“Morale is at the lowest level it’s ever been,” says one Orange County public school teacher. “You walk down the hallway and everybody is banging their heads against the wall because we’re just so frustrated.”
“The most appalling part of this,” says another teacher, “is that there’s so many things that they haven’t thought about.”
In rural Orange County, about an hour northeast of Charlottesville, students are slated to return to classrooms in person in late August. High schoolers will be allowed to return once a week, based on their last names, while pre-K through eighth grade will go in twice a week.
The plan for in-person learning has infuriated Orange County teachers, who are afraid for the health of their students, their families, and themselves. C-VILLE Weekly spoke with three teachers in the Orange County public school system, and all requested anonymity out of concern that their employment status might be affected by speaking up.
In mid-July, more than 70 teachers and staff in the district signed an open letter to the school board, asking that the year begin entirely virtually.
“I haven’t even heard it be mentioned,” one teacher says of the letter. “I don’t think that was even taken seriously.”
Multiple members of the Orange County schools’ pandemic response team, including the district’s human resources director, did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.
Teachers point out major holes in the district’s health plan, which was approved by the school board in early August.
Students are required to wear masks in the hallways, but teachers are not allowed to make them wear masks in classrooms, as long as the students are sitting at their desks.
“They’re still going to be in a classroom for an hour and a half with [other] students. How is that safe? It’s a closed environment,” one teacher says. “We have all these other restrictions of things they can’t wear. No hoodies and things like that. But we can’t tell them that they have to keep the mask on.”
Orange County High School was built in 1952. “The ventilation—I don’t even know the last time it’s been checked,” the teacher continues. “The ventilation in my classroom has always been poor. As soon as I walk in, I’m congested.”
“It’s just the most absurd thing we’ve ever heard,” says another teacher.
The hallways are full of hand sanitizer dispensers that have been empty for the last two weeks, one teacher reports.
Additionally, teachers are being asked to take each student’s temperature in first period every day with a contactless thermometer. “It’s putting us more at risk, because we’re going to be face to face with them,” a teacher says.
Because each school only has one nurse, the district has attempted to limit the number of students who go to the nurse’s office. The recently approved health plan says, “First aid situations, to the degree possible, will be handled in the classroom by the student with teacher guidance to prevent office congregation and possible cross exposure.” And then, underlined, “Students should be triaged before they are sent to the clinic.”
“We’re not health care providers,” says one teacher.
While students have an option to attend class completely virtually, teachers are being told they must come in. Teachers who have tried to obtain a waiver excusing them from in-person class based on pre-existing health conditions have been rebuffed.
Multiple teachers mentioned that they have a colleague currently fighting cancer who has not been granted a waiver to work virtually.
“I know one teacher who had health issues. He resigned,” says another teacher. “He was concerned about coming in, and essentially he was told he could resign.”
Multiple teachers emphasized that the school board is driving the push to return. “I think the administration themselves, the principals, have put in an effort to make this thing work,” one teacher says. “My issue comes from all the way at the top.”
“The superintendent is pandering to a lot of people in the community,” says another teacher, in an effort to explain the district’s insistence on in-person learning. “It’s a really rural community, and a lot of people here are of the thought that it’s not a real pandemic, that it’s a hoax.”
While Charlottesville has elected to begin the year completely virtually, more rural areas like Greene and Orange counties plan to bring students back in a hybrid format beginning in late August or early September. Louisa County students are already back in school.
“In the community as a whole, there was an underlying resentment when teachers were sent home to teach virtually,” says another teacher, citing social media posts made by neighbors and parents. “That we were getting paid to do nothing. Which was far from the truth—we’re doing more work, I think.”
“This time of year is usually really exciting,” the teacher continues. “This year, it’s not uncommon to hear a teacher say, I think I’m done. I’m going to quit. Which you normally would never hear at our school.”
“A lot of people are just like, ‘this is it.’ They can’t do it anymore, they want to quit. I’ve been looking for other jobs,” says a teacher with more than a decade of experience in the school system.