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Hundreds of Tucson teachers are headed to classrooms despite COVID-19 concerns
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Hundreds of Tucson teachers are headed to classrooms despite COVID-19 concerns

Hundreds of Tucson teachers are required to return to classrooms in the coming weeks, a situation some say is dangerous during a global health crisis, especially when they can do the job from home.

The decision to have educators return to campus for training and to teach virtual lessons comes despite an opinion from the Pima County Health Department that it is unsafe to reopen schools for traditional learning as the coronavirus continues to severely impact the city and state.

Nearly all of the 330 teachers who work for the Catalina Foothills School District have been told to report to school Friday, Aug. 7. The same was nearly true for Amphitheater School District, which changed course on Friday afternoon, saying teachers could temporarily work from home.

The change of heart came less than three days before teachers were supposed to show up on Monday, Aug. 3, after an online petition gained more than 3,000 signatures and educators directly petitioned the governing board and superintendent to allow those who could do their job from home the choice to do so.

Amphitheater already had a process to request to teach remotely, but very few educators utilized it, according to spokeswoman Michelle Valenzuela. The Arizona Daily Star spoke with several teachers in the district, including the president of the Amphitheater Education Association, and none were aware of such a process.

“We want all of our teachers to work from their classrooms because we feel that is the ideal situation for students,” Valenzuela said in an email. “But after reviewing the circumstances some of our employees find themselves in due to COVID-19, we recognized the need for more flexibility.”

Meanwhile, Tucson Unified and Sunnyside school districts — the two largest in the city — along with Sahuarita are giving all of their teachers the option to work from home as remote learning rolls out as early as next week.

The other major school districts in the Tucson-area — Flowing Wells, Marana, Tanque Verde and Vail — have said they’ll allow at least some accommodations for teachers working from home except for Catalina Foothills.

An unnecessary risk

Although Catalina Foothills announced a shift to 100% remote learning on Tuesday, July 28, following county health officials’ recommendation that schools not open for traditional learning until Labor Day or later, all teachers in the district will be teaching from their otherwise empty classrooms unless they have an accommodation through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To qualify under the ADA, a person must have a documented physical or mental impairment that is substantially limiting.

The Catalina Foothills administration sent a letter to its workers on Friday saying teachers would be required to stay in their rooms as much as possible, and unless they are sharing a space with another colleague, there would be no one allowed in the room at any time.

If a teacher has a school-age child who needs supervision, the teacher can have them in the classroom or if the child attends Catalina Foothills, there will be a separate space where they can be supervised by staff erswhile doing remote learning.

Patricia Moore, music teacher at Canyon View Elementary, says going into schools is an unnecessary risk to do a job that many can do from home, a sentiment echoed by numerous educators across Tucson.

“Pretty much anything we could do at school, we could do at home,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t understand why they’re making us go into school.”

Although Moore has a young child, her husband is an educator in TUSD, so he can take care of their child.

The concern of even minimal interaction with others is heightened by the June coronavirus death of a teacher in Phoenix. Kimberley Byrd and her two colleagues who shared a classroom in the Hayden Winkelman School District all caught COVID-19 while teaching a summer school class virtually from the same space.

Mitigating the spread

The Star spoke with teachers in Tucson school districts that are making varying levels of accommodations, who said they are required to go in because they’re not in a high-risk category, but they still don’t feel safe and would like the option to work from home.

Districts say they want teachers to work from campuses for reasons that include access to high speed internet, technical support, digital security and access to curricular resources, colleagues and administrators.

Beyond health concerns, a number of educators who spoke with the Star said the idea of sitting in a classroom alone all day was demoralizing and they weren’t being trusted as professionals to do their jobs.

TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said allowing teachers to work from home is a matter of public health.

“My goal for this organization is for us to contribute to the well-being and public health of Pima County by doing everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “We do this by limiting the amount of adults that we’re asking to physically come into buildings, which is why right now, while there’s no students physically attending our schools, we want everybody working remotely.”

Trujillo says there are positions that can be done only in person, such as custodians, but that anyone who can work from home will have that option for as long as possible.

“Why, if I’m viewing it through the lens of public health, do I want 2,800 additional adults coming into buildings and walking around — if I’m trying to contribute to mitigating community spread — when 2,800 employees have job descriptions that allow them to work remotely from home?”

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara.

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The guidelines take into consideration the percentage of residents who test positive, the percentage of people showing up at hospitals with coronavirus symptoms and the rate of infection. However, nothing in the standards is mandatory. Local school officials are free to reopen even while infections rates are high — or remain closed even past the point when the risk is minimal.

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