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School Plans Concern Teacher’s Union

/ The Upper Cumberland's News Leader

Putnam Test

A local director of the state’s teacher union said he believes the lack of direction from the state in COVID return plans is leaving some students and school staff vulnerable.

Brent Estes is a Tennessee Education Association Board Director for district seven, which includes most Upper Cumberland counties. He said the state should invest more money in protecting those in the schools.

“We have a rainy day fund that is over a billion dollars that (Governor Bill Lee) is not using,” Estes said. “He’s actually putting more money in it for a rainy day. I believe with a pandemic on our hands, with businesses, schools, and everything, if this isn’t raining cats-and-dogs for a rainy day fund, I’d hate to see what his rainy day is supposed to look like.”

Estes said PPE supplies are needed across the state to keep teachers and staff as well as students protected.

“So, how are they going to get us the PPE supplies if they couldn’t supply us last year,” Estes said. “We had to depend on parents to give us gifts of hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to keep our rooms pretty much supplied. Where’s the funding going to come from if its already being cut, again? How are we going to keep it operational and clean to keep it safe?”

In addition to schools having funds cut, Estes said the state eliminated promised teacher pay raises. In addition, health insurance premiums increased two percent. He said he fears some teachers may look to retire or move into other professions.

“We’re working harder for less money,” Estes said. “And we’re expected to do more, so my fear is we may go into a teacher shortage of teachers that are at that mark and say, ‘you know, I’ve got my time in, 30 or 30-plus years or my 25, and I’m going to go ahead and retire,’. I worry about that being an issue for us; of having a shortage of teacher because of this.”

Estes said that although school officials have asked for a wide-range of opinion on reopening plans, he feels that the voice of teachers have not been solicited. He also said this type of behavior is not new to the profession.

“The biggest fear is you are making us go back when numbers are at an all-time high,” Estes said. “You are putting us in danger’s way, and it seems no one wants to hear what the teachers are actually saying. On one is listening to us of what we feel. That happens a lot in education. It’s like that old Reba McEntire song ‘the last one to know, the first one to cry’. So it seems to be like we are devalued when it comes to asking what is the best practice.”

With the changes educators had to endure in the spring, Estes said he believes teachers are prepared to educate students regardless of if it is in a classroom or virtually.

“We know that wherever our kids are, they are going to be fine,” Estes said. “And we can make anything work. That’s the thing about it. Virtual scares us a little bit, but we are teachers, we are educators, and we are professionals. We know how to to make that work, and we know what to do.”

Estes said as a teacher, he has mixed feelings between balancing his desire to be with his students and the need to protect his health. He said as a kindergarten teacher, being a hands-on instructor is a big part of his job.

“To me, I don’t look at it as a job,” Estes said. “I don’t look at it as a career. It is my passion. I love my kids. When they hug me, I become one of them almost. There’s that fine line of I am their teacher and not your friend, but they have that respect for me as I do them, and I love that relationship. I teach kindergarten, so it’s hard for me to do a virtual classroom because I teach so much, like how to hold scissors, which is hands-on-hands, and that’s all the time the first 9-weeks…Yes, I want to be with my kids. Yes, I want to be there, but I also have underlying health issues myself. So, do I want to risk that, and I lose my life over it.”

The majority of Upper Cumberland counties have announced school plans where students return on time and in-person. However, most districts are offering virtual options for students and families with concerns over the rising number of positive COVID cases in Tennessee.

“We want to make sure we are making the best decision for everyone that is involved, mostly our students” Estes said. “We do love and care about them, but, yet, we don’t need to be putting teachers back in the classroom where it could very well take a teacher’s life or a teacher’s loved one.”


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