LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Erica Grossberg, a Spanish teacher at Ballard High School, recently had to shush three students having an amusing but off-topic conversation in the chatbox of their virtual classroom.
“It was hilarious," she told Spectrum News 1. "They were going on and on and on, but I didn’t mind it that much.”
After a semester of teaching six classes through a webcam, and struggling to bond with her students, Grossberg relished a small taste of life in a normal classroom. It’s a setting she’s eager to return to, which is why she told Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) last week that she wants to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The kids are worn out and I'm worn out,” she said. “I want to get back in the classroom.”
Since Grossberg teaches high school and the JCPS return to school plans priotize younger students first, that’s not likely to happen for several months. But the first JCPS students and teachers could return to classrooms as early as mid-February, uperintendent Marty Pollio said last week. Before that happens, thousands of teachers, bus drivers, and staff members will need to be vaccinated, a process that could begin in late January.
Last week, JCPS asked its more than 16,000 employees if they’re willing to take the vaccine as soon as it's available. At a school board meeting last week, Pollio encouraged employees to say yes.
“It will be the quickest way to mitigate the spread of that virus so that we can open our schools,” he said.
A JCPS spokesperson did not have information on how employees answered the survey, but she did say the district has received more than 14,000 responses.
Like Grossberg, Emilie McKiernan is ready to be vaccinated. An English and debate teacher at Southern High School, McKiernan said she’s “aggressively pro-vaccine.”
While she feels better about returning to the classroom given the approval of multiple vaccines, she said the inability of children to be vaccinated causes her concern. “I'm a single mom that has two kids in the JCPS school system, so I feel better personally but I'm still worried about kids that get exposed without access to a vaccine,” she said.
Though Pfizer and Moderna have both begun trials on children as young as 12, neither of their vaccines has been approved for use on anyone younger than 16. That will present a challenge when schools reopen, McKiernan said.
“We will still need to socially distance,” she said. “We will still need to ensure mask-wearing. We will still need to have students in compliance with CDC regulations and protocols, which is already something I'm very nervous about because we have so many adults that don't seem to be able to follow those rules.”
Kumar Rashad is also worried about the challenges of teaching while monitoring compliance with pandemic safety measures. “It’s not only education, but we’d have to monitor students' hygiene — making sure they’re washing their hands 20 seconds or are wearing a mask,” said Rashad, a math teacher at Breckinridge Metropolitan High School.
“I don't have any intention of returning to school or any trust in the vaccine, or any district's handling of students with the virus still out there,” Rashad said.
As a Black man, he said, he’s keenly aware of the disproportionate racial impact of COVID-19, which has killed Black Americans at 1.7 times the rate of whites. He also said history tells him to be “wary" of the shot.
“From a historical standpoint, as a Black male, I just can't trust the government,” he said. He cited the Tuskegee syphilis study and experiments on the bodies of Black women. He also said the speed with which the vaccine was developed makes him hesitant to take it.
He said he may be ready to return to the classroom, at least part-time, by the fall 2021 semester. “I would not object to being in some sort of hybrid position, just depending on how the rates are going, assuming that they’re falling, that the risk is lower,” he said.
Rashad, McKiernan, and Grossberg agreed that virtual learning was not ideal for many students, especially those who require more intensive instruction, such as English language learners and students who have educational disabilities. McKiernan said she’d like to see those students, along with the youngest, back in buildings first.
Grossberg says she can’t wait until high schools return to in-person instruction, too.
“I'm really excited to go back,” she said. “I hate virtual. It is all of the really hard parts of teaching and none of the good, rewarding parts.”
Reporter Ashleigh Mills produced the video component of this story.