Governor Hutchinson’s upbeat assessment yesterday of teachers’ enthusiasm about returning to regular classrooms brought an instant contradictory response from teachers all over Arkansas.

He said “hundreds and hundreds” of teachers are excited about going back. He acknowledged some are nervous.

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A sampling of the response I got:

From a special education assistant in the Arkansas River Valley:

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As a classified employee, my job is on the line if the state decides to go all virtual. However, my job is not nearly as important as the lives of children, teachers, and school staff.  It is not safe. There is not enough protections that can be put in place.  I realize special ed students cannot do virtual nearly as well or even at all, but they deserve to live above getting a public education. Please consider virtual for all of Arkansas students for at least the 1st 9 weeks of school so we can see where our numbers are at that point. I do not want to go to a child’s or co-worker’s premature funeral, however, I feel that I may have to attend several and that is not bearable. If you go to the doctor, you wait in the car until you are called in. If you go to the dentist, you stand 6 feet from anyone else as the chairs have been removed. If you go to a restaurant, the max capacity is 50%.  This is not going to be possible in a school.  You closed the schools when we had hardly any cases in the state and we need to return to normal when we again have hardly any cases in the state. Please consider.

From a fifth-year teacher:

What he failed to mention were the hundreds, if not thousands, of teacher calls and emails of teachers who are not excited to go back in the current conditions we are in. I do not have any emails to forward you but I do have the call logs that show when I called and left a voice mail for the governor. I have never received an actual person when I call and have received a full voicemail several times.
Some of the concerns I have asked the governor are:
-how will he keep me safe? I see between 550 to 600 students a week as an elementary music teacher. I’m not given adequate time to sanitize items.
-how will mask and safety be enforced? I’ve seen several admin and coworkers through the building not wearing mask during the last 2 weeks. Some while in close quarters to others.
-maximum distancing is 2-3 ft if possible in most classrooms
-I’ve been told we will receive 1 mask from the district. Student must provide their own.
-we still don’t have cleaning supplies or hand sanitizer in the school
-how will you not quarantine an entire school if an exposed arts teacher has taught the entire school at that point?
-how are you okay with the 5-7 return in most test BEFORE the test results are known? Kids will come to school during that wait. It’s inevitable.
-contact tracing would take weeks to get through the school after just one exposure. Meanwhile all those exposed are exposing others.
The list goes on and on.
I will not see my parents or grandparents or in laws once school begins. That includes My birthday, My moms birthday, both sister-in-laws and nephews birthdays, potentially my sister-in-laws wedding, thanksgiving, or Christmas. I would never live with myself if I got my family sick because I was told I’m “not essential” but also not allowed to work from a distance. I am not a science experiment.
From a teacher in Southeast Arkansas:
I have emailed him three times saying I do NOT feel safe going back. I do not know of any teachers who are excited about going back to school. We are afraid. We don’t understand why he is willing to sacrifice our students or us.
A Northeast Arkansas teacher’s letter to the governor:
I wanted to share my thoughts with you, as an Arkansas educator.
First and foremost, I’m curious about the supposed great numbers of educators who are excited and ready to go back to school. Literally none of the teachers I am in contact with share that view and, given my presence in many organizing groups in the state, it seems as though you’re likely getting more emails and calls about keeping schools closed until such time as they can be reopened safely — or, at least, when our community spread is under control.
I certainly realize the need to provide high-quality education for all students and I desperately miss being in my classroom. However, I am not convinced that reopening districts is the right move at this time. The safety of my students is my primary concern — they’re not going to learn history while struggling to survive on a ventilator because schools opened too soon without appropriate safety measures for students or for teachers.
My classroom is too small to accommodate a class of students with adequate social distancing. The campus lunchroom is similarly too small to allow students to separate during meals. Passing periods mean large crowds in small hallways. Moving teachers instead of students isn’t feasible at the high school level, with students pursuing a wide range of courses throughout the day. Already inadequate time for sanitizing — not to mention limited availability of cleaning supplies — would be exacerbated by the new needs of our pandemic reality. Providing masks to all students is a great idea, but let’s be honest. Measures like mask wearing, temperature checking, and self-monitoring haven’t managed to protect students at summer camps or during summer sports.
