Opening schools: The dilemma
There are so many arguments around reopening schools this fall, and it’s become a political juggernaut The first thing our educational leaders need to realize is that there is no silver bullet. Our national leaders have failed to lead, leaving it up to states and districts to determine the best course. Normally, I would say that local decision making is appropriate for determining the fate of schools, but in this case, they are working while having a loaded gun pointed at them. Trump threatens to withhold Federal funds from anyone not opening schools. Putting aside the fact that it is Congress who legislates fundings, this act simply increases the pressure on school leaders. The news stories point out that Federal funding makes up a small proportion of school funding, which is true, but it is still millions of dollars.
And that’s the problem…but what’s the solution? As I said, there is no silver bullet. Furthermore, decisions need to be made by three groups of people: School leaders, school employees, and parents. Each informs the other, and my group of friends consists of all three. What follows is a summary of two months of discussions.
You may not have a choice but to open schools to in-person learning. State leaders rarely defy this president, and all I see so far is guidance on “best practices” with few solid answers. Administrators must now must prepare a school opening plan knowing that someone is liable to walk into their school with the coronavirus. So, the question is: how do you protect the rest of the people in your building from the one infected person all while maintaining a strong learning environment? No problem, right?
I watched a friend who teaches in an international school in Europe post stories about their reopening. There was only one door to enter the school, barriers forced a line, and six foot stickers were on the ground. Every person had their temperature taken upon entry. Anyone with a temperature at or above 100 degrees was not allowed in. In the hallways, there were lines taped down with arrows, and hall monitors to try to make the corridors simple walkways and not gathering places with kids pushing past each other.
A school principal friend of mine said she’d try to reorganize schedules to keep the students in one classroom and have the teachers rotate. (She’s a middle school principal.) Of course, she was stuck on science labs, music room, and art class. We still believe physical education and recess are important, but they have to be outside. And, equipment must be wiped down at every use. Can we still keep kids in a single “pod” with most teachers rotating in, and kids moving as a group to the classrooms with special equipment? And, of course, the temperature taking, hall monitoring, equipment cleaning all require personnel. To me, it sounds as if every school needs to hire more staff, although I have no idea where that money comes from.
Back to my friend in Europe…her school divided the kids in half, with half of the students attending school on odd days and half attending on even days. The teachers worked towards project-based learning with hefty assignments for students on the days “off” to try to minimize learning loss. This seems like a promising approach, if it wasn’t for the one fact most of us face in the United States: most parents need to work and do not want to leave their children unsupervised every other day.
Every school staff member is going to decide whether or not to continue their job at the school knowing the likelihood that someone will walk into their workplace with a deadly virus is high. They may make that decision on a daily basis. Support staff have always been the backbone of a school, but now we will ask them to keep our kids safe from this virus. In many schools, they will be the ones checking temperatures, wiping down equipment, and monitoring hallway traffic. Building engineers and maintenance workers must become anti-virus experts. Cafeteria workers will still need to feed our students, but they may need to deliver food to classrooms, rather than welcoming multiple classrooms in the cafeteria. Buffets are discouraged, and changing to plated meals will be a new process for many.
Most teachers are in this profession because they care passionately about students. And that caring extends to the students’ physical and emotional well-being. Now teachers are being asked to continue doing that work under untenable circumstances. Additionally, they need to rethink their teaching to what must be taught face-to-face, and what can they assign as projects to do at home or online? What do they need to accomplish first, if school suddenly goes back to remote learning? Some states are sending mixed messages about the most important standards. Teachers have become accustomed to teaching to the standards, but if standards are now prioritized, what does that really imply? Is it just for this year that some standards are de-prioritized? Will the state summative assessments reflect that change? Most state standards are built along a theory of a learning progression. Teachers understand how to teach it in a brick-and-mortar classroom. The challenge is figuring out how to help students learn the standard without as much face-time with the teacher.
Importantly, teachers also need to consider how they continue to monitor the welfare of their students if they do not see them in school. The most heartbreaking stories I read last spring were about teachers losing track of their students and worrying that they were not okay. Contact numbers were out of date, or students simply did not return messages. My only advice to teachers there is to ensure you have everyone’s contact information at the beginning of the year, and do not give up if a student stops responding to remote learning. I have heard heartwarming stories of students finally reaching out, because they realized there was one person who cared: their teacher. We know domestic violence increased during the stay-at-home orders, and that is still a reality for many students.
But, let’s not overlook the elephant in the room: every staff member will be asked to do more than they ever have in the past with no additional compensation. At the very least school leaders need to think about how to support the mental well-being of their staff. Many of us have been advocating for an increase in school counselors for years. Now, this request becomes even higher on the priority list. And, the counseling isn’t just for students, but for teachers who have also had their worlds turned upside down, and support staff who are so vital to the well-being of the students but who are now on the front-lines of stopping this virus.
Finally, no matter what school leaders and staff do to prepare for incoming students, ultimately, it’s the parents who have to decide what is the best course of action for their child/ren. I’ve had parents tell me they feel they have to choose between their children’s mental well-being or physical health. Kids learn better in school, and the social interactions are so important in K–12. But, the risk of coronavirus appearing in any brick-and-mortar building increases with every person who steps inside. Although it is a very small percentage, there have been some kids who have gotten very sick and are left with permanent lung or organ damage, and some of them have died. More likely, they will carry the virus back home. Depending on the health of others in the home, this could be dangerous for some families. But most parents are not teachers. Last spring erased any doubts about the importance of good teachers. Teaching is not a skill set we are all blessed with or can even learn. Are parents prepared to facilitate online instruction and/or remote learning? And, are they in a circumstance where they can be home with their children?
As tempting as trying to reduce the number of kids in school is, I don’t see how that goal can be realized as parents need to go back to work. I’ve seen plans to have kids in school every other day, or split them into morning or afternoon classes, but what do the parents do the half day or every other day the kids are home? This is not an easy problem for anyone to solve. If communities open churches or centers up to support this type of learning, are we just creating another place to transmit the virus?
There is no obvious answer to any of these questions. I find myself getting irritated by politicians sounding like there is a silver bullet just waiting to be found. We are in a brand-new world that will be dangerous until a proven vaccine is widely available. We need to give each other some grace. School leaders, school staff, and parents will make decisions that others think are wrong or illogical. I believe that at the local level, everyone will be balancing the best interests of the children with the best interests of the community. Support them. Be kind.
And wear a mask.