"How Bad Does It Have To Get?": Teachers Are Anxious About Working Through The Coronavirus Pandemic

    "There’s a very clear feeling of resentment among teachers that we are simply expected to expose ourselves to the spread of the virus," an Australian high school teacher told BuzzFeed News.

    Lots of people in Australia and around the world have started working from home and practising "self distancing" as the coronavirus spreads. But many more have jobs where that isn't possible.

    BuzzFeed News spoke to a teacher at a large high school in New South Wales — who asked not to be named as they are not authorised to speak to media — about what it's like continuing to teach during a global pandemic.

    In Australia, a debate is raging over whether schools should close. In a statement issued Tuesday, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (the key body for decision making in health emergencies) said closing schools would not be "proportionate or effective" at this time.

    It said closing schools would impact an estimated 30% of the healthcare workforce and potentially put students in contact with vulnerable older people, and noted the majority of the 70 countries that have implemented school closures to some degree have not controlled the outbreak. This stance is being reviewed daily.

    As told to Lane Sainty:

    "I’m a teacher in a public high school and every day for the last two weeks has been intense. There is deep anxiety among all of my colleagues, right up to the principal, that we are not able to ensure social distancing of students, least of all in classrooms.

    Evidence seems to suggest that children can carry the virus and never really know they have it, which means that their adult teachers have a very high chance of exposure without knowing where it came from. Teachers are worried that this exposure is putting members of their families at risk.

    Some teachers are moving desks apart in classrooms to help give the appearance of distancing, but in a regular classroom the furthest you can get 30 individual desks apart is about 40cm. Many classrooms have newer double desks, which makes separation impossible. Many teachers are making no provisions because they know that it makes no difference.

    The school is releasing some year groups early at break times to make sure the walkways aren’t crowded. Everyone knows that all of these measures are insufficient. We’re only enacting them for show.

    A number of my colleagues and I have spent some time wiping down desks and door handles each day because these are not items covered by the work of school cleaners. But even cleaning desks once a day is not guarding against the spread offered by the hundreds of students who use that room in one day of a high school timetable.

    There’s a very clear feeling of resentment among teachers that we are simply expected to expose ourselves to the spread of the virus.

    Our school’s staff had a Teachers Federation meeting yesterday at lunch about the unacceptable conditions of our workplaces. Possibly a number of schools did the same. Today all members across the state received an email from the federation that said, “It is now clear that the Government is not meeting its work, health and safety obligations to all staff and students”, and recommending that we telephone the Injury Notification Hotline to report if we feel unable to maintain guidelines.

    There’s a very clear feeling of resentment among teachers that we are simply expected to expose ourselves to the spread of the virus. It feels as if we are being volunteered for some “herd immunity” project that involves the possibility of extreme illness. There has been no evidence presented to the public, let alone school staff, that keeping schools open will help to prevent the spread of the virus. It is an assertion only and it feels alarmingly insufficient.

    Student absences have noticeably increased. Monday we had about 20% of students absent. On Wednesday, it dropped to about 50%. Many students are being sent home when they present with symptoms of any illness. Visible sickness of any sort is terrible for people’s impression of how the virus spread is being managed.

    Students ask questions about coronavirus every lesson. They have expressed some concern, but not anxiety. Of course, these are the students who are still coming to school. They are aware that they are very unlikely to experience symptoms of the virus and, as teenagers like to do, they express a range of views with varying degrees of usefulness and insight. Many of them carry hand sanitiser, but very few of them are taking social distancing seriously in any way.

    Teachers have been instructed by the Department of Education, via principals, to prepare for the possibility of offering learning online in the event of a shutdown (which will involve loading work to Google Classroom and checking in regularly with students), so it does feel like some change is imminent.

    The issue is how long we’re expected to stick it out. People keep asking in frustration and worry — how bad does it have to get before we’re allowed to know we’re safe at work?"

    What is it like doing your job in the coronavirus outbreak? Email lane.sainty@buzzfeed.com if you'd like to share your story.