With new studies clearly demonstrating that students are completely capable of spreading COVID-19, it is irresponsible to reopen schools at this time. We do not have the capability to keep students and staff safe. Precautions like taking temperatures at the door or encouraging hand washing have not done well in preventing the spread of the virus at summer camps, church organizations, or daycares. We are not taking the steps that other countries have in order to ensure a safe opening, including waiting for a consistent reduction of community spread and a proper investment in PPE and sanitation measures. South Korea has been utilizing members of the military to assist with school disinfection; my district is going to provide me with a spray bottle of disinfectant and their good wishes.
Virtual learning is certainly not perfect. We both know that many families in this area of the state struggle with accessing the internet or affording necessary technologies, let alone arranging childcare for working parents or finding time to assist children with school work. Again, I would argue that the inconveniences are far outweighed by the need to keep students safe. The recent news of outbreaks among educators throughout the state who are attending in-person meetings about reopening should be enough to convince anyone that it’s not safe to send children back to school. Genuinely, the idea that many of our professional development events and conferences are still being held virtually should be clue enough that it’s not okay to put children and their teachers at an increased risk. How dare the State Board of Education attend meetings through the safety of Zoom while discussing ways to send children back into in-person schooling. It’s enraging.
Discussions about students “falling behind” are disingenuous. Fall behind what exactly? Arbitrary goals for achievement and growth, set by testing companies? In discussing the repercussions of the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918, no one spends much time on how many students “fell behind” during school closures. They talk about how many people died.  My students cannot learn effectively if the campus has to shut down every other week for quarantining, leaving them floundering between in-person and virtual learning. My students cannot learn from a hospital bed. My students cannot learn from the grave, nor can I teach from one.
I understand the burden that not having school available to mind children during the day can place on families. I imagine the burden of burying a child, or waiting by their bedside as they suffer through COVID-19, would be greater.
On a personal note, I want you to know the sorts of discussions I’ve been having with my colleagues. Most of the teachers I know are making end of life plans and preparing living wills as we approach August. Many, myself included, feel that it’s more a matter of “when” we become ill, not “if” we become infected. Many educators are in the highest risk groups for infection. Are schools going to be able to function as educators become ill and are unable to go to work? There aren’t enough substitutes (who are often retired educators in high risk categories) to fill all of our shoes. Perhaps it’s ego, but I also don’t believe that what I can offer students can be replaced by a “virtual learning catalog” of recorded courses. The difference is that I love my students. I know them, and I know their families, and I care what happens to them. Meeting with them digitally just isn’t the same, but I know that it’s safer for them and that’s what matters most.
Teachers are used to being left out of conversations about their jobs and responsibilities. We regularly accept inconvenience and disrespect in the name of “putting students first”. We wouldn’t do the job we do if we didn’t have a love for our students. However, I’m not sure that I’m ready to die in a pandemic in the name of “normal” schooling. Please don’t carelessly sacrifice myself or my students.
From a teacher in Central Arkansas:
Governor Hutchinson reported that he’s hearing only from teachers ready to go back to school.  This is total crap.  Those of us against this have been FLOODING his phone and email inbox with exactly the opposite information – IT IS NOT SAFE TO RETURN TO SCHOOL.  Please join the Facebook group called AR School Employees & Friends.  It has 18,000 members.  You’ll get the real story about how teachers are feeling.  Also, Arkansans for Safe Schools is another group to join to hear how absolutely terrified that teachers are to go to school.  The REAL story needs to be told – not the continued gaslighting that Asa is trying to infect Arkansans with.  Here is my story – the one I shared with both him and Johnny Key:
I teach school. This will be my 17th year in the classroom. I miss my kiddos like crazy. I am tired of not having structure in my life, and I miss going to my job. There aren’t many of us in this group who don’t have a similar experience. We all want a return to normal. We deserve it; families deserve it; kids deserve it.

