Elbow hugs and toe kisses. 

Lisa Fox will add these reimagined displays of affection to her kindergarten curriculum when she returns to her full-time job teaching at Ekstrand Elementary in DeWitt. 

She hopes the elbow hugs and toe kisses will make up for traditional forms of nurturing that she can’t offer kids this fall due to health and safety protocols to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Since schools closed in mid-March and stayed closed throughout the summer, districts across Iowa have devoted many hours to drafting return-to-learn plans to ensure safety and health protocols are in place when school resumes Aug. 24 while confirmed cases of the disease continue to rise.

Some districts planned to teach at least part of the year remotely. However, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation July 17 forcing schools to reopen buildings next month and provide at least 50% of instruction in-person. The proclamation provided for remote learning in specific cases: when parents choose it, when the Department of Education or school and local public health officials deem it necessary due to public health, or due to severe weather.

Many area teachers are expressing at least some apprehension about returning to the classroom this fall.

Sara Shearer fosters children’s creativity as the art teacher at Briggs and Cardinal schools in Maquoketa. She looks forward going back, but is nervous because of the pandemic.

“I think that is the way most teachers are feeling,” Shearer said. “I think there are a lot of things we can do to reduce the risk, but we won’t be able to eliminate it. I plan to wear a face covering and will probably have my daughter, who is a first grader, wear one as well.”

Fox, too, is apprehensive. With underlying health conditions, Fox said she would prefer to stay home but she has to earn an income. Her personal life consists of going to work, then home, she said.

“Do I feel safe? Nobody should feel safe,” Fox said. “No matter what action you take in your daily life, you’re really not safe.” 

She credits Central DeWitt officials for all the planning they are doing, saying the district has everyone’s best interests at heart. 

“But I also realize there are no guarantees with COVID,” Fox continued. “I’m at risk, and I’ve gotta know that.”

Lisa Tranel has taught first-grade students at Sacred Heart School in Maquoketa for her entire 20-year career. She’s ready for the kiddos to return.

“I am confident that we will be doing our best to make returning to the classroom as safe as possible,” Tranel said.

Tranel believes children are not at high risk for contracting COVID-19, “so I believe that kiddos actually being in the classroom will not affect the spread of COVID.”

State data indicates that about 1,800 of 37,700 Iowans — about 5% — who had tested positive for the virus last week are younger than 18. Dr. Melanie Wellington, University of Iowa Hospital epidemiologist, told the Des Moines Register that while research remains to be done, studies show fewer children coming down with serious COVID-19 symptoms. Wellington told the Register there’s also mounting evidence that children could be spreading the virus less often than adults are. However, that evidence is not conclusive, she said.

School districts’ return-to-learn plans include safety measures staff and faculty will implement. Tranel still is learning about other possible precautions at Sacred Heart. Under discussion are temperature checks, teachers interacting only with their specific students, disinfecting playground equipment between recess shifts, and wearing masks in common areas.

Wearing face masks has become a divisive political issue, and while medical experts have stressed their importance, the Iowa Department of Public Health has not required students, teachers, or staff to wear masks, nor has Reynolds. Eli Perencevich, a University of Iowa professor of internal medicine and epidemiology, told Iowa Capital Dispatch that temperature checks won’t help fight the virus unless the state requires masks in public.

Sacred Heart has discussed wearing masks when people are co-mingling in hallways, but relaxing that standard when they are secluded in their own classroom, Tranel explained.

“I think this is reasonable,” she said. “I know that kids shouldn’t/can’t/won’t be able to keep a mask on for the entire day while at school.”

Fox agreed, comparing masks’ importance to seatbelts. She said masks should be worn in school but said it would be challenging to keep them on her kindergarten students.

With the number of COVID-19 cases multiplying rapidly in the month of June, Maquoketa High School art teacher Barb Bowman believes masks should be a  must.

“I think masks need to be required for ALL in school, not just strongly suggested,” Bowman said. “When we were off in April there were basically no cases here. Now cases are increasing and we’re going back to school. A high school teacher could easily be in contact with 125 students per day just within their classes at full capacity. And those students are in contact with many more going from class to class.”

With about 29 years of teaching experience, Bowman said she would feel much safer if masks are required of students as well as staff, and if numbers in class were limited. 

It’s not only about her personal health, Bowman said, but for her family. 

“I also have older parents still living in their own home that I fill medications and get groceries for each week that cannot go out safely right now. It makes me wonder if I can continue to do this for them unless we have precautions in place.”

The teachers who shared their thoughts said they trust the school districts have their best interests at heart, but students’ actions are less predictable.

“I think high school/middle school students are not likely to social distance and always be safe unless we make it our priority,” Bowman said. 

Some area teachers declined to comment about their thoughts going into the 2020-21 school year, saying they “didn’t feel comfortable” answering questions or didn’t know enough about the district’s plans. 

Despite the health concerns, Fox feels she’s “doing God’s will” in the classroom.

“My faith has to be stronger than my fear.”