Kiera Beddes: Three reasons why as a teacher, I am scared for school to start again, and why you should be, too

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign at Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

During this past week, many school districts have presented initial plans for returning to schools in the fall. With little variation, most school boards’ plan is business as usual. As a result, many teachers, including myself, are legitimately terrified to return to our classrooms. I am scared for three reasons:

There is little planning for social distancing in schools.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Utah has some of the most crowded classrooms in the nation. In my classroom, almost every one of my 36 desks are filled every day; the national average is 27. We barely have elbow room, much less the suggested 6 feet for social distancing.

Under the current CDC guidelines, the current plans for reopening Utah schools falls into the “highest risk” category. Utah’s case counts continue to rise, with no decrease in sight. Reopening schools at full capacity may make it easier to trace outbreaks, but it will also make more outbreaks easier to occur because there are too many people close together for hours at a time with no space for social distance.

If we want to have school this fall, and trust me, as teachers we want nothing more to be back with our students again, we need to be flexible with what school will look like. It cannot be business as usual.

We are still in the early days of the pandemic.

With no end in sight, it is understandable to be angry, tired and discomforted. Utah’s first confirmed case was March 3, only four months ago. There is so much we are still learning about this disease: how it works, how to treat it, and the lasting impact on those infected.

Those who want schools to open at any cost cite studies that indicate kids are less likely to contract the disease. Schools were dismissed in the spring, meaning less children were exposed. If we return to schools with the current surge in cases, I fear we will see more children contracting this disease with potential lifelong health implications.

Even if kids don’t get sick, they will most certainly become carriers, meaning thousands of teachers and families will be exposed. Let’s not undo all the work we’ve done so far to limit our exposure to us and our families.

Utah’s K-12 system has a real teacher shortage problem.

Even before the pandemic, Utah faced a teacher shortage. There are a variety of reasons for this: less pay, larger classrooms, less people each year pursue teaching degrees and less public respect for a career compared to other similar levels of education. Add the current pandemic to this laundry list of concerns.

What happens when a teacher gets COVID? What happens when a teacher is hospitalized due to COVID? Who will substitute the class when it’s difficult enough to find subs as it is? What about teachers who have health issues or vulnerable families? What about teachers who are close to retirement?

Current plans do not adequately address teacher’s concerns for their own health, let alone the health and safety of their classrooms. We need to do a lot more than supply masks and cleaning supplies to support our teachers.

Obviously there are no easy answers here but there are still actions you can take. Make your voice heard. Reach out to your local school boards. They are making decisions that will have very real consequences for thousands of households across the state of Utah. We are still in the middle of a global pandemic and we need to do our part to protect our students, teachers and families.

Kiera Beddes

Kiera Beddes, South Jordan, is a Hope Street Group Utah Teacher Fellow and high school English teacher with a master’s degree in teacher education. She currently teaches in Salt Lake county.