bringing COVID home to their families.

“I am scared for my own health, as well as the health of others,” Marissa Tanner, family and consumer sciences teacher at Anderson High School, told the board.

To date, Daleville Community Schools is the only other district serving students in the Madison County area to delay the start of school or go virtual-only.

ACS teachers have joined a growing chorus of educators nationwide opposing the insistence of President Donald Trump and political leaders closer to home to reopen schools. COVID-19 cases have surged since July 4 in several states, including Indiana.

Teachers have demanded but received few answers on a variety of issues, including who will need to isolate if someone tests positive for COVID; whether there are enough substitutes to take the places of teachers, bus drivers and food service workers if they become ill; and whether they have to use their paid time off if they contract the coronavirus.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan organization focused on healthcare issues, reported this month that about one-quarter of U.S. teachers are at risk of complications should they become infected with the coronavirus. These include teachers older than 65 and those with underlying conditions, including diabetes, respiratory issues and cardiovascular problems.

According to a nationwide Gallup poll released last week, 57% of K-12 teachers surveyed said they were very concerned about exposure to COVID-19 if they are required to return to in-person instruction in the fall. An additional 18% said they were moderately concerned.

About three-fourths of teachers said they would prefer to start the school year working remotely.

However, some local superintendents say they haven’t seen a spike in teacher resignations or retirements and that most of those who are retiring announced their intentions before the pandemic.

Local superintendents, including South Madison Community Schools’ Mark Hall, say they are following scientific guidance by working with the county health department. The superintendents’ plans call for varying responses, depending on whether the spread of the novel coronavirus is low, moderate or high.

“Our re-entry plan was developed using feedback from many different groups, including parents, teachers, administrators, various department heads, the school board, school nurses and the local health department,” Hall said.

“I have been in constant contact with the leadership of our teacher association since early summer when we started to develop our re-entry plans. ... It has been a very collaborative effort putting our plan together.”

Though some post-secondary institutions such as Anderson and Purdue universities plan to place acrylic barriers between the students and instructors, none of the local K-12 schools have similar plans.

Jason Chappell, spokesman for Liberty Christian Schools, said such steps might be taken in the school’s offices.

“We will give our teachers freedom if they want to do some things like that,” he said.

Anderson Community Schools interim Superintendent Joe Cronk said he and his administration have not considered such devices, though they are in use at the K-12 level in other counties. Acrylic barriers could potentially free children from wearing masks during class time.

“College classrooms are a different entity, with different interactions and larger class-sizes,” Cronk said.

Schools that already are cash strapped must hire additional substitute teachers, school nurses and bus drivers, all of which can be in short supply.

ACS, which collaborated with the Anderson Federation of Teachers in the development of its reopening plan, contracts out some of those services and leaves the challenge of filling those slots to the contractors, Cronk said.

But for some staff, COVID-19 means more work. Teachers will spend part of their time disinfecting their spaces, presumably taking some valuable time away from instruction. School nurses, who already have full schedules tracking vaccinations and administering medications, will be responsible for COVID screenings.

Nalywaiko said she trusts that ACS’s board and administration are making decisions in the best interests of children and staff.

“I’m glad we’re going into the schools to do the virtual instruction,” she said. “That will bring back a little bit more of the normalcy.”
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