There are no good options, and no playbook.
Across the country, schools are grappling with what “back to school” looks like in the time of a pandemic. And pressure from the White House and President Donald Trump to send kids back into classrooms, comes with questions from educators about how best to do that while keeping everyone — including themselves and their loved ones — safe.
“I want to be with my kids,” Stephanie Viramontes, a 57-year old high school teacher in Santa Clarita, California told NBC News. “I don’t want to affect my family.”
It’s just one of the concerns rippling through one of the nation’s largest workforces. More than 3.5 million Americans are full, or part-time, public school teachers— and 76 percent of that workforce is female.
Some teachers who spoke with NBC News said they felt left out of the discussions about reopening, or that the debate leaves out the realities of the classroom that they know well. For instance, how kids, especially younger ones, will likely need frequent reminders to not touch their face, their mask, or their classmates. Or, as Laura Hammock, an elementary school teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, already foresees, there could be difficulty social distancing because of space constraints in classrooms.
“It’s gonna be hard to put … 20 kids in a classroom with desks six feet apart,” she said. “You know, it’s not like we have extra money to add on to our classrooms.”
Other educators, like Amanda Lukesh, a middle school teacher in Lincoln, Nebraska, fear that by going back “it's not if you get COVID, it's when. When am I going to get it?” She has even discussed the possibility with her husband of drafting a will before going back to school.
Most of the conversations about how to get kids back to learning have been happening in Zoom meetings across the country, an irony not lost on American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
“There's an irony in so many different ways,” she told NBC. “But at the end of the day, this is the dilemma that teachers face all the time which is, it is presumed that we will figure it out. It is presumed that we’re just super people.”
And there are the new items on the back to school list this year: personal protective equipment, like masks and hand sanitizer. Some schools were strapped for resources before COVID-19 hit. “A lot of schools in our district, there was no soap, there were no paper towels,” Ashely Douglas, a teacher in Baltimore, Maryland said. “So it’s kind of hard when we know there’s a shortage of these items, when it’s hard to find these things just for your home, that they are going to find these items in bulk.”
Other teachers, like Amanda Lukesh in Lincoln, Nebraska are concerned by the realities of the classroom. “Part of my job is also keeping my students safe, and I'm not going to be able to do that this next year,” she said. “I can't follow any of the guidelines. I don't have enough space, I don't have enough equipment, it's just not possible.”
But then, nothing else about this moment ever seemed possible either.