Teachers worry schools can't manage coronavirus spread: "When a student tests positive, now what?"

Teachers speak out on going back to school
Teachers speak out on going back to school 07:16

With students in many states already heading back to school, many teachers are concerned about the risks of spreading the coronavirus. As part of the "CBS This Morning" School Matters series, co-host Anthony Mason sat down with a group of educators from a mix of public high schools in the cafeteria of Parsippany Hills High School in New Jersey.

Pedro Hernandez teaches social studies at that suburban school. 

Emily Krieger teaches health in a rural part of New York.

Sheena Graham is a music and chorus instructor in Connecticut's largest city, Bridgeport, and Matt Baker teaches math in New York City.

Here's what they had to say:

Anthony Mason: Show of hands. Who's anxious about going back into the classroom? (Everyone raises their hand.) Everybody. Pedro, what are you anxious about?

Pedro Hernandez: I want to be back in the classroom. ... I'm a part of a response team at our school here and I see everything that our school is trying to do to keep it safe and clean. But once you leave the school and the kids, you don't know what they might bring in. …That's my biggest concern is what I might bring home to my family and my kids and the people watching my kids.

Emily Krieger: When a student tests positive, now what? Right? That was part of the contact tracing. We're not equipped to do that. We're educators. We're not health care professionals. …To put that on schools is unfair.

Mason: You teach health and you don't feel ready for this.

Krieger: No. Not at all.

Mason: Sheena, in your school, kids will not be required to wear masks?

Sheena Graham: As of right now, they will be. ... But, a lot of teachers are feeling they won't keep them on. … If you see people online saying that they're not necessary, that it's all a farce, it's a hoax —

Mason: The masks?

Graham: — It's a this, it's a that, that can come back to haunt you.

Mason: How do you keep kids socially distanced at a school?

Hernandez: You can't.

Mason: By their very nature, kids want to be close together.

Krieger: And I think that students think they're walking back into school. You're not walking back into the school that you left in March. You're walking into a completely different environment that is keeping you away from your friends, keeping you away from your peers.

Mason: The argument is that kids need to be back in school, emotionally, so they don't fall behind educationally. What do you say to that?

Graham: I do believe that there is value in having them back. But I also think that we need to have a lot of supports in place for when they come back, and the young lady that posted that picture with the crowded hallway — I am eternally grateful to her because I think that there's a misconception that everything is organized and we all know what we're doing and the kids are going to come back and everything is going to be resolved. And that young lady, by posting that picture, said, "You know what? Things are not what they seem to be."

Mason: Do you think the kids are ready for this?

Matthew Baker: I don't think you can be ready for someone getting sick and dying at your school. And I don't think you can be ready for taking this disease home and giving it to someone you love and dealing with that.

Mason: Someone did get sick and die at your school.

Baker: Yep. Lots of us got sick and someone died. And it was awful. …The risks, if we mess this up, are literally life and death. And we all want to be back, but … it doesn't seem safe yet.

Graham: What if I gave it to one of my students? How will I feel if one of them is ill or their parent? ... What if one of my students gave it to me? How is that child going to be impacted for life?

Krieger: We became beyond flexible in all of this. ... And to say that we're supposed to put our lives in harm in order to make that happen, to be in-person when it could be done through a computer. I don't want to be through a computer, but I also don't want to be taking home COVID to my family.

Hernandez: I think every teacher would say this. You don't go into teaching for the money. I think everyone knows that.

Mason: Yes.

Hernandez: So my wife and I are both teachers and living in New Jersey, you can't live here on one salary. We're both going back. … We both have never talked about it before, but we are asking questions. Should we get a will for our daughters?

Mason: Do you feel like you're being taken for granted in this?

Hernandez: I think a lot of people think teachers are being selfish, that we don't want to go back. I love teaching. I have wanted to be a teacher since the fifth grade. … We are not babysitters, and I think a primary push for kids to be back in school, yes, social, to build on practices that they need, but also people need to go to work. And I understand that they're struggling, but you can't just dump kids at school if we're not fully prepared just so parents go back to work.

Mason: What would make this easier for you?

Krieger: I don't know what would make me feel comfortable at this point.

Graham: I know it might be a little more difficult. But if you notice, they opened a restaurant. They didn't just say, "Okay. Everybody's back." 

Mason: Right.

Graham: It's like, let's start at 25%. ... It seems when it comes to the schools, it's just like, 'Let's do it.'"

Baker: I'm worried that the kids that are going to be the most affected are … the communities and the kids that have already been most affected by this. The argument for us to go back is that these minoritized communities need support, but those are the communities that are going to be the most affected if this falls apart. …They're using these kids as the reason that we need to be back, and they're not even planning to take care of the kids.

Graham: I think that some people viewed it as if we just had time off —

Krieger: Yeah.

Graham: — when we went to remote learning. And what they weren't seeing behind the scenes is how we were dealing with students all different hours of the day.

Mason: Yes.

Graham: So for example, if I have a high school student, there's one device in that family, but there's four or five children that have to use it. ... Some of them had to actually work to help support their families because of lost income. So when they got off from work, we had class. There was a misconception that we weren't doing our jobs. We were doing our jobs plus some. 

Baker, who works in Brooklyn, had COVID-19 last March and continued teaching remotely while sick. He also lost colleague Kimarlee Nguyen to the virus. Nguyen, who was profiled in the series Lives to Remember, was 33.