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Safely Back to School: MEA president speaks out as schools eye reopening this fall

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Posted at 3:00 PM, Jul 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-30 11:29:19-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Parents aren't the only ones concerned with the idea of students returning to in-person learning this year. As COVID 19 continues to spread, teachers are also worried about heading back to the classroom and whether it's safe to do so.

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The Michigan Education Association represents 120,000 members in all 83 counties. Paula Herbart, President of the MEA and a former teacher of 20 years, says educators are nervous.

"Members are nervous about whether or not they're putting their students, their students' families and their own families in harm's way by returning back to face-to-face learning come this fall," she explained. "It's hard. It's so hard out there right now, we're standing in a sea of uncertainty. And our only option is to swim. And, swimming only as opposed to winning a race. It's really hard for educators, because educators want to win the race."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's "MI Safe Schools Roadmap" laid out in June gave teachers a first glimpse of what they can expect for back-to-school: including wearing masks all day, daily self screenings, and social distancing from students as much as possible.

Protocol will have to differ by district as different parts of the state are in different phases.

"There are lots of school districts within hot spots that have a real concern about returning to school and rightly so, that if it's not safe for them to go back to school, they shouldn't. And then we have others who are in Phase five where they could return to school without even face masks, except for adults."

Then, there's the emotional and mental toll of learning during a pandemic. Herbart acknowledges there will be an increased need for mental health resources for both students and staff.

"One in four, or one in five of our students know somebody or know of somebody who has been affected or have has died of COVID-19," Herbart told FOX 17 News. "That's serious trauma for young people and for adults as well. And we have to be coping with that... school districts should be providing social and emotional professional development on ways that our educators can support our students. Because remember, if we're not dealing with their social emotional leads, there is no way for them to learn Math, Science, Social Studies, English. These are critical, basic needs that our students need to have met."

While some districts have announced plans to begin the year with remote learning, Herbert worries a "hybrid" of both remote and in-person instruction will stretch resources and teachers even further.

"Educators are going to be asked to do double duty more with less. And already, the constrictions of our financial situation here in Michigan and the school aid fund is of serious concern."

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Ultimately, Herbart hopes teachers are a big part of the conversation as districts determine protocol to move forward.

"Safety and security is our number one concern, and if our members aren't safe, and if our students aren't safe, then we shouldn't be going back to face-to-face learning. And if they can't assure that, then maybe we need to be looking at all remote learning across the state. Because, we need some assurances by the medical community that that's actually possible," Herbart said. "So, we have a lot of different concerns across the state. But I will tell you that if a local school district and local unions make a decision that they're unsafe... the MEA will stand behind them and whatever decisions they make, because if they're stepping out for the safety and security of our members and their students, we're behind them 100 percent. They will have the full might of the MEA, and the support of the MEA in all things regarding the return to school, up to and including legal action."