BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) – Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo gave New York schools the go-ahead to open this fall. But for teachers at higher risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19, allowing in-person instruction may put their lives at stake.
In order to meet for in-person instruction, each school district has to come up with a plan that met the state’s health and safety guidelines. For teachers and staff most vulnerable to the coronavirus, however, those measures might not be enough.
Sarah McLachlan is the coordinator of the Binghamton City School District’s enrichment program. She had lung cancer a few years back, when doctors removed a part of her lung.
“I don’t have breath to lose,” McLachlan said. “If I were to catch COVID, I would probably have some pretty serious complications.”
McLachlan and her husband haven’t been to a grocery store since March and they aren’t seeing many friends or family. Going back to school would be a big change from all of that, and possibly put her life at risk.
The school district has yet to tell McLachlan if she can teach from home. She wants to be in the classroom to support her students, but the uncertainty and severe risk have led her to consider a leave of absence.
“Before this whole thing, I thought I would’ve thrown my life in front of kids to save them, and now it’s like asking us to go in and risk our lives,” McLachlan said. “That is an act of salvation that is kind of difficult to mull over.”
Binghamton City School District representatives declined to comment for this story.
According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly one in four teachers have a condition that puts them at greater risk of serious illness if infected with COVID-19. A recent poll from NPR/Ipsos finds two-thirds of K-12 teachers would prefer to teach remotely this school year.
Binghamton City School District shared its plans to open with a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning last month, but many of the specific measures are unclear.
In the district’s reopening plan, school leaders wrote students, teachers and staff will be provided with masks and appropriate PPE, but McLachlan said teachers have not been told what that entails. When McLachlan goes out, she wears an N95 mask, which are more protective than surgical or cloth masks, but it is unclear which kind the district will supply to teachers who face more severe risks.
“It’s one thing to be able to think about it and make a rational decision based on information. It’s another thing to kind of walk in blind,” McLachlan said.
McLachlan said the underfunding of schools has led to numerous cleaning issues in recent years, including a lack of sufficient custodial staff and basic hygienic supplies. The cost of hand sanitizer and tissues often falls on the teachers in the district and across the country, and she doesn’t expect the issue to change before the start of the school year.
“How are we going to have adequate hygienic supplies when for years students have complained there aren’t soap in the bathrooms?” McLachlan said.
McLachlan said being in an environment with these multiple layers of risk terrifies her, and she isn’t alone in feeling that way. 77 percent of teachers surveyed by NPR/Ipsos said they are worried about risking their own health when it comes to going back into the classroom.
Students are set to return to the classroom in September. McLachlan will decide if she can join them in the next couple of weeks.