Illustration by Jon Fuller

Teaching middle schoolers how to play trombone and flute has never been easy, but for Wake County music teacher Patricia Norris (who asked us not to use her real name for fear of backlash) the job has never been harder.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit its peak early this year, onsite students had to wear special face masks and protective bell covers to limit the airflow from their instruments. Daily playing time was limited to 30 minutes. Even more challenging: most students were participating virtually, so hands-on instruction was almost impossible. 

“Is it annoying? Yes.” Norris tells me. “Am I willing to put up with that annoyance? A thousand times yes.”

While Norris is vaccinated, her husband is immunocompromised and unable to get the vaccine without potential health risks. And now that a new, even more contagious strain of the virus—known as the Delta variant—is infecting thousands in North Carolina, she’s fearful of bringing COVID home. 

That’s why, despite the nuisance, Norris is willing to jump over hurdles to keep her family safe while ensuring her students still get as much quality instruction as possible.

She’s far from alone. Teachers and school staff statewide, from primary school to the state’s university system, are wary as the new semester quickly approaches, and share the concern that the administration isn’t doing enough to keep them safe in the classroom.

UNC-Chapel Hill office worker Michelle Clark (who also asked we not use her real name for fear of retaliation) has been back in her cubicle for three weeks now and keeps her mask on at all times. While vaccinated, she is a high-risk individual, as is her mother. 

Though the school has rolled out some protocols, including mandating the use of masks inside all campus buildings, Clark feels they aren’t enough to stop a potential outbreak once students return. 

For starters, teachers learned this week that desks in their classrooms were rearranged to pre-pandemic form, without any social distancing. But many are afraid to voice these concerns, for fear of putting their jobs at risk. 

“I don’t feel safe and I think there are a lot of people that are uncomfortable but it’s all said in one-on-one conversations. It’s not said in a group setting,” Clark told the INDY. “I think everyone is a little wary about saying too much and everyone is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Students come back in a week and we have been there for three weeks now. It feels really tense.”

A spokesperson for UNC told the INDY via email that unvaccinated employees will be required to be tested weekly for the virus. However, the university can’t make vaccinations mandatory as “the UNC System has advised the campuses that under state law, only the North Carolina Commission for Public Health may mandate immunizations for college students.”

Clark feels the school has been downplaying the risk of the virus, noting that in a recent faculty meeting the risk of contracting COVID-19 was compared to the likelihood of getting into a car accident on the way to work. 

“I was blown away that those were being compared and it was being considered a hazard on the job,” Clark said. “It feels like UNC really doesn’t care if we get it or not as long as students are on campus.”

UNC and North Carolina State University attempted to hold in-person classes last fall, which ended disastrously with students reportedly partying off-campus and a slew of outbreaks reported within days of students’ return. Instruction was abruptly shifted online. Without stricter protocols, Clark says staff at the school are wary of another looming catastrophe. 

Cases of the virus have been creeping up for awhile, but within the last two weeks a trickle of positive cases has turned into a flood, thanks to the Delta variant. Friday saw the highest number of new cases: 4,505 since this winter, and nearly 11 percent of folks are testing positive. Hospitalization is approaching 2,000 and almost 14,000 people have died from the virus in North Carolina. Meanwhile, 38 percent of the state remains completely unvaccinated. 

Governor Roy Cooper recently required state employees to show proof of vaccination, and those who remain unvaccinated will be required to wear masks and get tested regularly. 

“Until more people get the vaccine, we will continue living with the very real threat of serious disease, and we will continue to see more dangerous and contagious variants like Delta,” Cooper said during a press conference last week.

To the governor’s credit, he’s done a lot to try to urge the state’s anti-vaxxers to get their shots, including holding four $1 million lottery drawings. But the vaccination rate has leveled out at fewer than 100,000 new doses per week, which isn’t enough to stop the spread of this new strain.

Despite the state’s alarming metrics, Cooper has yet to reinstitute a statewide mask mandate, or require more restrictions in the classroom, such as social distancing protocols, to keep students and teachers safe.

Safety standards have been left up to the purview of the school districts. Last week, the Wake County school board voted to keep its mask mandate in place amid forceful debate from parents and staff on both sides of the issue. Dueling petitions urged the board in different directions, with one asking that masks be optional while another requested that they be required.

Statements from some of the state’s congressional delegation haven’t helped the debate, with Rep. Madison Cawthorn fueling the anti-vaxxer sentiments by calling child mask requirements “psychological child abuse” in a recent interview. Other parents have questioned the science behind masks, with little of their own science to back their claims. 

Duke professor of pediatrics Danny Benjamin said the science is clear.

“From a medicine perspective, masking clearly works. It prevents transmission in schools,” Benjamin said at a media briefing last week. 

As children under 12 can’t receive the vaccine, Benjamin said universal mask mandates are the only way to avoid outbreaks. Until a greater percentage of the population has been vaccinated, Benjamin suspects schools will likely “struggle a little bit with some increased clusters and some secondary transmission” this semester.

“The Delta variant is several-fold more transmissible than the original variant, the Alpha variant. As such, it will make secondary attack rates in the unmasked setting much higher,” Benjamin said. “It will result in much more quarantine, and it will result in faster school closures as a result of multiple clusters. So, it makes masking more important.”

Norris says that, at points last semester, her school had only a third of its typical 1,000 students attending class in person. Now, 900—about triple—are expected to return, making social distancing that much harder, especially during lunchtime when students typically sit closely, talking, with  masks off while they eat.

The problem is a lack of staffing and funding, Norris says. Stricter social distancing protocols require more teachers to enforce them, and more classroom space to spread out students.

That just doesn’t exist right now. 

“It is kind of like rearranging the furniture when the house is on fire,” Norris says. “None of us feel quite ready to tackle this beast again but here we go whether we’re ready or not.”

Without addressing gaps in education funding, Norris says teachers will continue to be asked to do more with less. 

Clark believes vaccination requirements should be in place for all school employees. She’s already heard of students buying forged vaccine status cards to bypass protocols. Although weekly testing is in place because faculty have been on campus for weeks, “if something is percolating, it’s already here.”

And if the past is any precedent, she doubts the university will take further action to stop the spread of the virus until it’s too late. 

“Everything is so reactive it’s reckless,” Clark says. 

Norris says she hoped the Wake County school board would fully return, before the new semester begins, to the social distancing standards put into place last year. While the mask mandate was a good start, she says more is needed to keep teachers and their families safe. 

“Doing it this time around is going to be this much more difficult because we have so many more bodies on our campuses,” Norris says. “I know there are huge roadblocks to that. You would need more staff, more staff means more money. It’s a perfect storm.” 

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