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Texas teachers are demanding that schools be safe before they return. But they have little leverage short of quitting.

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Pflugerville Independent School District college preparatory coordinator Dan Dawer resigned from his job over safety concerns. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune

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Upon resigning from his job as college preparatory coordinator at Pflugerville High School last month, Daniel Dawer wrote two letters. The first explained to his employer that he would have gladly continued teaching remotely from his home but did not feel safe returning to the classroom as he had been ordered.

The second was to his students, begging them to stick with virtual learning for their families’ safety and expressing his lack of faith in Pflugerville Independent School District’s plan for bringing students and teachers back into classrooms.

“I cannot risk bringing the virus home to my own family, and I would not be able to live with myself if I unknowingly passed the virus on to you or your families,” he wrote in a letter he shared with The Texas Tribune.

Resigning was an extreme response, but Dawer is not alone among Texas teachers in mistrusting how school districts are managing health and safety this fall. More than a month after the first wave of Texas schools opened their classrooms, teachers are clashing with school administrators over how to ensure safe working conditions during a pandemic. Under the leadership of state and local teachers associations, they are highlighting safety violations, demanding alternatives to working from their school buildings and arguing that schools should remain closed longer.

They have little leverage. Texas teachers cannot go on strike. Under the state’s strict labor laws, those who do could be stripped of their jobs, teaching certificates and pension benefits. But they’re protesting in other ways.

Last month, Killeen ISD’s local teachers association filed a grievance with the school district, submitted to the superintendent and all campus principals, for requiring them back to classrooms under conditions that “may pose an unacceptable risk of COVID-19 transmission.” (The district declined to comment on the grievance while the process is ongoing.)

El Paso ISD’s teachers association cheered its district’s decision to delay classroom reopening another few weeks as COVID-19 cases surged in the region, and planned to push for another delay to December.

And more than 100 of about 5,000 total Austin ISD teachers stayed home last Monday, some in defiance of a mandate to show up for the first day of in-person classes. The local teachers association is now in daily talks with the administration on how educators can return safely.

“We mounted a pretty extreme set of actions and escalating actions,” said Ken Zarifis, president of labor group Education Austin, which has 3,000 members. “We have numerous reports of PPE and social distancing violations. The district continues to assure us of the ability to be safe and keep everyone safe with those items, and they’re just in denial.”

The Texas State Teachers Association and Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers have registered hundreds of complaints from teachers saying that their districts are not enforcing proper mask use, social distancing or other precautions needed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. Some reported their districts have not provided basic cleaning supplies, provided support on how to deal with students who refuse to wear masks or told them when someone in the building has tested positive for COVID-19.

Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said the number of teachers absent this year was actually much lower than last year, and 700 teachers have received permission to work remotely through December. Some of the teachers who chose to work virtually this week without permission will be required to take a personal or sick day to account for the time. “If you don’t meet the requirement of fulfilling the job responsibilities … then that will count as an absence,” she said.

As of last month, about 1 million of 5.5 million Texas public school students had returned to classrooms, and state officials already see that number rising as COVID-19 cases plateau or drop in some parts of Texas. That means teachers are expected to return as well. In many cases, administrators are requiring teachers to work from their school buildings even if most or all students are learning from home. And they’re denying requests from some teachers who are older or have preexisting health conditions to stay at home, sometimes universally across the district.

At the same time, administrators are balancing teachers’ demands against those of students, parents and board members. They are realizing just how much students have fallen behind in virtual learning and feeling pressure to bring them back. But how do you staff a campus where most students want to come back in person and most teachers do not?

“If the number of parents don’t match the numbers of teachers that are wanting to come back in person, you have a challenge there,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “We know this is a really difficult virus. There’s no way to be perfect with it. There’s no way to 100% ensure people aren’t going to do the wrong thing. It just takes one slip-up.”

The high level of stress the pandemic has ushered into school communities is putting even more pressure on relationships between teachers and their employers, said Sarah Orman, a lawyer for the Texas Association of School Boards.

While some teachers lack faith in their district leaders, Orman said she has also talked to administrators who feel that some teachers may be taking advantage of the pandemic to get extra time off. “That’s a hard thing for me to hear because I think teachers, like students, are really caught in a bind by this whole situation,” she said. “It demonstrates that where there is already a lack of trust between the administration and teachers, this situation is just exacerbating.”

