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Catholic School Teachers Quit Over Reopening Plans

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When Amy Stephens learned that St. Augustine School in Elkridge, Maryland, would offer a combination of in-person and virtual learning this fall, she asked if she could teach her music, theater and strings classes via livestream. She was told no, she would need to be physically in the classroom, interacting with the entire student body each week. 

So a couple of weeks ago, she quit her job.

“My job is to go and see the entire school population, and that didn't feel safe for me, my family or honestly for the community of St. Augustine’s,” Stephens said. “So I had to resign.”

St. Augustine School is one of 44 Catholic schools affiliated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The schools, which span eight counties plus Baltimore City, plan to welcome back students on Monday. One school — Archbishop Borders School in Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood — is only offering virtual instruction. At all of the others, parents can choose whether to send their students to school in person. 


However, many of the schools’ teachers are apprehensive about returning to teach in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Stephens estimated that she is one of several dozen who have resigned rather than return to the classroom. 


In interviews, current and recently resigned teachers — almost all of whom requested anonymity because they fear retaliation for speaking out — worried that the schools’ safety plans are insufficient to prevent them from getting sick or bringing the virus home to their families. 


“What I want teachers to know is that their health and safety and well-being is at the forefront of all of our planning,” said Archdiocese Superintendent Donna Hargens. 


She said she does not know how many teachers have quit as a result of the pandemic, though she said she respects the decisions of those who did.


Individual schools affiliated with the Archdiocese have their own reopening plans, but they are all expected to follow guidelines issued by Archdiocese leaders. Hargens said these guidelines were created with input by the Maryland Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield.

“The plan is designed to maximize both safety and in-person instruction and requires strict adherence to all recommended safety practices, including social distancing and the wearing of facial coverings,” the Archdiocese’s published guidance reads.


Under the guidance, students over the age of 3 are required to wear masks; hand sanitizer stations will be spread throughout school buildings; schools will develop schedules for daily cleanings; and schools will have “isolation areas” for students and staff who have COVID-19 symptoms.


Hargens said safely returning to schools requires “a partnership between the school and the family to ensure that those risk mitigation strategies are being followed with fidelity.”


For example, parents of children in grades one through 12 are required to take each child’s temperature and complete a health questionnaire for each child every morning before school. 


However, several teachers interviewed expressed doubts that parents are going to hold up their end of the partnership Hargens described.


“When the flu went through, we would have kids come into school saying, ‘We don't feel so good.’ And we're like, ‘Well, did you tell Mommy and Daddy?’ ‘Yes, I told Mommy and I had a fever, so Mommy gave me some medicine in the morning, sent me to school,'” said Marie, a teacher who quit her job at an Archdiocese school in Baltimore County last week.


Marie is not her real name. She asked WYPR not to publish her name or where she taught because her child still attends an Archdiocese school, and she is worried about backlash.


Marie said she has other concerns about the Archdiocese reopening plan. For example, students’ desks only have to be three feet from one another, in contrast with state and local public health rules that say to keep six feet away from others. Marie also said she doubts students will keep their masks on all day.


“We were told when we do go back, we’re there to teach,” Marie said. “If Little Johnny doesn’t want to keep his mask above his nose, across his face, and he’s playing with it and whatever, we’re not there to correct how he wears the mask. We’re there to teach.”


She said quitting her job was not an easy decision. To make it work, she and her husband traded in one of their cars for something cheaper, and she said she does not know what she will do next. 


“The Archdiocese has pushed so many people into either choosing basically their health or choosing their paycheck and their benefits,” she said.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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