FL educator: “I don’t want to die going back to the classroom”

Teacher with students, in a classroom. Credit: Getty Images.

In a typical school year, Orlando high school teacher Keegan Schlake says he sees about “150 students cycle through my classroom door every day and thousands of kids shoulder-to-shoulder in the hallways.”

The bottom line: “Schools are not designed for social distancing,” says Schlake, who teaches government and economics classes.

“Like every other teacher, I’m dying to get back into the classroom,” Schlake said. “But, I don’t want to die going back into the classroom.”

In fact, school faculty and educators dying from COVID-19 in Florida have already become a reality as the pandemic continues to spread infections and kill people.

In Florida’s state capital, a Leon County school custodian only 19 years old died of complications from coronavirus, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

Less than a week later, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that an after-school program director at the same school died from COVID-19 complications.

A high school teacher from Sarasota County also died of complications from COVID-19, the Herald Tribune reported. And a middle school teacher from Pasco County died from complications from COVID-19, reported 10 Tampa Bay.

And there may be more COVID-related deaths of teachers and faculty that haven’t been made public.

Schlake’s comments came during a virtual press conference Monday with educators, Democratic state lawmakers and a Florida congresswoman about reopening brick-and-mortar public schools despite a surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths.

The numbers are climbing: As of Monday, the Florida Department of Health reported 432,747 COVID-19 infections, and 5,931 deaths.

To put that in perspective: Florida is 2nd only to California in the number of infections, but 5th of the 50 states based on infections per 100,000 people.

As to the number of deaths, Florida ranks 9th of the 50 states. But it ranks 23rd in the number of deaths per 100,000 people, according to a New York Times analysis.

The Florida Education Association recently filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials over the issue of whether brick-and-mortar schools can be safe enough to bring students back to classrooms.

DeSantis has acknowledged that Floridians are frightened of the potentially deadly disease, and he’s appealed to families and the thousands of schoolchildren preparing to go back to school in August.

He has said that families have choices for the upcoming school year and that teachers should be able to instruct remotely if necessary rather than be in a classroom during the pandemic.

DeSantis also pointed out in a televised message last week that “keeping schools closed will exacerbate existing achievement gaps between demographic groups; lead to more kids dropping out of school; disproportionately impact the least economically affluent Floridians; foster more social isolation, depression and anxiety; harm students with special needs; and deprive students of the ability to engage in sports and extracurricular activities.”

Last week, the FEA released results of an online week-long survey to collect the opinions of educators and parents on how safe they feel about sending students back to classrooms in brick-and-mortar schools.

Overall, 76 percent of educators didn’t have faith that their schools can be reopened safely.

That was based on about 44,500 educators who were asked: “Based on the way things are trending, how likely do you think it is that your workplace(s) will be able to safely reopen for in-person teaching in the fall.”

The answers were from 1 to 5. Most educators answered 1, “not at all likely.”

In addition, about 60 percent of educators, when given a choice, wanted to continue distance learning only, in the fall. Another 16 percent preferred a hybrid approach of in-person and online learning.

Another survey released Monday by the nonprofit Junior Achievement USA, said that of 1,000 students aged 13 to 17, 66 percent had concerns about returning to in-person instruction in the upcoming school year.

“A quarter of teens (26 percent) reported that they would prefer to attend school in-person five days a week,” according to the survey, “while more than a third (36 percent) prefer a blended schedule, where they would attend school in-person a couple of days a week and take the rest of their lessons online. Just under a third (30 percent) say that they would prefer classes exclusively online this fall.”

Karla Hernandez-Mats is the president of United Teachers of Dade, as well as a middle school teacher. She spoke on the virtual press call to remind Floridians that teachers want to be in the classroom, but the risks of COVID-19 transmission and a lack of state and federal guidance create an unsafe learning environment.

“We see that there is, still, no national strategy,” she said. “We’re seeing long wait lines to get tested. We’re seeing that there is no contact tracing. And yet, there is this absurd pressure to reopen our school under unsafe conditions.”

Schlake, the Orlando high school teacher, also spoke about his wife’s daily classroom experiences as an educator who instructs students with disabilities—most of whom, Schlake reports, “cannot be reasonably expected to wear masks.”

“She comes home with bruises and scratch marks all the time,” he says. “Biting, spitting in her face, fighting, and even worse. There is no protocol in the books that is going to fix that for her.”