TMJ4 News is spotlighting the challenges facing teachers and students across our area this fall in its Safely Back to School series.
A group of 10 educators joined a Zoom discussion with Pete Zervakis to discuss an unprecedented time in their profession.
Tonya Buford, a teacher at Messmer High School, said one of the biggest challenges since the spring has been balancing her job with her duties as a mother since she and her son were both at home during the school day.
"It was difficult to balance the two," Buford said.
"I would have to lay out my son's agenda for the day, and then I would be getting on Zoom meetings at the same time that he had Zoom meetings," she added.
In recent weeks, the Milwaukee Public School District, Racine Unified School District, and Kenosha Unified School District have all announced they will begin the year entirely with online learning.
Several teachers who participated in the TMJ4 News discussion said they supported those decisions.
"When you've got 7 to 8-year-olds, they don't understand social distancing," said Suellen Krahn, a teacher at Racine's Gifford Elementary. "They're used to sharing supplies, touching things all the time, and touching other people."
"What could be done to put some of that anxiety at ease?" asked Zervakis.
Connor Morris, a teacher at Milwaukee's Rufus King International Middle School, said he's more concerned about his students and their families being exposed to coronavirus than he is about himself.
"Before I'm willing to step back into the classroom, I need to be assured that the community spread of the virus in our city is under control," Morris said.
Nu Lee, of the Hmong American Peace Academy, said she worries about students being exposed to COVID-19 at school and then transmitting it to family members.
"A lot of our families, Hmong families in the City of Milwaukee, are multi-generational families," Lee said. "Most of our students live with their moms, with their uncles, their grandmas and grandpas."
Many teachers also raised concerns about the effectiveness of another semester of online learning.
"We have students that struggle with socioeconomics, and with connectivity," said Kevin Honey, a teacher at Roosevelt Creative Arts Middle School in Milwaukee. "Online learning, for a majority of our students, can be extremely difficult."
"A lot of our kids also work jobs," said Amy Webb, a teacher at Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy in Milwaukee. "So, they have to figure out how to prioritize: When do they go to school? When do they work?"
Webb said her school is shifting to a more structured online learning model than it used in the spring, to try and keep students better engaged and on-task during the fall.
"At a specific time, they'll actually have block number one, and they'll have to join in, and have a [live] class with that teacher," she said.
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Educators, students and parents from Wisconsin Lutheran High School recently participated in a pair of protests asking city officials in Milwaukee to allow them to open for in-person instruction this fall.
"Our surveys showed 70% of our families wanted face-to-face instruction," said Peter Iles, a teacher at Wisconsin Lutheran High School.
He said the school has purchased a state-of-the-art air filtration system and proposed an extensive reopening plan to the City of Milwaukee. It's now waiting to see if city health officials will approve the plan.
"We would have things like two-lane hallways, masks 100% of the time, and face shields for teachers," Iles said.
A common belief among teachers who spoke with TMJ4 News was that the type of personal protective equipment Iles mentioned will be crucial to all schools welcoming students back into classrooms - whenever that eventually happens.
"Before I became a teacher, I was actually a microbiologist," said Stacey Duchrow, of Kenosha's Tremper High School. "I feel very confident walking in the school door as long as all students and teachers are wearing masks."
But what will remain a challenge for teachers for the foreseeable future is the unknown.
"There is no right answer," said Kenley Memmel, a teacher at Messmer Saint Mary. "There is no, 'hey, this is the handbook for teaching with COVID' that we can use to figure everything out. Nobody knows what's best."
Gregory Zimmer, a teacher at Fond du Lac High School, said he thinks teachers' comfort level of whether or not in-classroom learning should resume probably depends on the number of COVID-19 cases in that area.
But he said, ultimately, most teachers just care about the safety of their students.
"As teachers, once we get into the classroom, we just put our own comfort aside and focus on our students more than on ourselves," Zimmer said.
Watch the full discussion below: