“They’re afraid they’ll possibly die.”- Darzell Warren, president of the Escambia Education Association.
By Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly
In August, students in the Escambia County School District will be returning to school in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic and some district employees are more than a little freaked out.
“They’re afraid they’ll possibly die,” said Darzell Warren, president of the Escambia Education Association. “They’re afraid of dying.”
During a typical year, schools present a petri dish of seasonal illnesses, with each variation filtering through the population of students and staff — “We get the flu, we get colds, we get the crud, we get it,” said David Elzbeck, president of the Escambia Education Staff Professionals — and now there’s the COVID, which poses considerable health risks.
The district has announced virtual-based options for students uncomfortable returning due to COVID concerns, but physical campuses are also reopening — a requirement for school districts in Florida, as outlined in a recent order from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
As families wrestle with which option is best for them, the school districts employee’s are wondering what the fall semester will hold and many are concerned about returning to campuses.
“We have many teachers who are concerned about returning to a brick-and-mortar schools,” said Warren. “They’re anxious about going back because they’re not sure about how safe it’s going to be.”
In a recent survey the union conducted among its members, Warren said, around 40 percent said they were uncomfortable returning to school.
“It is difficult to say what someone should be doing, but from our union’s perspective we want our members to feel safe,” she said. “And right now a lot of them don’t.”
The mood is much the same among the districts other employees, according to Elzbeck, who represents the district’s maintenance workers, food service and transportation employees, as well as secretaries.
“They are concerned,” Elzbeck said.
In announcing its reopening plans, Escambia School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas has painted a sobering, stark picture: the district is not able to accommodate social distancing, and will not require the use of face masks, two key precautionary measures prescribed by health officials.
Thomas conceded during the district’s reopening announcement that it’s inevitable that the coronavirus will pop up here and there in the district. And Warren agrees, if a large percentage of students return to campuses for the traditional five-day school week it’s virtually impossible to provide a safe environment.
“When you’re expecting to see 40,000 students, how can you say it’s going to be safe,” she said. “There’s no way we could say that there won’t potentially be community spread. There’s a lot of things that could go wrong quickly.”
The district’s reopening is in line with Secretary Corcoran’s directive, and that directive is in line with the sentiment stemming from President Donald Trump’s administration at the federal level that schools must fully reopen to facilitate an economic recovery and return to a pre-COVID normal.
“‘Normal’ as they say. Normal being as if there’s no pandemic,” said Elzbeck. “That’s a governor thing. That’s a President Trump thing. And, you know, the superintendent, he plays along.”
This full-steam-ahead approach, it’s worth noting, is out of step with the warnings of various healthcare officials, who are cautioning a return to normal in the face of spiking COVID cases around the country and especially in developing hotspots such as Florida.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has said that if other businesses, such as Walmart and Home Depot, are open and functioning then schools should also be able to operate in a upward trending pandemic. Warren described the comparison between the private businesses and the public education system as “absolutely ludicrous.”
“We’re here for seven, seven and a half hours,” she said. “Going to Walmart and Home Depot is trip you might take once or twice a week.”
The union president said that reopening posed some considerable risks and she didn’t think teachers, staff and students should be viewed as expendable in pursuit of a recovered economy.
“It’s unacceptable for us to be putting our schools in a position of possibly losing a lot of our students and teachers because they want to open up the economy.”
“We’re talking about the lives of people. We’re not talking about a quick stop at Walmart or Home Depot,” Warren said. “It’s unacceptable for us to be putting our schools in a position of possibly losing a lot of our students and teachers because they want to open up the economy.”
Warren said she was concerned some teachers will choose not to return to work due to health concerns.
“That is my fear, that we will lose a lot of teachers because they’re not willing to put they’re family at risk,” she said.
Teachers and other district employees are planning to express their concerns locally — there’s a protest planned for the district offices on Thursday and an opportunity to address the school board next week — but Warren recognizes that veering from the present reopening path in Escambia ultimately requires engaging at a state level. The union president is hoping that people will voice their concerns with state lawmakers and governments officials, such as DeSantis and Corcoran.
“I would encourage everyone to get on the phone with Commissioner Cochran and Governor DeSantis, because everything begins there,” she said. “Parents and teachers, we need to rally together and the fight is going to start in Tallahassee.”
One small victory would be getting the school district to require the use of masks on school campuses. While Escambia has purchased 400,000 masks, officials have resisted mandating their use, which they contend would be logistically unenforceable.
“A lot of our members would feel more comfortable if there was a requirement for masks,” Warren said, though she cites state-level and federal examples of officials declining such a mandate and doubts they’ll be such a requirement in Escambia. “Once again, you’re looking at what’s coming from the top.”
Elzbeck said that other district employees, such as bus drivers, would also appreciate a mask mandate.
“Which they have absolutely refused to do so on a bus,” he noted.
Still, the workers’ union president finds himself fielding phone calls from citizens angry at the prospect of the district requiring such as safety measure. He tells the callers not to worry.
“I get phone calls everyday, screaming at me, ‘You can’t mandate me to do nothing!’” he said. “And I tell’em, ‘We’re not.’”