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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: CMS Teacher Battling COVID-19 On School Reopenings

When 51-year-old Michelle Vail checked her temperature before this interview, it was sitting at 99.4 degrees. Normally, that wouldn’t be a huge deal. But she’s had COVID-19 for over a month. At this point, anything above 98.6 is cause for concern.

"I don’t ever let it get over 100," Vail said. "I don’t want to say it, but I’m a little bit afraid of the hospital at this moment."

It all started when the eighth grade Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher and athletic director at Waddell Language Academy traveled to Ohio to help a childhood friend she’s known for over 30 years whose mother and father were in a car accident in May. Her friend’s father died from his injuries and her friend’s mother, who has Alzhiemer's, was hospitalized.

Vail expected to be there a couple of weeks to "you know, help with the house, and get things ready for what they had to do with the paperwork."

"Her father was actually taking care of her mother, so this just really was the worst case scenario of things to happen," Vail said.

Vail’s friend’s mother came home on June 1. After a few days, the small group taking care of her noticed something was off. So they took her back to the hospital.

"She had COVID, and we all just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve been treating her for three days, we’ve all got it,’" Vail said. "We knew we had it."

It turns out that the hospital where Vail's friend’s mother was treated doesn’t test patients for COVID when they are being discharged, only when they are admitted. It was like the group brought home a COVID-19 Trojan horse. They didn’t stand a chance. 

"It took down this whole household of five in a matter of days," Vail said. "Just one by one by one, we all contracted it."

Fortunately, four out of the five people in the house have recovered. But Vail hasn't.

"You feel like you’re carrying the plague, basically," Vail said. "You know there is a lot of crying some days because you feel like you are completely isolated from others. People don’t understand how bad that is."

And then there’s the weakness she’s felt. Simple tasks like doing the laundry or washing her hair have felt impossible at certain points. 

Now it’s almost mid-July. Vail figured she’d be home by now and back to taking care of her 79-year-old father whom she’s now terrified of exposing to COVID-19. But she’s still in Ohio in an isolated part of her friend’s house. Everything feels uncertain, personally with her health and professionally with the impending school year. 

"The cases are on the rise, we haven’t slowed the spread," Vail said. "I think it’s too risky to put the kids in that situation, to put the adults in that situation to go back to school. I think it should be remote learning." 

Vail doesn’t take the idea of remote learning lightly. She knows it’s not a perfect solution for students or parents. But as someone who has contracted COVID-19, she worries what the spread of the coronavirus would do not just to students but also to households. 

"You don't want the kids — yes, I know they aren’t the primary ones that get it, but they are asymptomatic and carriers — you don't want them to bring it home to their family and their loved ones," Vail said. "It’s a horrible situation to even think about."

But it’s a situation teachers, families and government officials are thinking about. Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to reveal the standards for schools to reopen in the fall on Tuesday.

One option could be a combination of remote learning paired with some days in the physical classroom with a reduced number of students. Vail says as much as she wants to see her students, an option that requires in-person learning is hard to imagine right now. 

"I think about the school buildings. Sometimes the air conditioning doesn’t work, so it’s going to be even hotter. I have an interior classroom. I don’t have a window," she said. "I’m stuck with the same recirculating air if I go in there to teach all day long. That’s the antithesis of what they’ve been saying.

"We need the fresh air. These are hard things to grasp if you’re not in those situations that they are recommending. Not all buildings are made that way. I’m having issues with that."

She also wonders what the mask requirement will be. She fully supports the use of a mask, and worries how they will impact communicating with students if in-person learning is part of the equation. She points out that kids can be shy when asking questions. Sometimes you have to get close to a student to hear them. Plus, a mask could get in the way of reading student emotions and cues — they could block smiles or a confused, winced face struggling to understand a lesson.

"It’s very hard because we’re very visual," Vail said. "When you can’t see half of their face is showing you ... there’s a lot of expression you’re missing and there is a lot that is going to be missing and a loss in there."

She worries there’s too much of a rush to return to normalcy and she worries that rush comes with too great of a risk that will backfire. The advice she’s giving to concerned CMS parents is advice she’s trying to take herself.

"You have to think about your family first," Vail said. "I’m thinking about my family first before anything. I don’t want anyone to get me wrong on this: I want to be in the classroom with the kids. I do. I want to do it when it’s safe for everybody."

That includes when it’s safe for both students and adults.

It’s a lesson plan she hopes the state will follow --the less people risking their health, the more safe everyone will be. There are no easy answers to this problem, she says. But she keeps thinking about her 79-year-old father who is worried about her and waiting for the time it’s safe for her to return home. She’s waiting for the same thing, but she’s not sure how safe she’ll remain if she’s back in the physical classroom.

WFAE wants to hear from you if you have a story about the challenges and changes you’ve experienced since the outbreak of the coronavirus leave us a voice mail at 704-916-9114.

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.