Planning to Teach in a Pandemic
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
Reflections on returning to in-person teaching and learning in the fall
As July wears on and the COVID-19 pandemic flares across the United States, the question of whether teachers and students should return to in-person schooling in the fall is feeling more urgent. President Trump's heavy-handed foray into this complicated issue took the form of an all-caps tweet declaring that schools must open. To be honest, I was enjoying a break from thinking about school and politics (I was miles away from civilization deep in the Adirondack woods when Trump fired off that tweet). I've since been thinking more about the coming school year and have been trying to understand the facts around the reopening question. I've read a number of articles on the topic (this one covers many of the basics), listened to several hours of podcasts, and of course have seen the many social media posts from my fellow educators (these run the gamut from exasperation to despair).
This spring was a reminder of the importance of schools to our the well-being of our students, the health of our economy, and the success of our society in general. The promise of remote learning was tested and generally found wanting. Companies from across the educational economy assailed me and my colleagues with free trials, webinars, and digital resources that would be "game changers" for our students as they adjusted to remote learning. While some of these tools were useful, none were substitutes for the simple act of being present with students in our classrooms. Families and parents were faced with monitoring, supervising, and encouraging their children as they navigated unfamiliar digital learning platforms. Many families lacked the time or the resources to offer this support. As a special education teacher, I watched some of our neediest students fall off the radar or become frustrated and overwhelmed by the new demands of online learning. Beyond the troubling gaps in educational progress, schools struggled to provide for students in food-insecure households. Tragically, there's evidence that a significant number of cases of child abuse and neglect have gone unreported.
So we all should be able to agree- we want our kids to be in school and teachers want to be there too. The question is, can we do it safely?
We know more about COVID-19 than we did when schools closed in March. Schools have opened in other countries, mostly after community spread of the virus had been controlled. Daycare centers that have opened in the U.S. have reported relatively few instances of infection. Although serious illness is possible, children tend to experience milder symptoms when they are infected with COVID-19 and seem to contract the disease at lower rates than adults. But our traditional indoor school environment is still risky. Rapid spread of the disease in the school setting was demonstrated in Israel in June and this led officials there to rethink their reopening plans. Even if children might not be at high risk for suffering the worst symptoms of the disease, many teachers and support staff in U.S. schools are in high risk groups. Some of our neediest students live in homes with grandparents and other individuals who are at high risk.
Investment in public schools in the U.S. has traditionally been uneven (to put it charitably) and school buildings are often particularly unsuited to hosting teaching and learning in the socially distanced, well-ventilated spaces recommended by epidemiologists. For example, my classroom is so small that it is unlikely that I'll be able to teach in it this fall. It has no windows and the ventilation unit installed in the ceiling is of a mid-twentieth century design. It's so loud and ineffective, I asked our maintenance team to disable it last year. Another classroom in which I co-teach 9th grade math is larger and better ventilated, but regularly hosts 28 students and four educators. Even still, I know that my school building is in much better shape than many of our nation's schools (including ones I have taught in personally).
I've heard some arguments that educators are "essential" workers and thus should accept the risks of working in an environment that may be unsafe. When I hear this, I consider the other essential workers in our pandemic economy (e.g., hospital staff, nurses, EMTs, grocery store workers) and how our government has regularly failed to plan for their safety as this crisis has unfolded. In the last few months, politicians have prioritized economic reopening over the safety of these workers and vocally rejected sensible precautions such as cloth masks. Although I respect and applaud our essential workers, it's hard to get excited about joining their ranks after watching our government fail to do the minimum to protect them so far.
While teachers may agree that their work is essential, we deserve a plan that takes into account our best knowledge of the risks that we and our students face. Educators are used to "making do" with obsolete facilities and inadequate materials. In addition to our work as teachers, we are expected to address hunger, trauma, and the other effects of income inequality on our society. All these challenges will be exacerbated by the economic disaster that is accompanying this pandemic. Whether schools should be charged with continuously trying to patch these holes in our societal fabric is an important question. But as autumn approaches, schools cannot be expected to perform these roles without help. Since state and local governments are facing calamitous budget shortfalls, that means we need federal leadership and federal dollars.
