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WNY teachers open up on school reopening: ‘This isn’t on us’

File Photo / WBFO News

Tensions over how and when to safely reopen schools continue to run high, even as several Western New York school districts prepare to start classes next week. WBFO’s Kyle Mackie reports on one group of workers that’s caught in the middle of all of it: teachers.

Jerry Musial teaches high school history and government in Salamanca, a small, rural district about an hour and a half south of Buffalo. And Musial has more reason than most teachers to be wary of students and staff returning to school buildings this fall. It started with his 11-year-old grandson coming down with a fever at the tail end of last February break.

“We were all kind of sick that week, it was a kind of family thing, and COVID wasn’t something that people were really talking about in full yet,” Musial said, “and then on Friday night, before the end of the break, his right eye started to bulge a little bit.”

That got the family worried, but they were sent home from the emergency room after being told that he probably just had conjunctivitis. On Sunday, he had a seizure.

“He was rushed to the emergency room and they immediately medivacked him to Buffalo Children’s [Hospital] and then he was in PICU [the pediatric intensive care unit] for almost two weeks,” Musial said.

Musial still doesn’t know if it was COVID-19 that put his grandson on a ventilator and threw him into a battle for his life, but doctors did determine that a virus of some kind released bacteria from his sinuses into his brain. It took emergency surgery and the temporary removal of part of his skull—which was eventually replaced a few months later—to clear out the infection.

“I felt, you know, I mean, I had a very vivid image of what a virus can do,” Musial said, recounting the traumatic experience to WBFO.

Musial took family leave to care for his grandson last spring, but when he got back involved in the school reopening process, he was alarmed to hear that teachers in Salamanca would be required to teach from their classrooms even though the district is starting the school year remotely.

“If we’re teaching remotely, why do we have to come in and take the risk of being around other people?” he asked. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me logically.”

Many, but not all, other area teachers feel the same way. One of them is a middle and high school science teacher in the Kenmore-Tonawanda Union Free School District who wanted to stay anonymous because they’re afraid of putting their job in danger.

“It kind of felt like they wanted to make sure we were doing our job,” the teacher said of learning that the Ken-Ton district is requiring teachers to deliver remote instruction from their physical classrooms full-time. “Maybe that’s cynical of me so say, like, kind of felt like they were checking in on us.”

However, the teacher added that they were relieved to hear that Ken-Ton would at least start the school year remotely because they were afraid the district wouldn’t have the financial resources to bring students back safely.

“I honestly thought they were going to just go with it [full or hybrid reopening] because there was so much talk about it. I was not optimistic. I was really ready to be let down,” the teacher said. “It just seemed so impossible that—like, the last school I taught at we didn’t have toilet paper for every day. So, the idea that there was going to be protective equipment for me and my students, it was just impossible.”

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Teachers Federation requested an emergency injunction from the state supreme court earlier this week to stop Buffalo Public Schools from requiring teachers to report to school at least two days per week because of similar safety concerns. A judge denied that request Thursday.

One Buffalo teacher who also wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retribution said she’s heard a lot of different opinions on the issue of delivering remote instruction from physical school buildings from her colleagues. This educator teaches English as a New Language (ENL) at a Buffalo high school.

“My fear is that some students, especially if they’re hearing some of the more negative things about what’s going on with reopening plans and like, you know, ‘The teachers are refusing this, the teachers are refusing that, like you can’t expect the teachers to respond to you if it’s after this time.’ Like, just all that kind of stuff: I don’t want kids to accidentally get the message that we’re trying to avoid teaching them, because we’re not—at all,” the teacher said.

Instead, all three teachers WBFO spoke to said all of the educators they know went into overdrive last spring trying to do the best they could with remote learning. Musial said he feels like everyone is now getting punished, by being forced to risk their health, for the potential slacking of a few.

“Were people taking advantage of it [working from home]? Probably. You know, I have no doubt about that, but I would like those people to be addressed,” he said.

The Buffalo and Ken-Ton teachers also pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic isn’t a challenge that teachers and school districts can overcome alone.

“We shouldn’t be being forced to make something work because what we need is, like, a time machine and a federal government that was willing to listen to science and pay every single American to stay home for two months, and then we would be able to reopen business as normal,” the Buffalo teacher said. “So, that’s sort of my frustration at the moment.”

The Ken-Ton teacher added that teachers are problem-solvers, first and foremost, but “this isn’t a problem that teachers or schools can fix. And the idea that, like, the economy depends on us? This isn’t on us. This isn’t a thing that we can fix.”

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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