Despite attempts to return to in-person classes for all students, many Texas school districts have found it necessary to close, at least on a short-term basis, due to staff shortages. Many school employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and the ranks of substitute teachers, bus drivers and library aides are diminished, too.
Ovidia Molina is president of the Texas State Teachers Association. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: How are Texas public school teachers doing right now?
Ovidia Molina: Our educators here in Texas, from the teachers who are in the classroom to the bus drivers to hall monitors are all still in a very fragile place. They are feeling the burden of having to do more because many of their coworkers are getting sick. And that urgency of making sure that everybody is safe, that people don’t get sick, that people don’t die, is still the same urgency as it was at the beginning of this pandemic. And the frustration has grown as to why. Why are we still feeling this? Why aren’t we getting the support? Why aren’t things changing to ensure everyone’s safety so that we can get to learning?
What are some of the issues regarding staffing and safety in schools right now? What are some of the examples that you’re hearing about from these overwhelmed teachers and staff?
We have seen a lot of school employees not coming back from the winter break. And so we’re having teachers calling out. If you can find a sub, we have subs. But the reality is that we don’t have that many subs available in the state of Texas, especially in certain areas. And so when that happens, we have classrooms that are sort of separated and put into other classrooms, which creates an atmosphere of more people in a room during a pandemic when people are already getting sick.
You’re having bus drivers not being able to come and do their routes. So we have students that have ways to get to school or to get home – if a parent is able to bring them in, they go to school. It’s all a lot of chaos. We have libraries that are closed because aides are getting sick and we have to disinfect. And some of our school districts are actually having to close a couple of days. And we are just at a point where we’ve had enough. We would like the state to not have a reactionary approach to our safety. We want a plan. Having masks when we have a lot of cases in our area would be a great thing for our state. Our governor refuses to allow school districts to do that.
I hear your frustration. You mentioned masks. What about testing? Is this something that the state also needs to step up?
Oh, definitely. Again, we are seeing national COVID relief funds coming in. And the question is, where is the reaction from our state? Where is the support from our state? Where is the plan from our state? Why isn’t the state having COVID drives? We’re seeing districts do it, but it’s the same old thing. Our educators are going to take up the slack and we are tired of taking up the slack for the state. Our state truly needs to show not just the educators, but our students in the community that they value their education. We need to have a supportive state that is funding our schools for safety and learning.
Do you feel like your concerns aren’t being taken seriously?
We, as educators, definitely feel as though we are not being heard by our state. During the Legislature, nothing was really talked about [with regard to] the safety of our students and our educators. There were no things in place to help us navigate through this pandemic. We are in our third school year of being in a pandemic, and there is no focus on how we get out of it by our state. TEA has changed the rules, per the CDC. But we’re not following all of the protocols that the CDC says we should, masks being one of them. And so you can’t just pick what you tell us that we can do and then tie our hand when we ask for things to keep us safe.
Talk to me about remote learning. I know you represent a large group, and I’m sure there are a lot of diverse views. Is the intention to still try to have everybody go into class as usual and avoid remote learning as long as possible?
We know as educators that the best atmosphere for our students is when we are face to face in-person, when we can see each other, we can build the relationships. But during a pandemic, safety has to be priority. If our students don’t feel safe, then they’re not going to be able to learn in the way that they should – as much as they can and feel safe. And so our goal has always been to keep our students safe, to ensure that they are learning and to stay in school safely. When that can’t happen, then we have to do virtual. But that would be the last resort. And we’re seeing school districts who, because of COVID, because of faculty shortages, because students are getting sick, they’re having to turn remote. And that’s not what we wanted. If our state had worked with our school districts to create a plan to keep us safe and actually supported that plan, we wouldn’t be in this situation.