'I Don't Feel Safe' — Many Maine Teachers Are Anxious About Returning To The Classroom

Aug 10, 2020

Last week, the state announced that, based on current health data, schools across Maine can consider reopening this fall. Many districts are taking that lead and planning to reopen, at least partially.

But for many teachers and staffers, the idea of going back into a school setting is causing anxiety. Some are even considering retiring and leaving the classroom for good.

This story is part of our series “Deep Dive: Coronavirus.” For more in the series, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.

Jan Murphy has taken a lot of phone calls in recent weeks from anxious teachers.

“They start off with, 'Hey, I just want to talk to you about, I'm worried about going back to work. And I'm not sure if I should retire or not.' That's usually how they start. I was, for a while, getting two to three phone calls a week.”

Murphy is a speech-language therapist and the president of the union representing school staff in the Augusta School Department.

“People are calling me and saying, ‘I don't feel safe, I'm going to retire,’ and they're at retirement age, but maybe they weren't ready to retire. Or maybe their doctor has told them, 'You cannot go back in any capacity.' And it's sad. It's really sad to me that we're at this point.”

Right now, Murphy is telling her colleagues to hold off — to wait and see what final decisions are reached around school reopening plans before deciding one way or the other. And she says she feels mostly confident in the health and safety protocols developed so far locally.

Murphy estimates that about 10 percent of the staff in her district have come to her with questions about whether to return this fall. The concerns are being felt across the state, and some teachers, such as those in Portland and Lewiston, have called on their districts to reconsider reopening plans and continue with remote learning until questions are answered.

"The health and safety of all is paramount to anything," says Allison Lytton, the president of the Lewiston Education Association. "For educators, for their families, and our students and their families. And we need to be assured that all concerns are addressed prior to setting foot in a building."

Windham first-grade teacher Rebecca Cole, like many of her colleagues around the state, says she wants to see her students and has largely been supportive of the health and safety protocols her district has developed. But with only a few weeks left until classes begin, Cole says she still has lots of questions — in particular around how she should stay six feet apart in a classroom.

Principal Susan Stevens talks to the media during a demonstration of a socially-distanced classroom at A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering Monday, July 20, 2020, in Greenville, S.C.
Credit Chris Carlson / AP Images

"As a first grade teacher, there are shoelaces that need to be tied, fingers that need band-aids, 'I lost a tooth.' I'm not gonna be able to have that relationship and be able to care for them in that way, like I would like to and like they need," Cole says. "So I'm eager to go back, but it's really sad to think about how different their experience will be from what I know it can be — and should be."

Those questions become even more complicated for school bus drivers, like Gerry French. French works for RSU 71, in Belfast, and is also the vice president of the teachers union there. He says a bus is a confined space, and when he is behind the wheel, students may be only inches away as they get on and off each day.

"Fifty or 60 students could pass to get on that bus to go to school, and they have to pass to get off. Then they have to pass again to get on. But by the time it's said and done, you're talking nearly 200 students have been within inches of you in one given day. Which is 1,000 in a week."

Beyond the exposure, French also worries about how to get his students to follow state guidelines when his eyes are supposed to be on the road.

"Somebody has got to enforce the mask policy. How much extra time would somebody want me to not be looking at the road and be looking at, you know, my kindergarten kids who don't like masks and don't understand pandemics? I just don't understand how much more time I'm supposed to not be looking at the road and be looking at these students, to police that?"

Maine Department of Education officials have acknowledged many challenges for schools come fall, with Commissioner Pender Makin describing staffing issues as a "grave concern." Deputy Commissioner Dan Chuhta says that, based on early results from statewide surveys, about 20 percent of school staff across Maine may choose not to attend in-person in the fall, mostly for health and safety reasons.

A student climbs the stairs of a bus before the fist day of school on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Dallas, Ga.
Credit Brynn Anderson / AP Images

Chuhta says right now, the Department is looking into partnering with public colleges to potentially recruit students to fill the needed positions.

"We're looking to see if there are any modifications to certification rules that would need to be in place in order to accomplish some of this," he says. "But there seems to be some interest in getting some support from our higher education partners to help that."

But the potential shortage only compounds the long-standing challenges that schools have already faced in trying to find teachers and bus drivers in recent years. Some districts say it has been difficult to get even one or two applicants for some positions.

Finding substitutes is also a challenge. and because they tend to be older, and at higher risk, they may become even harder to recruit. Janice Cerabona, a former teacher and current substitute in MSAD 35 in Eliot, says she has decided that the health risks from the pandemic will likely mean she will not go back into the classroom this fall.

"I've been with kids, and I've had their parents in pre-K. And it was just a family and a place, and I just felt a part of something. It gave me a purpose, that I had some value still. And I think that's why it's so hard to have to say I probably can't do it.”

Some districts have said they plan to allow certain teachers, particularly those with underlying medical conditions, to work remotely. Deputy Education Commissioner Dan Chuhta says that strategy could potentially keep those teachers engaged with their students.

But across Maine, many questions still need to be answered before many teachers feel safe in the classroom.

For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of Maine Public's news staff.