Union president: Billings teachers ready to head back to classroom during COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 8:58 PM, Jul 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-22 14:46:33-04

BILLINGS — The president of the Billings teachers' union said Tuesday a good portion of members want to get back in the classroom under school Superintendent Greg Upham's plan to reopen schools Aug. 24.

"We know that we do our best work teaching in person, but we want to do our best work when it’s safe. We want to make sure that our staff and students are safe. We’re working with the district to come to what conclusions those look like," said Rachel Schillreff, president of the Billings Education Association.

Schillreff, who's taught in Billings schools for eight years, said the union has been involved in the back-to-school talks with the district since May. During that time, both parties were working to make a plan to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools.

“We know that our choices and our decisions are going to have to be fluid, just like the virus itself is ever-changing," Schillreff said.

What teachers want now is to know more specifics about the plan to come back, like knowing if they will be teaching all online, or in-person classes, Schillreff said.

"I think they’re trying to deal with that feeling of, man it’s time to get back and it’s time to get back to the job that I love. But it’s also with that ‘I don’t even know what it’s going to look like. All of my plans have nowhere to land because, we don’t know what it looks like,'" said Schillreff.

Billings parents will be forced to choose between strictly online or in-person schooling for the entire year for their students in the 2020-21 school year as part of the plan. The district is working to count how many students will take the online option to appropriately staff both online and in-person classes.

Schillreff said the union has a survey out to its members asking about their feelings on going back to school and what they would like to see in the plan to come back. So far the union has received back 700 surveys from about 1,000 total members.

"There’s a large group of people that are fully willing and want to return to the classroom. And that’s great. I think that we just need to make sure that we manage those risks well," Schillreff said.

There are some teachers in Billings who are at high risk if they were to contract COVID-19, Schillreff said. As well, many teachers have children that attend the Billings schools.

Many decisions and schedule changes will have to be made to accommodate the safety of parents and students.

“Being prepared and walking through all of those scenarios is our best solution for that. Making sure that we’ve asked all of the questions and that we’ve gone through everything the best that we can. Obviously, there’s always going to be unknowns, but I think preparedness will alleviate a lot of concerns both on the community level and as far as educators," Schillreff said.

The Billings Education Association is in contract negotiations with the district this year. Since the online schooling for some constitutes changed working conditions, the new plan will have to be negotiated.

Regardless, much is still unknown about the school year, Schillreff said.

"I think we all have this worry of the unknown. We don't know what next month is going to look like. And we've been in this kind of rollercoaster of that since March. I think that everybody is a little worried about the 'what ifs.'"