In the last few days, I've been reading distressing articles about the way that the pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities. I've already mentioned some of the ways that remote instruction is inherently difficult for children living in poverty (about 20% of children in the U.S.) and for those families that cannot be home to supervise children during school hours. This article describes the burgeoning popularity of tutoring companies and Facebook groups that seek out and connect well-resourced families with teachers who they can pay to work with their students on their remote assignments. Private schools are also rolling out ambitious reopening plans. Some of these schools have well-updated campuses with room to safely teach students in person. One school described in this article has an epidemiologist on staff and has installed infrared detectors in their hallways to monitor student temperatures. These upgrades were paid for by donations from donors and alumni.
I'm not faulting teachers who work at private schools nor those who may decide it makes more financial sense for them to work as tutors this fall. I also understand why parents would choose to enroll their children in these schools or hire those tutors (especially if their child is immunocompromised or otherwise especially vulnerable). I even applaud the creativity that some of these private schools have shown as they plan for the fall. But I don't want to live in a society where the wealthiest families are able to take advantage of high-quality, safe education while the 90% of U.S. students that are educated in public schools are left with a patchwork of unfunded mandates and wishful thinking.
So what needs to happen? I like this article from Science Magazine because it clearly spells out what we know about safely reopening schools. I mentioned a few of their findings earlier, but here are a some others that seem key (as well as some government actions that would seem to follow from them):
High rates of community spread make schools significantly more dangerous. The difficult truth is that opening high-risk businesses such as bars and gyms will likely preclude successful school reopening. While the economic cost of keeping these businesses shuttered is undeniable, the damage that closed schools do to children and communities over time will be catastrophic. Our government must move to preserve these high-risk businesses and support their employees until they can safely be reopened.
Masks might not be necessary in all school settings, even though they have shown to help control the spread of airborne particles. Some schools around the world have asked students to wear masks in certain environments (such as hallways) but not in others (such as when seated at their socially distanced desks). Even still, all schools must be able to provide students and staff with masks. School nurses must be provided with higher quality PPE. Janitorial staff must have proper protection as well. New personnel should be hired as needed so the school environment can be kept as safe and clean as possible.
If students are kept in "pods" (self-contained groups of teachers and students) that don't interact with each other, full school closure could be avoided in some cases. For example, if a student tests positive for the virus, those in their immediate pod could be subject to monitoring or quarantine without affecting the rest of the school. This is easier to implement at the primary level where student schedules can be more amenable to such groupings.
Some social distancing is important to keep everyone safe in an indoor environment. In many districts, this will mean major changes to class sizes. Schools need money to hire new personnel to fit the needs of their new scheduling realities.
School buildings vary widely in the quality of their construction and ventilation. Certain schools may need funds to update their HVAC systems to ensure safe air circulation. This will be especially important for schools situated in areas that experience cold winters and may not be able to open windows for ventilation during large stretches of the school year.
No matter the approach, there will be students, teachers, and staff who will not be able to return to school due to underlying health concerns or family members who are in high risk group. A remote program must be available for these students. It may not be realistic to ask teachers to manage such a program while also teaching traditional classes. Additional teachers may need to be hired or existing teachers must be compensated for the added labor of maintaining parallel educational programs.
Some positive cases are all but inevitable in a school community that returns to in-person instruction. There have been a variety of responses when this has happened in schools around the world. One or two cases might not necessitate full closure but much more than that probably would. Schools need clear guidance grounded in the best available science as they develop plans for this occurrence. These plans must then be carefully communicated to the community.
Even in the best case scenario, a return to some form of remote learning seems likely, especially during our regular flu season. Because of this, plans must be made to smoothly transition to an online curriculum. That means supporting students and families with the necessary technology to be able to participate. The fact that many households do not have access to high speed internet is unacceptable. The internet is now an essential utility (and if remote learning resumes, one necessary for the delivery of public education). Our government must step in to ensure that families have reliable, fast internet access.
As I write this, my school district has not yet released its plan for the fall. I appreciate the difficult work that my school leadership team is doing as they try to anticipate every epidemiological scenario, protect the safety of students and staff, assuage the fears of worried families, abide by (forthcoming?) government health and education guidelines, and... also try ensure that students are able to learn. I'm not optimistic that we'll ultimately get all the help we need. However, I know that my district is in a comparatively strong position due to an early embrace of digital tools like Chromebooks and a relatively healthy budget coming into this crisis. I worry about my colleagues around the country who are not as fortunate. As for me, I'll keep working through my curricula, trying to figure out ways to incorporate digital resources and smooth a transition to one of several possible teaching realities. Hopefully, our leaders can find it in themselves to follow the science and work together to plan for safe and successful school year.