When Shannon Fratesi decided to come back to her classroom at Catholic High School in Little Rock for the 2020-21 school year during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not a decision made lightly.
“I have Multiple Sclerosis, so the medication I take makes me immunocompromised. So I do have to be careful. If there’s a sinus infection, I automatically get it. I get everything, just because the medication causes you to have a low white blood cell count,” said Fratesi, 40, who teaches geometry and chemistry. “In front of my desk I have plexiglass and I have a (clear) shower curtain as well. That’s what a lot of the teachers have, plexiglass or shower curtains going across their room. I’ve also arranged my desk so that none of the boys are within 12 feet of me when I'm teaching. They all wear masks and they’re so spread out from each other.”
Teachers like Fratesi who have health conditions or have close relatives who are immunocompromised have had to be more proactive in their individual safety protocols in the classroom, with some opting to stay virtual.
According to a recent national survey through the American Federation of Teachers and other organizations, 60 percent of teachers were not comfortable starting in-person instruction. However, if a school implemented strict safety regulations like mask-wearing and extra cleaning, 71 percent stated they were comfortable returning.
This summer, senior theology teacher Buff Easterly was torn about going back to Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock.. At 60 years old, she is in a high-risk category for COVID-19, not to mention her elderly parents.
“I didn’t want to leave Mount in a lurch. I went up there this summer with a broken heart honestly … I love my job, I have the best job in the whole world,” Easterly said, but told principal Sara Jones she was not comfortable teaching in-person and she was immediately offered the option to teach virtually. “They just didn’t bat an eye. It means everything to me that they value me.”
While Easterly is displayed on a large screen along with virtual students in her classroom, a grad student from the University of Arkansas Little Rock monitors her classes three days a week.
Ozark Catholic Academy dean of faculty Dr. Ray Frazier, 50, who teaches biology, chemistry, algebra II and creative writing, volunteered to take a pay cut to work virtually, allowing the school to have someone in the classroom. He is the only teacher working virtually for the Tontitown high school founded two years ago.
With a history of congenital heart defects and lung problems, Frazier said the first 12 years of his life were spent in and out of surgery. He is high-risk for COVID-19, having heart surgery just a year and a half ago. His cardiologist warned him not to return to the classroom, his pulmonologist told him bluntly “don’t go back,” but the final straw was his better half.
“My wife was absolutely adamant about not going back into the classroom. Going back wasn’t really an option for me healthwise,” Frazier said.
He said a few weeks ago, a close high school friend died from COVID-19.
“He was definitely healthier than I was, so it’s probably good that I didn’t go back.”
Elaine Miller, 60, who has taught 15 years at Our Lady of the Holy Souls School in Little Rock, was diagnosed with a blood clotting disorder. After watching a video of expert Dr. Anthony Fauci discussing the increased risks of it in relation to COVID-19, “I was like I can’t be near it. It’s what made my decision for me.” But virtual teaching was not an option at Holy Souls this year.
“It was hard, that’s why I get teary-eyed thinking about it,” Miller said.
But she was given the option to take the year off and return hopefully to her pre-K class in fall 2021. A speciality teacher has taken over her class this year.
“It’s really a family. It’s a great school.”
“I am very hopeful that they will come out with a vaccine sometime in the next few months,” she said.
Despite being offered the chance to teach from home, Fratesi was and still is confident in Catholic High School’s plan to keep students, faculty and staff safe. The school provided any safety accommodations the teachers requested.
“We had a physician from UAMS, who is in charge of their COVID testing, her boys go to Catholic; she’s part of the crew that put together the plan,” she said. “She came to speak to us and said, ‘Listen, if this was anywhere else my kids wouldn’t be going to school,’” Fratesi said, and also called her individually for guidance, as both her father and mother-in-law have cancer.
“I just asked God so many times to protect us, and we’ve been protected. Not saying everything you ask God for (will happen), but it’s made me more comfortable … I just prayed about it, and I felt at peace.”
For Heather Olvey, 43, it took a little while before getting to that place of peace. The junior high English teacher at Our Lady of the Holy Souls admits right before school began, she had “major meltdowns that week.”
But ultimately, despite being asthmatic, “I just felt like I needed to be here with the kids.”
Since school began, one of her students tested positive for COVID-19 and she quarantined.
“The fact that no one caught it speaks volumes of the measures we’re taking,” she said, adding, “I just feel like since so much is out of our control, we have to give it to God or we’ll lose our minds.”
When the pandemic began in the spring, Beatriz Morales, 31, was teaching at a private Christian school.
“I was really scared going into that school because nobody was wearing masks,” Morales said. She lives with her parents and her father, Deacon José Noé Morales-Cabello, has kidney failure. So when a preschool teaching position opened at St. John School in Russellville, it was a blessing.
“I feel like we’re so prepared for this pandemic. I feel safe working in this school,” she said. “... When I come in, I come in through the garage, wash my hands, shower, I don’t have any contact with them until I'm showered. I wear my mask when I come in too.”
Beyond the school taking it seriously, Morales said staff recognizing her family situation means everything.
“I might just tear up a little bit,” she said. “I value the opportunity that’s been given to me because I feel every time I come in, everyone knows about my dad's condition, they know the position I'm in. I love the consideration, they’re so nice. So I just feel incredibly blessed.”
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