GREENSBORO — The Guilford County Association of Educators is calling for safeguards beyond what Superintendent Sharon Contreras has proposed as conditions required for schools to reopen.
These include N95 masks available to staff, well-ventilated buildings, and public information regularly shared online by the county on COVID-19 case numbers in schools and the communities surrounding schools.
They are also calling for COVID-19 test positivity rates in Guilford County at 3% or less for 14 days prior to a return to school, and 5% or less in order to remain in school.
Todd Warren, the association's president, said that progress in one of these areas could help relieve the need for progress in others.
"We are either going to have to up the PPE, up the ventilation or get the spread down low to make a case to people to go back," he said in an interview, using an acronym for personal protective equipment.
Despite some disagreements with the superintendent's plan, he praised Contreras and other district leaders for trying to come up with criteria to make reopening schools safe and said he understood the weighty burden they were undertaking in making these decisions.
Contreras has proposed a less than 5% local COVID-19 test positivity rate for 14 days as one of a handful of indicators that could signal it would be safe to reopen school. Under proposals she presented earlier this month, the district as a whole would not close again for COVID-19 unless required by the governor. The district would instead target individual schools for closure if they have an issue with COVID-19 cases.
The group outlined their desires in an open letter signed by the association's top leaders and sent Wednesday to Contreras and board members. It came one day before an expected vote by board members on Contreras' proposals for indicators to return to school, as well as her phased reentry plan.
Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley said Tuesday that the district is moving ahead with a plan to bring back pre-K and kindergarten students on a voluntary basis in the next two weeks, separate from the rest of the proposal. Oakley said the district is working to accommodate pre-K and kindergarten teachers who have health conditions or have said they aren't yet ready to return to classes due to COVID-19.
Not every teacher will necessarily be needed for now, since it is voluntary to families, and there's also the possibility of other licensed teachers in the buildings stepping in to help.
In an interview, Warren said GCAE wasn't opposed to that part, so long as it was truly voluntary for teachers. Their issue is the possibility that school reopening could result in staff being pressured or misled into taking risks they don't want to take.
"It shouldn’t be your basis for employment that you have to go in and expose yourself to a deadly contagion," he said.
He said GCAE wants N95s for educators because of the protection the masks can provide to the wearer. The masks are so named because, if worn and fitted properly, they filter out 95% of even very small particles.
Staff safety, he said, shouldn't be reliant upon every student complying with rules to wear a mask. Even setting aside students disobeying that rule, he said, teachers may have to be present in classrooms when students take off their masks to eat meals. As adults, school staff generally are at a higher risk from COVID-19 than students.
"An N95 mask costs $5-6 a day (cheaper if the state would buy them) and protects the wearer," GCAE said in its letter. "If we are going to prioritize in-person learning, appropriate PPE should be a priority."
In response to a question from the News & Record about whether the state might distribute N95 masks to teachers, a Department of Public Instruction spokesman referred the question to the state's Department of Health and Human Services.
DHHS said N95 masks are currently only recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for health care providers and that it has already provided five cloth face coverings for every public and private school K-12 student and staff member across the state.
On GCAE's ventilation request, Warren said that in order to open a particular school building, that building should be shown to have adequate ventilation.
Contreras and her staff have spoken about using money from the county commissioners to repair windows and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning at schools, but didn't mention ventilation as one of the several indicators for reentry laid out in the presentation at the last board meeting.
In its letter, the group said it agreed with a phased approach to reentry, and to waiting until January at the earliest to bring back high school students, which are both components of Contreras' proposal.
"I absolutely understand the need to have kids back in school," said Warren, who has two children in high school. "We don’t want to be at home forever. What we do want to do is get the disease spread down."
Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.
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