reopening schools

Learning and Risk and Coronavirus

My classroom, already empty for months, an hour or so before I checked out for the year at the end of May.

Just before the district offices shut down for their usual summer break—one that will be less than half the length it usually is this year—they sent out an internal draft of our plan for returning to school in the “fall” (which in this case means the second week of August). I can’t go into the details for a variety of reasons, but the broad contours resemble the plans and bits of plans that have been floating for the last several weeks: options for parents and students; emphasis on masks, distance, and sanitizing for those students who will be on campus at least part of the time; some preliminary suggestions of how teachers’ responsibilities for face to face and virtual learning might be split up. 

As I mentioned, it’s a draft, and a district level draft, which means much of the implementation still needs to get ironed out at the campus level. (I expect that this will be happening right up to the day school starts.) There’s a sprawl of complications: how will students get to school? How do we deal with students wanting to socialize? And ultimately: how do we minimize risk while maintaining as much educational benefit as possible? 

And ultimately: how do we minimize risk while maintaining as much educational benefit as possible?

It’s that concept of minimizing risk that is the hardest. When many parents were suddenly thrust into managing their children and their children’s “distance learning” back in March, there was, if not an outpouring, at least a wave of expression of sympathy for teachers and how complex our jobs are. Now, especially with the American Academy of Pediatrics encouraging as much education as possible to occur in the classroom, minimizing risk in schools has become another flashpoint in our collective navigation of the pandemic.

I think that you would be hard pressed to find a teacher who would argue that remote learning works best for most students. (There are definitely some, especially in the secondary grades, for whom it does, but they’re a minority.) When we are in the classroom with our students, we are able to read those students and quickly adapt to their needs. You can’t do that with pre-recorded lessons, nor can you do it effectively in an online discussion in which you only see students’ faces. By training and by practice, effective teachers are intensely interactive with their students, even when that interaction means giving them space to figure things out on their own for a bit. 

Assuming that education works best in person, how do we do that? How do we minimize risks? My campus is slated to be over capacity this year while we wait for a new building to open. Managing transition between classes is a crazy problem on its own, never mind what happens inside classrooms. Even if a significant number of students opt for remote lessons, if I am teaching in person sections I can expect to see at least 100 different students every day, possibly up to last year’s 150. (And my load is on the lighter side for a core subject teacher because my AP classes tend to run small.) That brings me into contact not only with those students, but with everybody they have been in contact with: their families, their friends, their coworkers, their customers…to teach in a classroom is to jump back into the deep end of the pool of social contact. How can we even think about risk management in that situation?

We could, as a society, throw resources at it: more buildings, creating outdoor teaching spaces where they are viable, more people employed in education. (This would be a real emergency for “emergency certification.”) That would make more socially distanced classrooms practical, but it gets expensive very, very quickly. It can be disgustingly difficult to get funding for American public education in times of plenty. How are we supposed to throw money at it when the economy is running off the rails and state and local governments are facing major budget shortfalls? Barring a sudden and unexpected groundswell of public agitation for it, I don’t expect we’ll solve this problem with real estate and rapid hiring.

It’s got to be solved somehow, though. Much of the function of our society is predicated on parents being able to put their children in public schools during the day. That’s how we expect people to have jobs and children at the same time. The harder it is for students to be on campus, in classrooms, the harder it is for parents to work. Whom do we make choose between paying rent and educating their child? The families most affected by the quasi-shutdowns of the spring (which were, remember, three quarters of the way through the year and thus “reasonable” to shift toward review and consolidation for the online components) were low income families where the choice had to be paying rent. 

So we try to minimize risk. That puts teachers in the middle of things. We’re being asked to assume risk. I think it’s reasonable to push, as a profession, for that risk to be managed and considered with the best information available. I think it’s reasonable to be scared; COVID-19 is potentially deadly and we’re seeing more and more that not all recoveries are complete. I think we have to keep paying attention to the research, watching our peers in other countries who have already gone back to school, and adjust what we’re doing as necessary.

But we have to do. We can’t eliminate risk.

But we have to do. We can’t eliminate risk. I have a job to do, and I want do it well. I care. That means being in the classroom for the students. Do I dread the first time I have a student in my largely conservative community throw a fit about keeping their mask on? Yes. Absolutely. (The politicization of elementary public health measures has been, despite stiff competition, the most maddening thing for me about 2020.) Do I worry that I might end up with scarred lungs and a lifetime of reduced lung capacity at a time when one party is still trying to allow insurance companies to refuse to cover pre-existing conditions? Yeah. For sure. I also worry about somebody running a red light at one of the bad intersections on my commute and killing us both. There is more to life (and more to risk) than the novel coronavirus.

We had our high school graduation at the beginning of June, at the football stadium with a limited audience in blocked off sections of the stands and all the seats for the graduates six feet apart on the field. The moment the mortarboards went up in the air, all that vanished. The students were all hugs and high fives and treating social distance in ways that would get you kicked out of a middle school dance. Managing risks when your brain is still developing capacity for rational thought is hard.  

I took care of myself that night: I was good about keeping my mask on, and though I hated it, I skipped my usual slow rotation through the crowds to wish my students personal farewells. I went straight out to my car after the ceremony and then home, where I washed my hands for twenty seconds. It had been a good ceremony. There were fireworks, and both the valedictorian’s speech and my principal’s speech were models of taking strong positions without demonizing or excluding people who might disagree. 

The ceremony was worth having. Those speeches were worth hearing. Those mortarboards, so help me, were worth throwing into the air. There are so many ways in which signing up to be a teacher is already signing up to be on the front lines of public health. We’re mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect. We watch our students wrestle with mental health. Do you need to ask what a bad flu season looks like from the classroom? I’m worried (and none of this has even touched on my worries as a parent)…but the rewards of my job are worth the work to minimize the risk rather than sacrificing even more of our children’s education in an attempt to eliminate it.