Educators speak out about their concerns, fears, and frustrations concerning the possible return to in-class instruction at the height of a deadly pandemic.
By David Todd McCarty | Monday, July 27, 2020
The issue of whether or not to open schools is political. It shouldn’t be, but it is. We are a divided country, separated by partisan tribalism, and it has bled over into how we are handling a public health crisis.
How you feel about reopening schools is tied directly to how you feel about the virus in general and can be gauged in large part by how you feel about the necessity of wearing a mask. If you feel like the pandemic is an overblown, Democratic hoax, you are more likely to believe we should return to normal as soon as possible and stop wasting everyone’s time. If you believe that over four million Americans have been infected and nearly 150,000 have died in the US alone, then you are considerably more concerned with reopening any aspect of society, let alone schools.
It’s not just whether or not children will be safe, however. Within any school, there are a substantial number of adults, from administrators and teachers, to support staff, SCO’s and bus drivers, many of whom would be considered at-risk due to age or pre-existing medical conditions.
It’s also not just whether or not you can survive the virus if you are infected, but what will your long-term prognosis be if you do.
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that even if you recover from COVID-19, a disease caused by a coronavirus that primarily attacks the respiratory system, you still may not be out of the woods. Lasting damage is possible and simply recovering from the disease, is not the same as recovering from the common flu. Not everyone just ‘gets better.’
In early May of this year, the Pentagon issued an order barring anyone who had ever tested positive for COVID-19 from being processed as a new recruit saying, “During the medical history interview or examination, a history of COVID-19, confirmed by either a laboratory test or a clinician diagnosis, is permanently disqualifying …” the memo read. A few weeks later, Matthew Donovan, the defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, told reporters that the order had been rescinded, but gave a strangely vague reason for the reversal. It’s not clear that the change in direction was medical, and not political, in nature.
“There are a lot of unknowns about this virus right now,” Donovan said. “Are there any long-term lasting effects? That’s what our health care professionals are looking at right now, and they’ll come up with that recommendation if there’s any changes required to these accession standards.”
According to a report by Johns Hopkins University, COVID-19 can indeed cause a variety of lasting damage, from permanent tissue damage to lungs and organs, but also damage to the heart.
This possibility has teachers and support staff understandably rattled.
“The thing that irritates me the most is the supposed requirement of a doctors note,” said one Cape May County teacher who wished to remain anonymous. “I am middle aged, relatively healthy and fit, and have no underlying conditions. So although I don’t have a doctors note that says I’m in need of an exemption, I am agreeing to subject my body to potential lung, heart, brain, or other organ damage. Damage that could be permanent.”
Lasting physical damage aside, while health concerns might be the overwhelming driver in determining whether or not to return to work, but they are certainly not the only factor. Practical scheduling issues and other seemingly mundane obstacles remain.
“Some parents need their kids to be taken care of so they can get back to work,” said one teacher. “Sending all students to one central location, like a school, seems like a recipe for disaster. There was an article I came across that talked about parents who were gathering their kids in small groups as a safe way to go back to work. I’d be more willing to “homeschool” the same group of kids all year if they were the only kids I was exposing myself to.”
There was also the issue of technical support, or lack thereof, from their district that had some teachers concerned.
“Some teachers don’t want to teach from home because they don’t feel they have the tech support to do that,” replied one teacher. “I don’t understand why we haven’t spent this summer hiring some tech-savvy people to go to teachers’ houses, see their setup and offer suggestions and tech support. We could have had training all summer on teaching teachers how to set up YouTube channels and break out classroom sessions.”
Jennifer Serravallo is an independent literacy consultant and former NYC DOE staffer. She is concerned that in-person teaching might end up being short-lived, if it happens at all, and that it might be even worse than remote instruction.
“Six foot separation between people, with desks facing front,” says Serravallo, “with plexiglass dividers, all while wearing masks in poorly ventilated classrooms, with no group work, no conferring, no collaboration, people who can’t really hear each other, instruction many kids can’t process. This is going to lead to some very stressed out teachers and students.”
In addition to the practical difficulties, they are being asked to do this while knowingly risking their own lives and the lives of their families.
“With each day passing, and every new convoluted hybrid plan floated (4 days on, 10 days home, 2 hours in, rest of the day home, in person once a week, the rest of the week at home) school leaders are being forced to focus on reconfiguring classrooms, re-doing bus routes, planning for what to do when a teacher gets sick, keeping kids separated in hallways, and a zillion other details,” explains Serravallo. “We are wasting precious time, where we could simply accept that remote instruction, while far from perfect, is still our safest option, and might even be the most pedagogically sound. It can be done well if we work to figure out how to make it better and more equitable.”
“I wish time and money was being spent now on figuring out how to make sure kids have a steady supply of actual books, because screen-based reading has lots of issues, especially with younger children,” offered Serravallo. “We need to make sure everyone is connected to WiFi with a device for each child, not just one per home. We need to provide math manipulatives and art supplies, so that most practice actually happens off-screen, and the devices are used to connect with teachers and other students. Maybe we could plan now to use the bus routes to get supplies sent around town. Or maybe the buildings could be opened—to get food and books, tech support, some services like OT and PT and S&LP that are best delivered in-person—but only if teachers and staff feel comfortable being there.”
Many have expressed concern that teachers need to know now what the coming year will look like instead of wondering, stressing and panicking.
“The sooner they know,” Serravallo argues, “the sooner they can engage in professional development, presumably provided by the district, on how best to lead effective synchronous instruction, building up a bank of curriculum-aligned pre-recorded lessons, or collaborating and learning from colleagues who had a good experience with remote instruction in March-May.”
“We should be reconsidering the teacher-student ratio for remote instruction so each teacher has somewhere around 15-20 kids,” said Serravallo. “Reallocate money from canceled standardized tests and hire more teachers. We need to hire more counselors as well, to be doing wellness checks and provide counseling for students and teachers.”
If that sounds expensive, it’s because it will be. Serravallo argues that schools should be getting the kind of bailout money that banks and airlines have received, but instead are facing even greater budget cuts.
“We closed schools in mid-March, when we were averaging 500 new cases a day in the United States,” says Serravallo. “A week ago, we exceeded new 75,000 cases in a single day. Our leaders are failing us by making impossible demands. They are in denial. We are wasting our time trying to get kids back into school buildings, when we should be looking at innovating remote-learning and figuring out ways to make it more effective.”
It’s time for our schools to be smarter than our leaders, and remain closed.