Worried about virus, Kalamazoo Co. teachers unions want online school

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A coalition of teachers and support staff unions in Kalamazoo County is calling for the school year to start only online.

The Kalamazoo County Presidents’ Council wrote a letter signed by eight teachers unions, along with the Kalamazoo Support Professionals and Portage Transportation Association.

Eric Curtiss is the chair of the group and also works as a high school teacher for Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools.

“We feel the infection rates are just too high to warrant face-to-face instruction at this time,” Curtiss said.

The letter was sent to districts with the start of the fall semester just weeks away. It outlines concerns about the need for more personal protective equipment, insufficient funding for COVID-19-related expenses and outdated ventilation systems in school buildings.

“I think a lot of concerns with teachers is going to be the distancing and making sure that the students do wear the masks all day long,” Curtiss said. “I think that’s a high order.”

Full classrooms and a lack of space are also concerns for the group.

“If you’re going face-to-face five days a week, it’s impossible to do because you’re just going to have too many students in a class with the teachers,” Curtiss said.

Comstock Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Thoenes lost his father-in-law to the virus and says the district did not take the process of deciding what to do lightly.

“I had a death in my own family from COVID so I do understand that this is a real threat,” Thoenes said.

The district surveyed parents to get their thoughts on how the school year should begin.

“It was about 60%-plus of our parents wanted to return to full schooling. That’s in contrast to the teachers that are saying they don’t feel safe, so we do have divergent and differing opinions about moving forward and in the end I’m responsible for putting together a plan that complies with state law and the regulations,” Thoenes said.

He said if his district chooses in-person instruction or a hybrid model, it is prepared with PPE.

“We did an extensive examination before ordering our PPE. We decided to order two months at a time. If we don’t need it for two months then we’ll save it,” Thoenes said.

Curtiss said that teachers know the benefits of in-person instruction but believe the potential risks are simply too high.

“Their top priority is to be back in school. However, the concern is obviously right now the spread of the virus and obviously the potential for students to get infected at school and bring that home to their families,” Curtiss said.

With the start of the year quickly approaching, time is running out for districts to make a decision.

“They have to have a decision by Aug. 15,” Thoenes said.

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