Students shuffle around divided desks surrounded by plastic and open up their laptops to log onto yet another Zoom call. Sitting secluded in a corner of the room, Palo Alto High School teacher Kurt Evert, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, begins teaching while his voice echoes through students’ earbuds six feet away. Instead of feeling the joy of returning to his life’s passion of teaching, Evert feels unsafe.
“Personally, I do not think it is safe to go back right now,” Evert said on March 23, two weeks into the hybrid plan. “The district’s sudden announcement of a return was extremely emotional for many teachers.”
While Paly implemented a hybrid plan to return to campus in March, many teachers voiced concerns for their safety regarding COVID-19.
The school had set safety guidelines, including using individual plastic shields on desks, enforcing strict social distancing and administering a mask mandate. However, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on March 19, resuming in-person learning poses a health risk to all individuals in the school environment.
Paly teacher Jordan Johnson, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, recently returned to campus but believes that the district opened too soon and should have waited for teachers to get vaccinated. Johnson is planning on being fully vaccinated by April 3, nearly one month after Paly reopened campus.
“I feel like the district robbed our school community of a joyful reopening,” Johnson said. “They traded 16 instructional days for the safety and morale of their employees. This makes for an uncomfortable and demoralizing reopening.”
Evert says he feels abandoned by the district when it comes to receiving a vaccine.
“Teachers were scrambling to find options,” Evert said. “We were trading rumors, calling pharmacies, spending hours searching websites and hitting refresh. Some went to vaccination sites at the end of the day, hoping to get on a waiting list for extra doses.”
Evert received his second dose of the vaccine and was fully vaccinated on March 27, three weeks after the reopening.
“They traded 16 instructional days for the safety and morale of their employees. This makes for an uncomfortable and demoralizing reopening.”
— Jordan Johnson, anonymous teacher
Morgan Smith, a Paly teacher whose name has been changed, also has reservations with the reopening. Smith chose to continue teaching virtually to protect a family member who is at risk for COVID-19. Smith is planning on returning to school after spring break when she is fully vaccinated.
After reviewing Smith’s circumstances, the district had total say over whether she could remain at home for teaching, according to Smith.
“When it comes to the decision to go back in person or stay teaching at home, there is really little choice in the matter for teachers,” Smith said.
Smith recalls that during a PAUSD board meeting in February, various teachers voiced feelings of unsafety and asked the district to wait to return, yet they felt their sentiments were not heard.
“I think the decision was pressured by parents and politics as well,” Smith said. “I think the district office wanted to be the first to reopen whether it was the right time or not.”
Despite safety concerns, Paly history teacher DJ Shelton is happy to be back teaching in person and enjoys seeing his students face-to-face again. Shelton was fully vaccinated on March 19, a few days after the start of in person school.
“Being able to say ‘good morning’ to someone and have a conversation with them after class without unmuting a button is really nice,” Shelton said. “I’ve missed getting to know my students individually without the awkwardness that comes with Zoom.”
Shelton also believes that in-person school is beneficial to students’ learning processes and helps them absorb material more easily.
“As teachers, we try to come up with as many examples and ways of explaining material but we can’t cover every base online,” Shelton said. “So being in person and having the students be in groups to hear each other process and talk together is a huge benefit.”