It’s been three years since first-grade teacher Carmela Lemon fell ill with a mysterious and persistent respiratory illness.
A constant cough, shortness of breath and persistent pain in her back knocked her out of the classroom at Mill Plain Elementary School for days. Visits to doctors and specialists offered no answers, and while her condition improved with time, Lemon never felt back to normal.
“It took me 18 months just to arrive where I am presently,” she said. “I can talk without having to pause, although I’m still in pain and feel like I’m trying to gasp for breath.”
Now, with a compromised immune system in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, Lemon says she fears for her health and safety. And as schools prepare to reopen, she and other teachers in the region fear it’s unsafe to return to the classroom.
“You can’t maintain six feet from first-graders,” Lemon said. “You can’t. I’ve had them sneeze in my face. I’ve had them sneeze in my coffee. I watch them pick their nose. I am literally terrified that if I even remotely come in contact with a child that everyone is going to be reading about me on the news.”
School districts across the country are grappling with plans to safely reopen in the fall, weighing plans for social distancing, split schedules and continued online support for families.
In the meantime, there are still outstanding questions about what happens if a student or staff member falls ill with the virus — though the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has directed districts to plan for a rapid transition back to distance learning should health conditions worsen.
Ben Jatos, an English teacher at the Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies, says a shift back online is inevitable. He wants to return to class too, he said. However, until there’s a vaccine or treatment for the coronavirus, Jatos believes districts should be embracing online education rather than pushing it in a crisis.
“We have a whole lot of time where districts could be ensuring that every single student has remote access,” Jatos said. “Where teachers could be getting professional development on teaching online. Where parents could prepare for more learning from home. But the desire for normalcy has put everyone in a position that we’re not prepared for. Again.”
Angelique Ortega, an English teacher at Mountain View High School, also said she anticipates having to make a rapid move to online education. She’s spending her summer taking lessons on how to best provide distance learning programs for her students, should an outbreak happen at her school.
“I just want to do what’s best for the community,” she said. “I want to keep everyone safe, and I want to make sure we don’t have a large spike.”
Mary Elias is a reading and math specialist in Evergreen Public Schools, helping students who need extra support at the elementary school level. Most of her meetings with students happen in a small, windowless office with no room for social distancing, she said.
“I have conditions where I shouldn’t be leaving the house until Phase 4 (of the state’s reopening plan),” she said. “I don’t even go grocery shopping. I’m so scared.”
Elias said she believes the political rhetoric around reopening schools, ramped up last week by President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has forced teachers into a position of being “sacrificial lambs” to preserve the economy.
“I’m terrified,” she said. “I’m having a really hard time with the fact that I could die. I’m not interested in dying yet.”
Teachers like Lemon miss their students; she scoffed at the idea that teachers are looking for excuses not to return to a normal classroom experience.
“Every year, I get blessed with 18 children who by the end of the year, I feel like I birthed them myself,” Lemon said. “You build relationships in the classroom, not outside of them. We’re literally being robbed of that opportunity.”
But until it’s safe to do so, Lemon said, school staff and families shouldn’t be forced to decide between living and learning.
“How many children are we going to mourn as a community?” she asked.