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During Central Ohio's COVID Surge, Teachers Fear In-Person Classes Put Them At Risk

Pickerington students board a school bus in September.
Pickerington Local School District
Pickerington students in September.

Schools around Central Ohio took a cautious approach to the academic year. Many started remote, and pledged to return to distance learning should COVID-19 cases spike. But despite record-breaking new case numbers, most districts are still in the classroom at least part of the time.

WOSU spoke to several teachers in Franklin County school districts like Pickerington Local School District, South-Western City Schools, Reynoldsburg City Schools and New Albany-Plain Local School District. WOSU is not using teachers' names or voices because they are afraid of losing their jobs for speaking out.

Franklin County has been listed as a level three "red" county on Ohio's Public Health Advisory mapfor several weeks, indicating severe coronavirus spread. Last week, Gov. Mike DeWine listed Franklin as one of two counties at risk of becoming "purple," the highest risk level possible.

“When the map turned back to red, everyone kind of assumed that we would be going back to virtual, and that did not happen,” says one teacher from South-Western City Schools. “And the weeks have gone on, and case numbers have risen, and we are still going to school for some reason.”

South-Western has reported 50 student and teacher cases last week alone, and is in the top five districts in the state for cumulative cases. A spokeswoman for South-Western says that's because they are one of the largest districts in the state where students are attending in-person classes.

Many districts have deviated from relying on either the state emergency map or county-level data to make decisions about how schools are running. Instead, they are utilizing localized district-level data, and predictive modeling.

"We will be using the guidance and expertise of our local health agencies as the basis for our decisions and will continue to monitor all data available," reads a statement from South-Western City Schools. "This includes, but is not limited to, information provided by our public health agencies, the Ohio Department of Education, Ohio High School Athletic Association, positivity rates, student absenteeism, staff absenteeism, daily hygiene practices of students, and social distancing behaviors."

Franklin County Health Commissioner Joe Mazzola says he understands teachers' confusion. He says his department and districts had to learn on the fly about COVID-19 and schools. 

“It was in the best interest of public health to make the recommendation that schools start virtually in absence of a complete understanding of how the virus may or may not be transmitting within the classroom,” Mazzola says. “As we have learned over the last couple of months, we have seen limited number of cases associated with exposure within the school building.”

Recent data from the Ohio Department of Health show that COVID-19 is showing up in schools, even if school isn’t the source of the spread. School infections doubled last week, and many of those cases are in the Franklin County area.

And that data isn’t even complete: Reynoldsburg City Schools reports 45 staff and student cases on their dashboard, but that’s not yet reflected on the Ohio Department of Health website because of a lag in reporting.

Contact Tracing In Schools

Whether or not cases are spreading within schools is an important factor in their ability to stay open. But teachers are concerned that contact tracing – which could track more cases back to schools – is not being done properly.

"They keep saying that it’s not spreading in the schools, but they are also not presenting us with any of their contact tracing information," says one teacher. "So we don’t know how it’s spreading."

Teachers say they are often within six feet of students or other teachers for 15 minutes, but aren’t notified if someone is absent because of a COVID-19 diagnosis.

"I don’t believe all of the necessary people are being told who need to be considered for contact tracing or for quarantining," a Pickerington teacher says. "That’s why a lot of teachers are constantly wanting to know who is sick, or who has been exposed. Just so that we can protect the other kids in the class, or protect ourselves."

A Pickerington spokesperson disputes that, saying principals work closely with teachers to do contact tracing when a student is sick.

Other teachers say when they ask if someone is out with COVID-19, their administrators often say they can’t share specific information because of HIPAA.

"That creates a weird environment in schools where it’s like, was I around this person? Do I trust my admin to know if I was around this person?" one Reynoldsburg teacher says.

Staffers at several districts, including Pickerington and New Albany, were told if they wear surgical masks and are exposed to a COVID-positive student, they don’t need to quarantine.

Franklin County Public Health issued this guidance in October:

"A classroom teacher or staff member who is wearing a medical grade surgical mask in the classroom or school setting would not be required to quarantine in the following situations: A teacher or staff member is working with students and cumulatively spends more than 15 minutes (i.e. 5 minutes math, 5 minutes LA, 7 minutes science) with a student who tests positive with COVID-19 within 48 hours would not be considered exposed if he/she was wearing a surgical mask (not a public cloth mask) and would not be required to quarantine as long as the student was wearing a cloth facial covering. In classroom settings where a student(s) is exempt from wearing a cloth facial covering, the teacher/staff member would need to wear the medical grade surgical mask PLUS eye protection (face shield, goggles etc.) in order to avoid the quarantine requirement for exposure to a student with a positive COVID-19 test. The District has a supply of face shields readily available for any staff member if these circumstances apply."

Mazzola says that guidance should only be applied to certain staff members who have to be in close contact with students, like school nurses, while other staffers should quarantine as usual.

Last week, Pickerington sent an email to staff amending the guidelines, saying even if a teacher is wearing a mask, they still might have to quarantine.

Shortages Of Substitutes

Teachers told WOSU they feel their districts are intentionally keeping them in the dark about COVID-19 cases in their buildings, in large part because there is a shortage of substitute teachers.

"We were always low on subs, but extremely low on subs this year," one teacher says. "And that would create an entirely new issue that would probably lead to us having to go remote."

The lack of substitutes also creates a riskier situation for teachers. Sometimes extra students are added to classes, or teachers have to cover other classes during their free periods, which increases their possibility for exposure.

That’s part of the reason districts like Reynoldsburg and Groveport Madison Schools made the decision to switch back to remote learning.

"Quite simply, I’m concerned that the quality of instruction we’re providing now is less than what it was when we were in a 100% remote learning mode," said Groveport Madison's superintendent in an email. "In just the last month alone, one school has had more than 200 class periods covered by other teachers as a result of COVID-related absences."

The health department has repeatedly stated that it's best for students to have in-person instruction, for both their mental health and well-being. But that stance has left teachers wondering: At what cost?

"We need to go remote," one teacher says. "And we all agree that until one of us dies they’re going to pretend everything is fine."