A couple of weeks ago, Dear Pandemic posted our joint opinion on reopening schools, and several teachers left feedback that indicated they have not felt heard in the ongoing discussion.
Taking that to heart, we asked a few K-12 teachers to do what they do best: educate us. What it would take for THEM to feel comfortable returning to school?
Here’s what they told us.
Teachers are worried about their students and they want to go back to in-person instruction.
“… in my opinion no virtual curriculum, no matter how skillfully presented can replace the learning that takes place in a classroom with a teacher and classmates. Until we are able to return to that model I fear we will be choosing among inferior alternatives.”
“The fissures that existed between those who have and those who have not have widened exponentially in the three months of virtual learning. At the high school level, it is the liminal students that have been irrevocably affected. It is the seniors, who hadn’t chosen which community college to go to, when no longer having access to the counselors, the peers, and the environment of learning, just stopped choosing, and now won’t go anywhere next year, or the year after that.
It is the seniors THIS year, who will need more than family to apply for college, and who won’t get it until the year is too far gone, and then they graduate, and no one is there to goad them anymore into continuing their education. For every student that will do just fine, there is another one that won’t go to college because of the lack of support systems in the digital platform. Those effects are generational, and hard to reverse. It is hard when you know those kids personally.”
“Working with students is the focus of my life. I love my students, and some of the highlights of my time during the school closure have been video conferences with students where we learn together, celebrate together, and hang out together. There is nothing I want more than to be back in the classroom full-time!”
But they’re also worried about their own safety.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel “comfortable” returning to school. I don’t think I ever really realized how germy and virusy they have always been until COVID. I am, of course, looking forward to teaching students in person, but school buildings . . . eek.”
“I am not sure what criteria I would need to see in the schools themselves, because I am not sure what level of control we could reasonably achieve in a building with 2000 people.”
“I still have no concept of how a high school could possibly function with community spread at even moderate levels. The contacts that students have in a day are enormous, not to mention how quickly those contacts spiderweb outward. Limiting class sizes would be somewhat beneficial, but barely, since 10 kids then see 10 kids and 10, and 10. I’ve wondered about cohorting students, but then that feels like complete tracking because students in Honors, AP level, advanced math/science courses would all be branching out while the “non” kids are stuck in one room all day with teachers rotating.”
“I’m fit and young. I like my chances should I develop COVID. But many of my colleagues are not in the same situation, and I’m afraid for them, as well as for my students and their families.”
We should prioritize younger and more vulnerable kids.
Teachers told us they would like to do a phased return to in-person instruction, prioritizing those kids with the greatest need.
“I’d like to know how we are supporting the students who need us most. Are there plans in place to prioritize students with different learning needs, those who are food insecure, those who are learning English?”
[I think there should be… “Different reopening criteria for elementary schools (grades K-5) and middle and high schools. I think that the educational stakes for our youngest students are higher during virtual learning and that the risks appear to be lower in this population as well.”
Getting control of the outbreak locally first is mandatory.
Every single teacher who responded hit on this point. Some said there should be a specific benchmark to return; others said it should just be moving in the right direction. Several said they would like to see some agreement on what that benchmark is among scientific sources, too. A few teachers also mentioned that it’s important to them to have continued limits on other points of community transmission–such as retail businesses, restaurants/bars, sporting events and travel.
“I’m an expert in teaching high school, not in epidemiology; I’d like to have criteria that I can feel confident about, and the clearest way that I can see that happening is to look at the places where experts agree.”
“At the very least, it seems reasonable that whatever metrics experts can agree on should be headed in a healthy direction for a set amount of time. Whether that’s ‘new infections decreasing for 21 days” or “deaths decreasing for 14 days,’ there should be evidence to indicate that the situation is moving in the right direction.”
“Community spread should be downward trending, and I don’t have a number in mind.”
“Honestly, open schools first and as quickly as possible. I would be okay with an infection rate as it stands and open schools, provided that all other businesses, bars, and non-essential services were shut down. If we continue to reopen other parts of the community, then schools will have to be virtual and hundreds of thousands of students’ prospects for their future will dim significantly.”
“I think knowing that society is prioritizing teacher safety by not opening bars, restaurants, sports arenas, etc before opening school would be lovely.”
Teachers want testing in the school setting.
Several teachers told us that a plan for routine testing of students and/or teachers in schools is a requirement for them.
“Testing capacity at the school.”
“Testing on a regular basis, perhaps group testing at regular intervals with contact tracing. I would like to see a mandatory bi-monthly testing of school employees and students.”
“Testing capabilities at schools–this might be the only place where students have access and resources to be tested.”
We need a plan for what happens when someone tests positive.
Nearly every teacher told us that they want to know what the plan is for when someone in the school tests positive.
“If my school, a high school with 3,200 students and another 500 staff, opens, I want to know how our larger community of 100K+ will be protected when someone becomes ill. Exactly how will we know, and what will happen next?”
“An articulated plan for what happens when a student is positive (who quarantines, how that time is paid for, does the whole school shut down?, etc., etc. etc.)”
“I would need a solid plan in place for what will happen when someone gets sick. Do we quarantine? Do we test? Does the whole school shut down?”
“I’d like to know the plan for what happens when a community member gets the virus.”
“Who pays for time off to quarantine?”
