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Leon Teachers Afraid For Their Health, Safety If Schools Return To In-Person Classes In August

Students leaving the school.
Students leaving the school.

The school year for Leon county is slated to start August 19, but the date is looking incredibly shaky amid fears from teachers worried about their health and safety. The Leon County Classroom Teachers Associated received 554 responses to a poll asking teachers their thoughts about a Fall return. Most of the teachers said they didn’t feel safe about reopening schools. Nearly 200 teachers said they’ll take early retirement or a leave of absence instead of returning to the classroom.

More than 130 letters from concerned parents and teachers came in to the Leon County School Board ahead of its meeting Tuesday night. Superintendent Rocky Hanna read each one aloud Wednesday in a Facebook live broadcast.

“When I signed up to be an educator 17 years ago I never thought I’d be expected to sacrifice my health and safety or my family’s health and safety,” Hanna said, reading from a letter written by Hilary Parsons, a teacher. “I’m not just a teacher. I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m a daughter, I’m a granddaughter, I’m a best friend, I’m a sister. I don’t want to be like one of the statistics, too.”

Hanna said the backlash from teachers has caught him off-guard, partly because the LCTA has been part of the reopening task force.

“I thought we had done a fairly good job of engaging with you all and talking to you through LCTA,” he said.

Hanna says the decision to move to a block schedule—longer classes on fewer days—was done in response to teacher concerns and with a goal of mitigating exposure and movement of students.

Scott Mazur is the local union president. He says yes; the union has been part of ongoing plans, but that he’d asked the district not to finalize reopening plans until the union’s bargaining group could be brought in. Issues like working conditions, health and safety issues are subject to negotiation and Mazur says teachers have families, too.

“The concern from the teachers has come from the spike in cases, the closing of sports due to the increase in cases in Leon County summer activities…Their minds are ‘are we going back to school until we’re shut down? What’s the plan, How do we deal with this?’ That’s why we want to sit down at the table and iron out the details of that.”

School districts have been told by state education officials that they must reopen physical classrooms 5-days a week unless local health officials say otherwise. In Leon, some 60% of families have signaled they will send their children back to in-person classes while the other 40% is staying home to do school online. But the 60% figure may be overblown, say some parents. They say they chose the in-person option for the flexibility of being able to switch to online later if necessary.

The directive itself to reopen in-person is also getting backlash from other state officials. During the State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Board Member Michael Olenick chastised Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for the requirement, noting that it has sparked worry and confusion.

“It should not be dictated by the Department of Education. I think they can recommend, but ultimately we want every school district to do what’s best for the kids,” said Governor Ron DeSantis in a press conference Wednesday.

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