By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder
When politicians and parents demand schools to reopen, a majority of them do not have a plan for how it should happen or how to do it safely. As with most mandates, they make a statement, and then throw it to the schools to figure out.
Of course, that protects them from any important decision making and throws the responsibility and liability on the schools. Those same people who pushed for reopening will be the first to blame the schools if and when those decisions result in the death of a child.
By the numbers
I’m not into the numbers game, but I have repeatedly heard the comment that the death rate for children is very small. One number used in this argument is .0016, for the death rate for children. However, just for the sake of argument, with 1,046,269 preK-12 grades students in Indiana .0016 equals 1,674 student deaths.
One troubling thing about that number is that because schools have been closed that number may or may not be realistic. Until schools reopen and students are in that environment it is too soon to know the real susceptibility of children because the current data is not based on a true school setting.
When you are an outsider those are just numbers, but when you are a teacher, those are bodies in your classroom with sweet faces, big personalities, and endless possibilities of hopes and dreams. All teachers and school districts who have experienced the death of a student know how devastating it is and that it has lifelong effects on the students in the class and the teachers who knew them.
I believe there is no acceptable death rate for children.
Schools provide necessities
Conversely, I also know that as schools have had social care added to their list of duties, parents and students have come to depend on them for mental, physical, and emotional care. Schools provide food stability, day care, pre and after school care, safety intervention, entertainment, health care, clothing, and the list goes on…
We have created a culture that depends on schools to take care of problems and protect kids from their own families, so no one questions the inherent need of schools. No doubt, the mental and physical dangers for some students make having school open imperative.
Openings in other countries
It is also true that other countries have opened schools somewhat successfully. The one ingredient missing in the United States that is found in those countries is compliance. Students and parents are following the recommendations of the scientific community, and the trajectory of COVID-19 cases is also decreasing in those countries.
Where it gets tricky is that in the land of the free where everyone is proclaiming their right to “do what I want,” we have also created an environment that has turned away from science and that has become consistently political. That makes the Mask vs No Mask argument very tricky as some schools are requiring them, while others are making it optional.
If we are smart, we will learn from the successes and failures of other countries. Based on the United States current infection rate compared to other countries, it is hard to believe as a country we will try to learn from others.
Educators are left out of the equation
The interesting factor in all of this is that parents are polled, politicians weigh in, random people on the street are asked what they think, task forces of non-educators are formed, but the people who know education, school environments, and students the best are being left out of the equation.
Here’s why these “suggestions” by non-educators matter.
Just keep kids 6 feet apart
This suggestion sounds simple unless you’ve tried to herd cats, (I mean kindergartners), and for that matter, freshman boys, middle schoolers, couples in LOVE, or friends that haven’t seen each other for five months.
Students are social creatures. They hug, touch, push, tickle, grab, high-five, and get in each other’s faces about every .6 seconds. Even when you tell them to stand in a line, stay 6 feet apart, not touch each other, any teacher can tell you the odds of that happening without a touch is about zero. They can’t help themselves, and developmentally they don’t understand that their actions can be harmful.
Just decrease the number of kids in each room
Okay, and put them where? Schools don’t have the funding for their current needs, so many classrooms are overcrowded with students. Do we sit students outside? Rent out empty warehouses? Of course that requires more teachers (no funding). Run multiple bus routes (and where are the bus drivers and funding for that)?
Have students stay in the same room all day, no eating in the cafeteria, no recess, no passing periods
Much of the advice might work at the elementary level, but when students change classes and have different schedules, how do you keep them out of the halls, have a place for them to safely eat, avoid moving from room to room? You don’t.
And if we are keeping students from the social aspect of schools have we just entirely negated the mental health aspect of returning? So much conflicting advice.
Sound advice and accurate medical advice, and in some states and school districts they are even supplying a mask for each student. That sounds great.
But if you are an educator you know that even in the dead of winter when the temperature is 5 degrees, the lost and found closet is full of winter coats and sweatshirts. If students can’t hang onto a coat when it is below freezing, what are the odds of them keeping track of a mask?
And, as a teacher you know that no matter how simple a request is, you’ve always got “those students.” Ever try to tell a kid to put away their cell phone on the daily? Now add these comments to your daily list: put on your mask; cover your nose and mouth; keep it off your head, it’s not a hat; don’t wear it around your neck; don’t touch your mask; take it off your ears; quit using it as a slingshot; those are not handcuffs so don’t tie your friend up… You get the idea, and if you are a teacher you immediately picture the kids you will have to say those things to.