But last Sunday I got the call that I was positive for COVID-19. My jaw literally dropped. The words – “There’s no way” creeped out of my mouth as the nurse at the local medical center told me the news. “But I’ve worn my mask everywhere. I haven’t touched anybody. I have social distanced. I have gone to Walmart at 7:00am when nobody is up. I clean all groceries and packages before I bring them into my house. I have washed my hands religiously, squirted hand sanitizer at every move. There’s no way! Could it be a mistake?” I argued with her. “But I wasn’t even at the doctor for a COVID test,” I insisted. “I have never even had a fever! I was there to request a colonoscopy for stomach pain!” But as much as I was hoping for a false positive, the real symptoms hit the following day – severe gastrointestinal pain, the worst headache of my life, a tightening chest, intense fatigue. Two hard days, then it was (practically) gone. But the timelines came and the daily calls from the health department tracking my moves. And contacting everyone I knew that I had been in contact with since the day my symptoms began. Sending others, family and friends and community members to the doctor/health department for tests. Others started showing up positive too after contact with me. Others who wore masks during our conversations, stood six feet apart from me, followed all the rules. My family is now in quarantine for an additional 14 days AFTER my 10 contagious days expire. A total of 24 days they are having to endure (and only that short if they don’t end up with symptoms) for something that I PREPARED FOR. I took every preventative measure. I started wearing masks in town before people even started sewing them because I found a box of N-95 masks in my house to wear in early March.

We can argue about lots of things and disagree all day long. Just please know this is fact: If I can take every preventative measure possible and still get this virus – SCHOOLS AREN’T SAFE. We cannot be lulled into thinking that by putting on a mask we are alleviating any chance of getting this. I am proof of that.

All of us want to be hopeful and positive and bring good energy to our kids and reassure them that all is well, and we will protect them. We just can’t. We can’t make those promises, and because of that we have to fight for right here. And the right thing to do is stay put a little while longer. We CAN dig deep and make virtual school awesome and engaging and show up every day for them on a screen full of insight and inspiration, and they will learn! We can teach, and they can learn and that is something to be hopeful and positive about!

We are SO CLOSE to a vaccine. If we can just hold out until Christmas, I truly believe that we will get there. But if we send ourselves and our babies back to school right now, lives will be lost before the cure is found.

Please learn from my story. I ask you to deeply consider what is at stake here. With the death of John Lewis, I was reminded of some really important words by MLK, Jr: “Each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state; it is an act.” Press on for virtual school for one semester y’all. Hope is on the way.

A Little Rock teacher’s letter to the governor:

I write today as a parent of a school aged student and as a school employee. I’m truly worried about sending our students and educators back into school buildings in August for face-to-face instruction.  Arkansas’ Covid-19 infections continue to rise, as do our numbers for hospitalizations and deaths. We are seeing continued reports of other areas in the country where infections quickly spread once a group of people were together. This has occurred in camps, churches, athletic practices, etc.  Even Major League Baseball, with all of their precautions and safety protocols in place, quickly saw outbreaks over opening weekend.
Our school buildings are not set up to allow us to safely return.  The ventilation systems are not equipped to handle this virus. There is not enough space in classrooms to allow for appropriate social distancing.  Many schools have no way to open windows in classrooms to allow for more air flow. Keeping desks and other surfaces clean and sanitized throughout an entire day is an impossible task.  Many schools have no gyms to provide additional space to spread out. Getting students to school on buses also appears to be risky at this time due to the inability to social distance there as well.
Other school districts around the country have made the difficult but necessary decision to begin the school year virtually. While it’s not ideal, and it’s not what most any of us want, it is the safest option at this time. Sending our students and staff back into buildings at this time is dangerous. Even the death of one student or staff member is too many.   The unknown side effects of having the virus remain unknown at this time, indicating that we should not take such a risk with students’ lives.  Please reconsider your stance on face- to-face instruction and have our school year begin virtually in order to do what’s best for our students, families, and educators.
The governor promises more encouraging news at his happy-talk daily briefing today from Education Secretary Johnny Key. “More gaslighting,” said one of the teachers quoted above.