“A cooperative plan between [the district] and [the public health department] will alert schools that a student or staff member has tested positive without having to rely on people to self disclose.”
There are still more questions than answers about how physical distancing within schools might actually work.
“What to do with fire drills, tornado drills, code red? We will still need to practice these.”
“If we continue to pull students [out of their classrooms] so that we meet what was stated on their Individual Education Plans (IEPs), how will these individuals be kept safe in a small room with no windows and no ventilation systems to speak of, likely with groups of children?”
“I would want some answers on what the plan is for staff that are in multiple buildings and across multiple classrooms DAILY. I am at 5 schools and go into many classrooms. Would they request we limit our classrooms? Pull all our students [out of class]? Stay in one building for the entire day and not switch mid day? Etc.”
“How will response teams support students in distress? They’re already running from room to room and are stretched beyond thin – will they need to scrub down before going to the next emergency? How will rooms be cleared when a student is in distress? Where will they go?”
“How will kids socially distance on the bus? [We will] need better / safer drop off and pick up area for increased parent drivers.”
“Where will students go who may have COVID? If student A and B are both suspected of having it and are placed in a room to wait for parents to pick them up, but then it turns out only student A had it, did we just infect student B with it by placing them together?”
[With respect to] “distance between desks, where is the extra space to do this? Our classrooms are only so big.”
“Kids will have to be assigned a bathroom / stall and go on schedule and in shifts.”
“Who will take kids‘ and staff temperatures? Where will kids wait for this? What if the weather is bad?”
“Where will kids go between arrival and morning bell? After school?”
“What to do for indoor recess?” [Due to bad weather]
[How would you do] “staggered hallway times?”
“Football? Soccer? Basketball? Will these be allowed?”
Staggered schedules and hybrid plans–isn’t that just twice the work?
“They are considering cutting the classes in half, but that means that there will be double the amount of hours required to teach. I would need assistance in the grading and administration of the course in order to pull that off.”
“I don’t think the hybrid model will work well unless you have additional help. I can’t be teaching one pod of students while at the same time be required to grade and manage the online work of another pod.
“It’s not going to be possible to attend to a Zoom session of 24 and also a class of 12 simultaneously. Invariably, the online portions of the course are going to get less of the teacher’s attention than the in-person portions, and there’s a good chance that students could become stranded in a sea of busywork “packets” for most of their time.”
PPE and hand hygiene are high priority, but how do we make it happen?
Just about all teachers also told us that they would want masks to be mandatory, but there were a lot of questions about how that would work in practice–from who supplies them to who enforces them.
“Teacher and student PPE and cleaning supplies would need to be fully stocked in classrooms with a system for cleaning in between classes (that isn’t just the teacher scrambling during 7-minute passing time to prep for their next class and clean all the surfaces).”
“What will we do for kids who have no mask or their mask gets dirty? Make cloth masks and collect/ bleach them daily? Wash at school? (if this is the plan, we need a better washer and dryer).”
“I’d like to know what policies and procedures are in place for PPE and cleaning. What PPE will be required for students, staff, and teachers? Where will the PPE come from? How will policies and procedures be enforced?”
Easy for you to say…
Many, many comments were about the real challenges of following the sometimes glib recommendations from public health authorities in an already resource-deprived school setting. Challenges like windows that don’t open, not enough space, sinks that don’t work, and competing rules about school security are major barriers.
“We should be outdoors all day. It’s much safer.”
“When indoors, I would need to know that the HVAC system is working adequately to keep germs from spreading through the air.”
“Since I don’t have windows, I need to be able to open my doors.”
“Who is going to pay for fans in every room?”
[We need] “Shade trees and canopies to keep the classrooms from overheating.”
“How will we [keep windows and doors wide open] and maintain school safety for intruders? Need to make more windows, fix doors that serve as windows.”
“How to recharge tablets without stacking them up all together? We would need a place at each desk to put the tablets as well as student supplies.”
“Bathrooms need working sinks with no-touch water, soap, towels.”
“How will teachers get planning time? Where?”
“Where will staff be able to go for break or lunch?”
[We need] “extra time provided between classes to clean.”
“When and how often do I need to wash my hands, and how will I be able to do so given the one restroom available for 20 teachers on my hallway?”
“Kids should not be sharing lockers. There aren’t enough lockers.”
[All of us will need..] “A ****ing microphone. That’s right. Being able to be heard through a mask when, apparently, you’ll be teaching in one of the 30 cafeterias your school will need,.. well, it might make sense to have a banging sound system so you can last more than one week.”
Who will enforce the new rules?
And finally, a couple of teachers (especially at the high school level) said that they anticipate enforcement of all the new rules being a big problem.
[We’d need a] “closed campus to reduce contacts outside of school and allow for teachers/staff to police the rampant butt-touching, snot-sharing and mask-grabbing that happens (or would happen) in high schools.”
“Teenagers are wonderful, brilliant, creative, loving humans, and they are also sneaky liars. The sneaking part is their job! The point of adolescence is exploring and pushing boundaries, and that often means defying rules. What do I do when a student tells me they can’t or won’t wear their PPE? What about the kid who slips it off their nose repeatedly? Even if students are 100% compliant in my classroom, what about during lunch, between classes, or in the classroom of the more “relaxed” teacher down the hall?”