Danielle Biggs of Veterans Elementary was among many local teachers who protested having to return to brick-and-mortar schools later this month outside the July 21 Pasco School Board meeting. (Photo by Octavio Jones)

Her son had such a wonderful experience with his teachers in Pasco County that Danielle Biggs went back to school in her 20s to become one of them.

Today, she’s afraid that decision could kill her.

Like many teachers not just across the county but across the nation, Biggs, a mother of three, is preparing to get back into a Veterans Elementary classroom on August 24, when Pasco’s schools are scheduled to reopen. She is filled with trepidation, however, because she says the growing spread of Covid-19 poses a serious threat to her and her teachers and students.

“I don’t want my children to grow up without a mom because I chose to be an educator,” she says.

That is not hyperbole, she adds. While the numbers suggest that children catch the virus and are less affected by Covid-19 than adults, the fear of them spreading it to teachers (and students with underlying health conditions), and as a result the community, is frightening for Biggs.

There are countless layers and questions when it comes to reopening schools, as Florida continues to struggle with containing the virus, which is infecting more than 10,000 people a day in the Sunshine State and the death count continues to grow.

But namely, consider this: What happens if a teacher contracts the virus? What happens if a student passes it around?

And, what happens when/if someone — even one teacher or child — dies?

“It’s unsafe for us to open right now,” Biggs says. “This has me pretty emotional. The decision our governor is making is ultimately going to cost the lives of educators, and the lives of family members and students. And to me that is just unacceptable.”

Biggs’ fears are shared by other teachers. But, they have few choices. U.S. Pres. Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have pressed for schools to open, even threatening to withhold much-needed funds if they don’t, and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued a July 6 order (now being challenged in court) that a five-day-a-week traditional school option should available to all parents.

“I teach kids every day about science and repeated trials and tracking data, and what it really means to look at facts,” Biggs says. “But,what we’re getting is a lot of opinion. When the Governor says I believe that we need to do this, and it is not supported by data…and that’s not okay.”

Most teachers, citing concerns about children spreading the virus, overcrowded classrooms and keeping their students from simple things like sharing pencils or a hug, would rather see the first semester — at least until infection rate numbers decrease significantly — be online only.

They have staged protests across the state, and Biggs was one of dozens of Pasco teachers who protested outside the July 21 School Board meeting.

At that meeting, Browning told those listening that Pasco County had no choice but to follow Corcoran’s order, even though school districts in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties are opening with distance learning.

“They’re still in Phase 1, they have the latitude,” Browning said. “We are not given that latitude. We’re in Phase 2 of the Governor’s (reopening) order. In fact, the (Corcoran)’s emergency order specifically states that upon reopening in August, districts must open brick and mortar at least 5 days a week for all students. The order does not give districts any wiggle room to not open our schools. I don’t necessarily agree with the order, but it is an immaterial point.”

Teachers like Katy Powers and her husband Robert Mueller, fifth grade teachers at Denham Oaks and Sand Pine elementary schools, respectively, don’t find any solace in the Phase 2 argument, however. 

“We closed schools when we had 300 cases in the entire state,” Katy says. “We’re now here in July, and statewide we have 436,000 cases. And, that’s with kids being at home. It makes no sense to go back now.”

Robert Mueller and wife Katy Powers are both elementary school teachers in Pasco County and are concerned about returning to the classroom.

Powers and Mueller are so concerned about the dangers of returning to school — Katy has a blood pressure issue from a pregnancy three years ago that puts her at risk — they decided to put together their wills.

The United School Employees of Pasco (USEP) conducted a survey recently of its teachers and school-related personnel (SRP), and 75 percent of the 3,800 respondents felt the only way to safely begin school was through distance learning.

In a formal resolution on July 24, the USEP wrote, “In order to promote health and safety for students and staff, USEP will strongly advocate for the District to conduct schools in a Distance Learning only format until there is a 14-Day downward trend in positive COVID-19 cases.”

NOTE: After our deadline, the USEP announced it would file for a temporary injunction to the emergency order by the Department of Education. Also, in Hillsborough County, its School Board voted 5-2 in favor of online learning for the first four weeks, with plans to revisit on Sept. 8.

Colleen Beaudoin, the Pasco School Board chair, says the school year will not start online.

“A lot of people are saying they want to start “On time and online,” Beaudoin says, referring to a campaign touted by teachers as the best way forward. “That is currently not an option. One thing that is crystal clear is that we must follow the statute to receive funding, or nobody gets paid.”

Beaudoin says she has received emails from teachers who are fearful of returning to their classrooms before Covid-19 is under control, and “I’ve also heard from some (SRP) and teachers who have advocated for going back on time, (that they’re) worried about how to make ends meet.”

Biggs says of all the teachers she knows, maybe five percent have no issues about returning to school, while another five percent are looking into taking a leave of absence. The remaining 90 percent “are absolutely terrified and looking to find other opportunities.”

Many are trying to get one of the District’s online teaching positions. But, Browning says that about 65 percent of parents who made their declarations by Aug 1 wanted their kids to go back to brick-and-mortar classrooms, so there won’t be too many online jobs available.

Katy Powers will teach online, as well as in a pod at Denham Oaks. Robert applied for an online teaching position but didn’t get it, and will return to his classroom at Sand Pine.

Katy has resigned herself to the fact that schools will reopen Aug. 24, but she still hopes that Browning and the Board will look at the Covid-19 infection rates and fight harder for the safety of teachers and students.

“I’m just afraid it’ll come too late, after schools are opened, after someone passes away,” she says. “After it’s too late.”

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