‘Risking my life for my job’: Fulton County teachers say they’re concerned about returning to school

FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — Fulton County schools students and educators could be back in the classroom next month, but some teachers are sounding the alarm about how safe it could be.

“I think we need to start back virtually because I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel like my kids are safe, and I don’t feel like my students and their families are safe,” Natalie Harvey, an elementary school teacher, told Channel 2′s Petchenik.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Coronavirus in Georgia]

Harvey was one of half-a-dozen teachers who reached out to Petchenik with their concerns about face-to-face instruction as COVID-19 numbers spike across the county.

“We’re concerned because we’re not being heard,” she said. “We don’t feel like we have a voice and I think that’s really unfortunate.”

Other teachers, who didn’t want Petchenik to use their names, told him they’re worried about their own health.

“It just seems like a recipe for disaster to me,” said one middle school teacher.

Another, who teaches high school, told Petchenik she’s immunocompromised and hasn’t yet been given the option to teach remotely.

“I’m scared out of my mind,” she said. “The fact that I need to risk my life for my job right now is something that’s causing me nightmares.”

The teachers told Petchenik the district has told them to do “the best they can” when it comes to following CDC guidelines.

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They say it will be nearly impossible to keep children distanced with full classes in poorly ventilated classrooms. They also said without requiring children to wear masks in class, the virus will spread quickly. They point to several camps where there were outbreaks involving dozens of children.

“We’re just being thrown into a petri dish,” she said. “It’s going to be a disaster.”

Petchenik took the teachers’ concerns directly to Superintendent Mike Looney on Friday.

Looney said district leaders are closely monitoring community spread of COVID-19.

“Has there been any more discussion about postponing face-to-face instruction to start the year?” Petchenik asked.

“Yes,” said Looney. “We talk about it daily.”

Looney said he’s concerned about spikes in positive cases.

“Our plans are predicated on the community being in a situation where community spread is manageable and I’m very concerned about the rate of increases currently and that could very well impact our ability to return to traditional,” he said.

Petchenik pressed Looney on whether he would mandate masks for all students. He said it’s possible, but at this point, he’s not requiring it because he believes upwards of 80% of students would wear masks anyway, with others unable to for health reasons.

“Our position on masks may very well change,” he said. “The dynamics here are very fluid.”

Looney said as of Friday, about 4,500 students had signed up for the semester-long virtual remote option, and he believes by the deadline next Friday, that number could be roughly 10,000, which accounts for about 10% of the student population.

“We haven’t determined all the teachers that are going to be teaching remotely yet,” he said. “Some of that is dependent on the number of students we have enrolling into the virtual option.”

Looney said those with health concerns and those who excel at teaching through the method will be given consideration when they open up the application process.

“We want to put the most talented teachers that have that specific skill set in front of our students,” he said.

As for allegations the district hasn’t listened to teachers, Looney begs to differ, saying teachers have his e-mail and cell phone number and can speak to him directly about their concerns.