Eighty percent of educators at Madison County Schools surveyed by the Madison County Education Association said they do not feel safe returning to school on Aug. 26.
Four hundred Madison County faculty, who are members of the MCEA, responded to the recent survey. The survey was not available to all Madison County educators, only members of the organization.
"As much as we want to, we don't feel safe doing it," said Susan Cintra, MCEA president and Madison Central High School teacher. "We don't feel safe for our students, for our children -- many of which are students at our schools. We don't feel safe for our families, or for ourselves."
Although they have safety concerns to returning to the classroom, teachers in Madison County say it is what they do.
"We (teachers) are team players -- that is a huge part of what we do and who we are," she said. "We are used to flying a plane in the middle of it being built, it's the nature of the education game, but 80% of our teachers are asking that we don't return to in person instruction."
However, Stephen Rupard, who teaches second grade at Glenn Marshall Elementary, said the school system should return to in-person learning.
"Education is an essential business in my view. Our kids need quality instruction. We can't have them out of the classroom forever. I think the board and district have gotten behind this thing and have a solid plan in place. Our kids need education and it's time to do that. It's time for us to do our job," Rupard said.
While his classroom will look different this year, the second grade teacher said he believes the plan the school system has in place is a solid one.
"This is my 19th year of teaching. Of course, it is dramatically different. However, there has been a lot of preparation... There are things we have to do that are strange. We have to adjust seating and how we are going to do small groups -- if we even can. We used to have bean bags and reading lofts. This year it is bare bones. We will have to make sure our students are wearing their masks and I'm sure that will be an adjustment, but that's okay, that's what we have to do and I think my fellow teachers and I can rise to that challenge," Rupard said.
However, while the health and safety of students has always been a priority, other educators are concerned about the community as a whole if in-person learning resumes.
One of whom, is Madison Central High School English teacher Hannah Bingham, who says while her own health isn't a concern, her high-risk students and colleagues are.
"Although my own risk is small, I don't think it is a fair risk that I have to take, or any teacher has to take," Bingham said. "Realistically, considering we have record numbers of cases another thing people aren't aware of is this isn't limited to just the people in the school building. ... A large percent of kids live with grandparents and are being raised by them. If the student is sick, they could be taking something home to a family member who works in hospital or nursing home or in another school.
"I think the spread will happen quickly and force more than schools to shut down and may force families to suffer by not going to work because they are quarantined or hospitalized."
In the same survey, 281 of the 400 teachers who responded, or 69%, said they or someone in their household was high-risk for catching the virus.
With little options previously, or perhaps in the future, of what these individuals can do to mitigate their health concerns, a majority of them have been told regarding their high-risk status to "resign, retire or return," Cintra explained.
"Is this the message we want representative of our county? Because I know it is not who we are as a district," she said. "It is problematic that this is what some of our teachers have been told."
Cintra said the high-risk teachers she has spoken with are "terrified," with most specifically afraid of how their return will affect their families.
One example she shared, was a teacher whose husband is receiving chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
"If she goes to work, she is terrified she will bring it to him, and kill him," she said. "We have several teachers of our own recovering from cancer, teachers who are diabetic, asthmatic teachers and students...The concern is what can those teachers do?"
Cintra explained there is interactive distance learning available, but not enough tools to help all the teachers who would need to strictly teach at home. That then raises the question of who determines who is more at risk than others?
"Who determines that? Who says your husband receiving chemo is more at-risk than perhaps a diabetic teacher or teacher receiving treatment," she asked. "...Of course we don't want it to sound that bad, but it is a harsh slap in the face on how do I do my job effectively and stay alive?"
Although parents and students were given three options to choose their desired way to return, teachers were given very little choice or say in how schools would reopen, according to Cintra.
"There was no option given, we were just on board for whatever they decided," she said.
For those that are high-risk or live with someone who is, Superintendent David Gilliam called the issue situational, encouraging teachers to talk with their school's principal about the matter.
"Virtual, distant learning is a piece that may be possible for those who are high risk or concerned," Gilliam said at a Tuesday board meeting.
A few virtual positions may be possible for those that are concerned, but Gilliam said they need to work with their school's principal to determine the best action to take.
"We will work with them the best we can, but we don't have an abundance of options," Gilliam said at a board meeting.
He expressed his hope for more guidance from the state of how to handle that issue.
"Principals are doing the best they can to accommodate, but there are not a whole lot of things we can do," she said. "There are not many options other than virtual online learning."
According to the MCEA study, 61% of teachers felt they could effectively teach online, but that they needed more time to get everything set up.
Cintra said she was thankful the board pushed back the in-person start date which allowed teachers more time to get ready, but the problem was the teachers were focusing mostly on preparing for in-person learning.
"The problem is what we are figuring out right now, is what is in front of us," she said. "What are we doing on the first day, what are our procedures, where are we going to seat kids? … What if we make a call a few days out and go virtual, and we are left with no plan and in crisis mode?
Rupard said he feels that in-person learning should be the way to go when school starts back, even if the district has to go to virtual learning if cases spike.
"It's instruction, but I don't feel that virtual learning is quality instruction. We should try to provide the best we possibly can for our students from the start. I think that way is in-person learning," Rupard explained.
However, a spike in cases could force the school system to switch to virtual learning halfway through the school year, which Cintra said would put educators back to a situation like what happened last spring.
One of greatest fears is that already starting out at the yellow tier for school safety, the school system could slide easily into orange or red (all virtual learning) categories, and the staff be unprepared.
"We are asking you for that time," she said at the board meeting. "We do not want to deliver crisis mode instruction, we ask that you help us do our job effectively while keeping students, teachers, families and the community safe."
She said the risk of going into in-person instruction leaves a lot of unknowns for faculty and staff.
"Are we going to lose kids and teachers, who knows?" She asked. "I know it's hard to understand, but in-person instruction is not going to be what normal has been and I am afraid that people think it is and it is not."
Regardless, Cintra thanked the board for their work with the plan, and quoted Governor Andy Beshear when she said we could get through it together. As did Bingham, who stated while she appreciates the leadership of re-opening, everyone was doing their best.
"But we need support and we need to do it together," Cintra said.
Reach Taylor Six at 624-6623 or follow her on Twitter at @TaylorSixRR.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The article has been edited to clarify that only educators who are members of the Madison County Education Association participated in the survey. The data collected was not from the entirety of the more than 2,000 educators currently employed by the school systems.