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Teachers At Two New Orleans Charter Schools Are Calling For A Virtual Start To The School Year

NOLA Public Schools
NOLA Public Schools has acquired personal protective equipment for all Orleans Parish public schools in anticipation of reopening schools next month.

Only two New Orleans charter schools have recognized unions — Morris Jeff Community School and Benjamin Franklin High School. Both are calling for a virtual start to the school year.

“At this time, while COVID-19 cases are on the rise, we do not feel that we can safely return to the school building, even with careful planning of safety measures in place. When it comes to people’s lives, there is no room for error,” United Teachers of Franklin said in a statement Thursday.

United Teachers of Franklin said they stand in solidarity with Morris Jeff United Educators, which released a similar statement earlier this week. Both said they’re also speaking up for teachers without union support.

“In-person schooling presents numerous and serious safety risks to students, faculty, and their families,” the statement said. “Therefore, we urge school, city, and state leaders to move to a distance learning model for the beginning of this school year and delay the start of in-person school until it is safe to do so.”

New Orleans public schools were planning to reopen buildings for the coming school year, but earlier this week, school and health officials said they were reconsidering their plans in light of the recent statewide surge in coronavirus cases.

The district is expected to make a decision next week as to whether the school year — starting between Aug. 4 and Aug. 11 — will kick-off in-person or entirely remote.

Nick Moorhead teaches biology at Benjamin Franklin High School and is the chair of United Teachers of Franklin. He isn’t excited about online learning but said it’s the best option right now.

“We don't like the idea of having to teach online. We like being in a classroom with students, but we want to do that safely and we can't right now,” Moorhead said.

Jefferson Parish public schools and St. Tammany Parish public schools voted this week to push the start of their school years back. That’s not what Moorhead and his colleagues are asking for.

Pushing the start of the school year back a week or two to try and improve safety standards won’t do enough to keep students and faculty safe, Moorhead said. Instead, schools need to stay closed until the surge has settled and rely on online learning to bridge the gap.

Representatives for both the United Teachers of Franklin and Morris Jeff United Educators said they hope their statements make clear to the district the concerns educators have about reopening and push them to include more faculty and family voices.

State union officials are also calling for schools to reconsider their decisions to reopen. Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said Tuesday that positive cases of the coronavirus need to drop for 14 days in a row before students return to classrooms.

Matthew Tuttle is a fifth-grade teacher at Morris Jeff Community School and the president of the school’s teachers union. He says teachers do more than just educate their students, they’re also responsible for making sure they stay safe.

“We take our call to be teachers and to educate and care for our students seriously. That means protecting them from danger,” Tuttle said. “The school reopening plan is dangerous given the context of the rising COVID cases in our state and our city.”

Moorhead and Tuttle said they couldn’t comment on exact steps their unions might take if the district does decide to reopen for in-person learning.

“I think that is a question that we've definitely wrestled with,” Tuttle said. “And I can't make any comment on potential actions or plans at this time. I think it's going to depend on the situation, on the teachers, and on the health data that comes out.”

Moorhead said his union is also considering possible next steps should the district proceed with in-person instruction.

“We’re lucky. We have a strong union and a good relationship with our administration,” Moorhead said. “I don’t want to speak for our administration, but if they decided to open schools in Phase 2 and begin with in-person learning, there is discussion within our school about what options might be taken.”

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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