In some of the biggest urban and suburban school districts, most parents have chosen to keep their kids learning virtually. Black and Hispanic parents polled this summer, in Texas and across the country, said they didn’t feel classroom instruction would be safe for their children. But virtual learning has largely been inadequate for many of the most vulnerable students, especially those without internet access, computers or easy access to free school meals.

In majority-Hispanic El Paso ISD, 60% of families chose virtual education, and classrooms are closed until at least late October. According to Superintendent Juan Cabrera, the district's enrollment is down about 8% from this time last year, an enormous shift, in large part due to vulnerable students not participating in virtual learning. A smaller group is leaving for local charter and private schools that are offering in-person learning.

“We obviously have to get kids back in because I’m sure there are going to be mental health issues, and kids are ready to get back with their friends. But we just have really high numbers in El Paso,” he said.

Ross Moore, president of the El Paso teachers association, said that in-person instruction without adequate cleaning supplies or rigorous safety protocols is even more dangerous for vulnerable students, putting communities already at higher risk of COVID-19 complications in harm’s way. And teachers are worried they won’t have the tools or support to keep themselves safe.

Experts say that layering policies including social distancing, masks, proper ventilation and deep cleaning is necessary to reduce transmission in schools. The virus spreads more readily indoors, in crowded spaces with poor ventilation, but many schools in other countries such as Sweden and Uruguay have been able to reopen without much spread.

Unlike those places, Texas has never really gained control of the virus, with new cases and hospitalization numbers still high and the governor continuing to allow businesses to reopen. Experts have warned against fully reopening schools in areas with uncontrolled community spread.

Three days after he resigned, Dawer showed up in person at a school board meeting and launched a barrage of questions at the Pflugerville ISD board members sitting behind transparent plexiglass dividers: Why were staff prevented from installing their own air filters and air purifiers? How is the district planning to ensure adequate distancing when campuses open to all students? Did the district provide disinfectant wipes that grew mold?

District officials addressed some of the most pressing questions: They can’t be sure teachers’ personal air filters will effectively kill COVID-19. They plan to regularly check whether social distancing is being enforced on each campus. And yes, the towelettes in the cleaning solution provided to teachers had begun to grow mildew, and it became clear their shelf life was only 45 days. The buckets of wipes have since been replaced with ones that are not expected to sprout green fuzz.

“People gotta remember that there was nothing back in February and March, period. How many people tried to order wipes back in March and you couldn’t get them?” said David Vesling, district facilities director. “We had to change the way we were looking at things. What could we use to kill the COVID virus fast?”

At the board meeting, Vesling seemed exasperated as he listed all the ways the district was trying to keep people safe, including recruiting support staff to take on extra cleaning work. In one instance, custodians were required to put green “sanitized” signs on door handles after cleaning each room, and teachers were asked to remove them once they entered each day. But many just were not complying, he said, and often it was unclear which rooms would be used each day.

Administrators argue that they need teachers in classrooms to instruct and supervise an ever-changing number of students learning in person. Many districts are pulling teachers into new roles, including sanitizing desks and tables between classes and intercepting students to take their temperatures in the hallways.

At Pflugerville ISD, some campuses are asking other support staff to fill in for nurses when needed “in light of heightened safety protocols and staff’s potential to be out due to quarantine,” said spokesperson Tamra Spence. She said district officials are “pleased” by staff and students’ efforts at handling safety measures during the pandemic and will address failures to comply on an individual basis. The district allowed up to a quarter of students back to school buildings in mid-September, and about 20% returned; all staff are required to be in buildings full time.

Since his resignation, Dawer has kept in touch with his students, many who had family members hospitalized or even die due to COVID-19 complications. In resigning after signing a contract, he is risking state penalties, including a one-year suspension of his teaching credentials.

The debate on whether and how to reopen schools has become political, he acknowledged. “I do believe our superintendent and school board are conscious of the politics of this moment of their decisions and are trying to make choices,” Dawer said.

Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association, Texas Association of School Administrators, Texas Association of School Boards and Texas AFT have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.