Thursday, Dallas teachers caravanned to a school board meeting to demand that in-person classes be delayed until January 2021.
Members of a local teachers union and their supporters held the demonstration to urge Dallas ISD to keep schools closed. Rena Honea, president of Dallas' Alliance/AFT union, said that it isn't safe to return to classrooms because of the county's unchecked coronavirus case rate.
“Do not let people go into those buildings, because they are sure to be a death trap for someone,” Honea said. “Human life needs to be the first priority.”
As of now, Dallas ISD plans to reopen on Sept. 8 for online and virtual learning. While some working parents are ready for their kids to return to the classroom, many teachers are fearful of catching the virus.
Honea said that there should be a 14-day decline in coronavirus case and hospitalization rates before school reopens to in-person classes. At the very least, she added, the district needs to mandate online learning for eight weeks since the Texas Education Agency would still provide funding during that time.
Most educators are eager to return to the classroom, Honea said, but it’s unreasonable to ask them to do so when their lives could be in danger.
“Every teacher and educator wants to be face-to-face with their students,” she said. “We know that’s the best delivery for education, but it is not safe at this time.”
On March 16, WFAA reported that Dallas County Health and Human Services had counted five presumptive positive cases, bringing the total to 19. No one from Dallas County had yet died from the disease. That same day, Dallas ISD announced it would close indefinitely to slow coronavirus spread.
By contrast, the county’s health department on Wednesday reported 234 new coronavirus cases and nine deaths. That brought the total to 55,787 cases, including 794 deaths.
At this rate, returning to school is simply too dangerous, Honea said.
“We have to make smart decisions, and putting people’s lives at risk is not smart,” Honea said.
Dallas ISD spokeswoman Robyn Harris said school officials understand teachers' worries. The board also has to weigh health officials' advice, though, as well as what's best for Dallas students and parents, she said.
Another major factor in ongoing discussions is that the TEA controls the district's purse strings, Harris added.
"January 2021 is not something we would fiscally be able to maintain due to the funding mechanism," she said. "After that eight-week period, they will not fund you if you do not return to in-person."
Superintendent Michael Hinojosa should come to a final decision regarding in-person and virtual learning within the next week or two, Harris said.
Thursday, the Dallas ISD board of trustees conducted a virtual briefing during which several teachers and Dallas residents spoke.
Hobie Hukill, who is a librarian within the district, likened mandated in-person learning to Nazi Germany. He cited a German slogan that was emblazoned at the entrances of concentration camps, which translates to “work sets you free.”
“You know, upon reflection, when [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick says it’s worth dying for the economy, that’s certainly not too far from arbeit macht frei,” Hukill said. “Is this where we are?”
Another speaker, Marleny Almendarez, is a parent of two high-risk Dallas ISD students; one has asthma and the other is autistic. She said she is worried about the city's kids having to return to school so soon.
Almendarez also said she thought it was unfair that already-underpaid teachers are being asked to re-enter an unsafe work environment.
“Look at how we’re doing this meeting — we’re doing it virtually,” she said. “We’re not even joining you guys … to speak face-to-face with each other. It is not OK for the kids to go back to school, nor the teachers.”
Dallas ISD has announced it will be providing three reusable masks and one face shield to all staff and students. In addition to implementing ramped-up cleaning protocols and Plexiglas dividers, kids will be provided individual bottles of hand sanitizer.
Educators will also be tasked with catering to both virtual and in-person students simultaneously, Honea said.
Teachers feel threatened for their own safety as well as the safety of students and their families, said Dallas AP U.S. history teacher Kevin Hopper. All students must wear a face covering, but he said that could be difficult for teachers to have to constantly monitor.
Hopper, who is also a union member, said that seating charts will be implemented as a form of informal contact tracing. He questions how effective that will be, though.
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“If that student gets up to blow their nose or sharpen their pencil, they’ve gone by everybody in the room, which is a ridiculous expectation to put on teachers,” Hopper said.
Also in attendance at Thursday’s caravan demonstration was Alicia McClung, a Dallas ISD school board trustee candidate for District 8. McClung said that she wanted to provide teachers with support since many feel as though their voices aren’t being heard.
McClung said she hopes the school board will listen to teachers during future deliberations.
“I think that the district can be solutions-oriented in including teachers’ voices,” she said. “These folks deserve support and deserve for their demands to be taken seriously.”