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Teachers express varied feelings, concerns about returning to schools

NATCHEZ — Some area teachers have mixed feelings about going back to school this fall in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both public and private schools have adopted new learning structures and policies to curtail spreading the disease.

The public schools in Adams County and Concordia Parish, which have a larger student population than the private schools, plan to reopen with hybrid class schedules to reduce the number of students on campus at one time by at least half, school officials said.

Additionally, private and public school systems alike are following new procedures, such as mandatory masks, temperature checks, increased sick leave, seating and cleaning schedule changes and more.

Some teachers expressed concerns about health and safety and concerns about the new approach to learning in their classrooms while others have said any type of reopening is a good start.

“I worry it may be too soon”

Laveria Green, who is the digital media production teacher at Fallin Career and Technology Center, said guarding her and her students’ health from COVID-19 with safe practices and with prayer is her top priority for this fall.

Masks will be worn, students will be spaced out in the classroom and computers will be cleaned between each student that uses them, Green said.

“I have signed my contract and I intend to be here and be prayerful that all goes well,” Green said of being on campus this fall. “My students are going to be required to wear masks and I’m fully prepared to work virtually or face-to-face.”

Green said when schools shut down last spring she and her students were able to keep in constant contact with each other through virtual learning processes and she would be prepared to shift back into that process as needed with no trouble.

However, Green said she left with the understanding that schools would reopen when COVID-19 cases were going down and the opposite seems to be true.

“With the numbers going up every day, it’s scary. It really is,” Green said. “… We really don’t know where this virus is coming from. They tell us that masks will help protect us, but this virus is really an unknown. I don’t want to get sick and I certainly don’t want any of my children to get sick. … They do need to go back sometime, but I worry that it may be too soon. I’m praying that the Lord will keep us all safe and we’re going to follow the procedures as best as we can.”

“My subject does not lend itself as easily (to distance-learning)”

Andreé Gamberi, who is an art teacher at Cathedral, said the sudden closing of campuses last spring didn’t play out as easily for her class, which uses a lot of hands-on materials that her students didn’t have at home.

“We have to reopen. That’s all I can say,” Gamberi said. “We’re going to wear masks and do whatever else we have to do.”

Gamberi said her students not having the mediums to work with at home last spring taught her a good lesson. Gamberi plans to be prepared for sudden closings this fall, she said.

“What I’m going to do, because my class is such a hands-on class, is … constantly have take-home materials on hand for them just in case something comes up where we have to shut down for a while. When we had to shut down over break my art students didn’t have any of their materials and that made learning from home very difficult for them.”

Gamberi said she is more concerned about having to teach her students from home than she is about coming back to school.

“My concern is having to shut down periodically through this whole semester, because my subject matter does not lend itself as easily (to distance learning) as some of the others,” she said. “… There is just so much media about the virus that conflicts and changes so quickly that you don’t really know what you’re dealing with. The numbers are going up, but there also seem to be more ways to deal with it so it’s not as bad. I think this is going to be a real learning experience for everybody. We’re going to have to learn to do a lot of things differently than we’re used to.”

“We’re going to have to start somewhere”

Randy Craft, Natchez High School’s head football coach and technology teacher, also said he believes it’s time for students to return to school.

“I think it’s about time for us to go back to school,” Craft said. “I realize COVID cases are still going to be what they’re going to be but I also think the kids need a sense of normalcy. I like that Natchez is moving to a hybrid schedule, not having as many kids on campus at the same time.”

Craft, who was teaching at Laurel High School before coming to Natchez, said he taught virtually as he was making the transition to Natchez.

Craft said he’s concerned about every student in Natchez not having the needed equipment and materials to get the instruction they need from home.

“The school I worked for in Madison County, everyone had laptops. … My biggest concern would be everyone having the technology needed to perform outside and inside the classrooms and parents being able to help them from home. … We should follow all of the COVID-19 protocols that we can. I feel that there is no 100% guarantee that someone won’t come in contact with COVID but kids need some normalcy. … At some point, we’re going to have to start somewhere.”

“I miss my students”

Mary Ann Blough, who teaches fifth-grade math and science at Adams County Christian School, said she feels confident that schools are doing the best they can in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“AC has a very good plan in place and they’re planning for a lot of eventualities that might happen. … I feel that we’re doing the best we can under the circumstances that we have,” Blough said.

Blough said school administrators at ACCS had put a lot of time and effort into developing a plan that addresses a lot of different areas to prevent spreading disease, such as letting students eat their lunches in the classroom to prevent gathering and temperature screening them before school starts each day.

“The only thing that I’m not going to like as much is that I usually let my children work in groups a lot and that is going to be hindered. They won’t be doing that. It’s going to be a little different, but everything is different right now and we’ll manage. If we have to go to distance-learning, we’re practicing and getting everything that we need down so that we’ll be able to do it much better than we did in the spring.”

Blough said she is most excited to see her students again.

“(Friday) I was in the grocery store and I ran into one of my students from last school year. We wanted to hug each other, but we couldn’t so we tapped elbows. It gave me such a lift to see her and think about school starting again. I love to teach and I miss my students dearly.”

“We’ve got to educate our kids”

Concordia Parish School Board Superintendent Whest Shirley said though several teachers had expressed understandable concerns about the new learning structure, none had resigned because of plans to reopen campuses.

“We have to follow the phases and really our hands are tied by what phase that the governor says we’re in. If we don’t, we’re held liable. If we follow all the guidelines that are put before us, then we’ve done all we can do,” Shirley said. “… We had the principals contact our teachers and we have not had any teachers quit. We’ve heard some concerns voiced about what their classrooms would look like and what a virtual or hybrid class would look like. Everyone has their concerns. I’m concerned. At the same time, we’ve got to educate our kids.”

Likewise, Natchez Adams School District officials said none of their teachers had chosen not to come back to campus this school year because of COVID-19.

“We have not had any teachers or employees resign because of the reopening plan,” Natchez Adams School District Deputy Superintendent Zandra McDonald said. “Administrators have reached out and had conversations with employees. Additionally, the district surveyed employees to allow them an opportunity to express their concerns and opinions regarding the reopening plan for this coming school year. It came as no surprise that our employees have concerns about returning to school as usual; we all share the same concerns.”

In a poll of district employees, McDonald said approximately 62% of respondents stated they believe that district leadership could bring them back to work safely while 71% believe that appropriate safety protocols would be in place.

“Employees expressed concerns about the spread of the virus within the building, asked follow-up questions about safety protocols, and offered suggestions of how to safely return to learning,” McDonald said. “The district continues to work to refine its reopening plans based on current health data.”