Teachers can also tell you that in many homes, cleaning and hygiene are not something that happens on a regular basis in some homes. That one mask may not be washed frequently, or if ever. If you don’t believe that you have not been in a school and have no idea what some kids come to school like.
Keep students and staff at home if they have a fever or symptoms
This should be common sense, however looking at the outbreaks of flu in schools each year, it is evident that people do not follow this advice very well. Parents give their kids Tylenol to reduce fevers and send them to school because they have to go to work. Even at the beginning of the day, sick students are sent to the nurse, and some parents won’t come and get them, so they stay in the nurse’s office (assuming the school has a nurse, and many do not).
Any teacher can also tell you they have worked with teachers who come to school sick because they are out of sick days or preparing for a sub is harder than being at work. It happens quite frequently. Also, how will we know if the sniffles, coughs and sneezes that happen when school starts at the fall allergy season are normal or something more sinister?
Do temperature checks
Okay, simple enough, right? Explain how this one will work in a school of 1,000 plus students waiting for temperature checks while also maintaining 6 feet of social distancing, getting into the building quickly (you know because of school safety protocols), and having school start on time.
Are schools again expected to pay for the labor and touch free thermometers which currently have a supply shortage? Another option has been to require students and faculty to self-monitor this from home each day. Yes, that will happen.
14 day quarantine for classes and teachers exposed
While this is necessary, it is very difficult at the upper grades where a student may have sat in 7 different classes and exposed 7 teachers plus over 150 students. Where does a school find 7 substitutes for 14 days who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way for $8-10 an hour?
Turn off water fountains, but provide water
Again, this is necessary and sound advice, but yet another added expense for schools to figure out how to pay for. In Indiana alone with 1,046,269 students, how many bottles of water will schools go through a day? Where will this daily extra expense come from?
Use hand sanitizer and sanitize all surfaces between uses
Yes. This is a must, but finding enough sanitizer as all schools start will be interesting. I read that as part of one initiative, each teacher would receive a 4 oz bottle of hand sanitizer. Hmm. With an average of 25 students that should last until about 8 a.m. on day one. Then what?
Where will all the cleaning supplies come from? Who pays for the additional workers to clean between uses, and who pays for all the cleaner? With bare-bones staff and limited budgets this is an actual concern.
Limit congregating in common areas
Advice ranges from staggering arrival times, assigning students to use different entrances, staggering class release times to scheduling restroom breaks. In a very small school with one teacher for 25 students this might be doable. Move that to a large elementary or middle school and high school rotation schedules and it blows the mind to imagine how this could work and have actual learning take place. Plus, who polices all those students at these staggering times while also covering the classroom?
Use warm, soapy water
I want a show of hands for how many schools have hot water for students to use. There are students who avoid the restroom all day because it is too crowded. Social distancing with 10 restroom stalls, 8 sinks, and 400 female students becomes a nightmare.
Simultaneously teach your classroom students and your online students
Yes, teachers want to engage with all of their students, but I have yet to see someone explain how engaging students at home while also engaging the students in your classroom works. How can you stand in front of your computer camera so your at home students see you while also walking around your classroom maintaining classroom control and answering questions?
And the list of suggestions goes on…
Listen to the true experts
Throughout this entire pandemic school reopening puzzle, I have said I’m glad I’m not the person having to make all these decisions. After 32 years in education, I don’t have the expertise to know how this will work best. I certainly don’t have the answers, nor do I believe anyone actually does. The experts are continually discovering new information about how this virus acts and adapts which makes decision making even harder.
People who claim their expertise on what schools should do, most often have never stood in the shoes of administrators or teachers.
There is a term I use for the so-called-experts-of-anything. There are the Couch Coaches who usually have never played the sport, but yell at the TV and question every decision a coach makes. There are the Couch Doctors who have no scientific degree of any type, but give medical advice for things they know nothing about. There are the Couch Lawyers who watched Law and Order or some other show and freely give law advice to anyone who will listen.
And, there are the Couch Educators who attended school, so they now feel like they are experts in education.
I am highly suspicious of all of the above, and have found them to be all talk with no substance. At the best they are annoying, and at the worst they are dangerous.
What I do know is that schools will try to make the best decisions they can for the students in their care. We can hope those decisions will be based on safety for students and faculty and not the convenience of parents or the wishes of politicians.
There are no absolutes in the decisions about school reopening. No one knows the very best answer. Unfortunately, trial, error, and time will expose the right decisions.
I know that teachers want to do their jobs, but if there are teachers who seem nervous, keep in mind that they will be walking into a live petri dish every day, doing their very best to teach and love their students, and doing so at their own risk.
Teachers are amazingly adaptable, but they are not superhuman.
Please share your own thoughts in the comments below.