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'It's not if, it's when, we get the virus': Health a big concern for teachers as new school year approaches

With about a month before the new school year, teachers have plenty of concerns about how to return safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

DENVER — Teachers are expressing concerns for their health and the health of loved ones as they prepare to return to classrooms next month amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Many schools are scheduled to open in about a month. At this time, most are planning to be open for in-person learning while also offering a full online option.

> In the video above, two teachers share their thoughts on the return to school.

Earlier this month, 9NEWS asked teachers what they wanted parents to know ahead of the new school year.

(Editor's note: Some teachers' full identities have been withheld in acknowledgement of concerns for their employment.)

"I want parents to know that I WANT to be with their children," wrote Susan Kramer who teaches at an elementary school in the Cherry Creek School District. "I am a better teacher, in-person. Kids learn better at school. I PRAY we can be together all year. I’ve missed my students."

"We want school to be as normal as possible, too," wrote a middle school teacher in the suburbs of Denver. "I love teaching, teaching online is fine, but it’s not what I love. I promise you, we want to be back in the classroom, too."

RELATED: DougCo School Board still considering 2020-21 school plan

"I want to go back to in-person learning," said Bethany De Herrera-Schnering. "That's how I teach best, and it's how the majority of students learn best. I want my children to return to that learning, too."

While most expressed a desire to teach students in a way that is as close to normal as possible, they also shared very real concerns about how it can be done safely, especially with cases of coronavirus on the rise again in Colorado and other states.

They used words like "terrified," "scary" and "stressful" and phrases like, "deep anxiety" to express their feelings about the return to classrooms. At least one teacher said she experiences nightmares.

"I 100% expect to get COVID," wrote a suburban Denver teacher who is young but in the at-risk category due to a prior lung injury. "I’ve even thought I should get exposure intentionally this summer so it’s less of an impact to work and my students this school year. My family cried when I told them that."

It's not just their physical health. Some suggested all the stress surrounding the school is also taking a toll on their mental health and the mental health of their students.

"Every teacher friend of mine is incredibly anxious about this school year and is worried about their health and the health of their family, and in fact, I have a few friends that have started counseling because of severe anxiety," said Cris Fierro, who teaches in Fort Collins.

RELATED: DPS teachers concerned about fall work-from-home options

One woman who is a school counselor in the Denver metro area said she felt "burned out" after the six to eight weeks of remote learning last year and has concerns for the new school year due to all of the uncertainty.

"I worry for my mental health, teachers' mental health, student mental health, family mental health moving forward through this pandemic," she said. "Mental health impacts from COVID-19 will be astronomical."

Teacher after teacher expressed concerns about returning to classrooms this fall where they will need to think about things like masks, extra sanitization and social distancing while also teaching.

"First, let me say that I am terrified," wrote Jami, who is a kindergarten teacher in the Aurora Public Schools (APS). "I and many of my teacher friends believe it is not IF, but WHEN, we will get the virus."

She expressed concerns that it would be impossible to get children in that age group to wear masks or properly social distance and said they "likely don't understand the seriousness of this pandemic."

A high school teacher said while she is "young and healthy," she is still concerned due to the age of her students.

"I’m worried to go back to the high school I teach at because I know how teenagers act and how they think they’re immune to everything," said the 26-year-old teacher who works in the south Denver metro area. "Don’t get me wrong, I love my students and want them to be healthy. But I know how they act because I was one not too long ago."

Many others shared that they were concerned about how their potential exposure to the virus at their job could impact family members.

"I am scared that I will not be able to see my mom during the semester, who is high risk due to asthma and being a breast cancer survivor," wrote Dana Swanson who is in her 6th year of teaching in Douglas County. "She is my best friend, and I worry about her loneliness. I am scared for the parents and families of students who have a loved one going through cancer treatment or have an autoimmune disease."

Some questioned how things like wearing masks, temperature checks and staying home when sick could or would be enforced.

"I've taught more students who are sick, feverish, nauseous, etc. over the years than I can count...but they didn't have anyone at home, they came to school," wrote Bethany De Herrera-Schnering, who teaches fifth grade in Jefferson County Public Schools. "I sanitized, let them lay down, sent to the nurse, and yet they came back the next day." 

She added it's often because parents don't have a choice due to their jobs and said if sick children are going to be required to stay home from school, employers will need to be more flexible.

Most teachers also asked parents to be patient as well because at the end of the day, it's an entirely new situation for everyone involved.

"Know that just like any other school year, we love your children and we will do our best to keep them safe and provide the best education possible," said Teresa Slate, who teaches first grade at Longfellow Elementary School in Salida. "As teachers, we deal with adversity and changes constantly. Although this will be the most difficult year (again), we will still do it with love and a passion for education."


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