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Reopening schools: Teachers not given the choices students have (opinion)

By ThisIsReno

Submitted by Rachel Fisher

I feel that much of the community still holds some very big misconceptions about the reality of the district’s current back-to-school plan with students set to return to school in-person in just two short weeks. 

The major misconception is that much of the community seems to believe that teachers have been offered similar choices as students and their families in regards to distance and in-person learning. I have seen many commenters on various media posts about returning to school for full-time face-to-face instruction for elementary schools say that the teachers who do not feel safe returning school can just “choose” distance learning.

We as educators have, in fact, NOT been given a choice in this matter.

I recently received two emails from the human resources department of Washoe County School District. One, in response to chosen answers from a teacher survey sent out in June in regards to returning to school. In it, officials wrote, “Once we have a better understanding of the number of leaves being requested we will be able to determine whether or not unpaid leaves can be accommodated and approved.”

The other email was sent to all teachers in regards to requesting a leave of absence. It read:

“There is substantial interest in distance learning positions and while we would like to be able to accommodate all of the requests received, the number of distance learning teachers needed is determined by the number of students opting for site based distance learning or enrollment at North Star Online School. Based on student interest, at this time, we must prioritize requests for distance learning positions for those employees who have a qualified disability under the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, also known as the ADA. The ADA does not extend to employees’ family members.”

I personally had answered the survey with the response that I would need a remote learning position in order to protect high-risk family members. As you can see in the email text, ONLY individual employees who have a disability themselves as qualified under the ADA are currently eligible for remote learning positions, with family members being excluded from consideration. A teacher who may be caring for an immuno-compromised family member is not eligible for a distance learning position within the school district.

In addition, there are many medical conditions that make contracting COVID-19 extremely high risk for severe complications (including death), but may not fall under the categories as defined by the ADA. The many educators who are high risk themselves, but do not have the designation of a disability, are also excluded from obtaining a distance learning position. 

It is important for the community of Washoe County to be aware of the very precarious position being forced onto teachers.”

In the staff email sent in response to many teachers requesting an unpaid leave of absence as an alternative, you can see that the district states that until they can ensure “adequate staffing” is met for classrooms, they are not yet able to confirm these requests will be approved. For teachers caring for a high-risk family member or who are high risk but without a designated ADA disability, requesting an unpaid leave of absence is the only other alternative choice.

This email was sent to staff on the evening of Thursday, July 30, only giving us a week to gather necessary documentation and submit requests by the Aug. 7 deadline. With this being the only alternative given the limitations of available distance learning positions, this extremely short timeframe puts a huge burden on teachers attempting to submit requests along with appropriate medical paperwork—which ultimately may not be approved.

The third and final choice for teachers? QUIT. If a teacher is not approved for a remote teaching position and their request for a leave of absence is denied, then they will be offered an in-person classroom position for which, if they turn down, forces their resignation from the school district. 

These are the choices that teachers in our district are actually being given right now. Return to an unsafe environment for face-to-face instruction and put ourselves and our families in danger—or, if both of the very limited alternatives are denied, resign. 

Given the statements from Washoe County Health District officials and from the Washoe Education Association that schools in Washoe County should not open for in-person learning at this time, most of those teachers who DO plan on returning to the classroom are still doing so in a state of fear and betrayal. In addition, support staff members that are integral to schools being able to open and serve students have been completely left out of the discussion of reopening schools at a time when their voices and concerns should also be heard and taken into consideration for any school learning plan.

It is important for the community of Washoe County to be aware of the very precarious position being forced onto teachers. My fear is that in a time when teachers are needed most, Superintendent McNeill and our board members have set the stage for a mass exodus of educators from a district already compromised by a teacher shortage and bad morale.

I can only speak for myself personally, but I will not return to face-to-face instruction when my life and those of my loved ones are not protected or even valued enough to be a consideration to those in leadership positions. If that means that I ultimately have to walk away from the job and students I love, I will do so–albeit with a broken heart.

Rachel Fisher grew up in Reno attending WCSD public schools and later earned her B.S. in Fashion Merchandising from San Francisco State University. After many years working in fashion retail, she adventured on a new career path and began substitute teaching in 2013 at the recommendation of her mother-in-law, who retired after more than 40 years of teaching in Washoe County. Falling in love with the profession, Rachel earned her M.A. in Teaching Elementary Education from Western Governors University and has been in her current position as a first grade partner teacher at Lena Juniper Elementary School for the past three years. Rachel is a proud member of Empower Nevada Teachers and is passionate about advocating for students and those who work within the public education system.

Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.

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