Teachers at my school report back in exactly one month from today. We haven’t heard about what our school’s plan of action is yet, so I can’t say precisely how it’s going to look. UPDATE:, Chicago Public Schools did release a hybrid model earlier this week, but it leaves me with more questions than answers. It’s frustrating because the people who should make these decisions, who are experts in their fields, whose full-time job entails exactly this, don’t know what to do; and in the end, the burden will fall on the shoulders of teachers and local school administrations.
8/19/20 UPDATE: CPS has decided to resume school entirely remotely – https://www.chicagotribune.com/coronavirus/ct-cps-remote-learning-fall-plan-20200819-f2npc2ph75f5dhqahwywt7mqha-story.html
I think the fact the decision is being left up to local educators and administrators is a farce. They’ll do the best they can (they always do), send out staff and family surveys, look at the data, and make a decision – but none of them work for the CDC – and so even the most informed possible decision is going to be made without all the knowledge needed. It’s unfortunate that issues like “wearing a mask” or “discussing the pandemic” have become political. Still, we need to talk about them now before we thrust hundreds of thousands of children into a petri dish of a school and hope for the best. If you are a teacher you need to educate yourself on this topic because you have a voice, and that voice carries weight.
I want to start by saying I am a lifelong learner, and I think the closing of our schools is doing an incalculable amount of damage to the development of the young minds of this generation. I am for an in-person return in some way, shape, or form, even if it’s a partial hybrid model. I know that these school closing are disproportionally impacting low-income, as well as black & brown families, in much more severe ways. They’re less likely to have a parent working from home and less likely to have access to the learning materials and technology that makes learning-at-home successful. I think the social aspect of in-person schooling is increasingly important in our fragmented digital world (as is screen time). You can’t replicate group projects and in-person collaboration through remote learning, and so I think re-opening school should happen as soon as possible. However, it needs to be as safe as possible too, and that’s why I have some concerns.
Let’s start with an obvious concern…
Let’s assume a typical class of 30 students. The simplest version is the K-4 self-contained class, with no switching or blending. Immediately we would probably have to reduce capacity to 50% (just like bars and restaurants), which displaces literally half your students. (CPS called these “pods”) Then you have to protect those students by enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing. I have to assume the school now needs to provide masks? (UPDATE: CPS says they’ve purchased 1.2 million masks) What will the protocol be for this? Do they queue outside of school every day? Once inside the building, we’ll need NEW procedures and schedules for every aspect of their new lives: bathroom breaks, class transitions, enrichment classes, lunch, recess, dismissal, etc. Everything is going to need to be staggered and supervised, and these schedules need to be in place day 0. This will become increasingly complicated for middle and high schools where students switch between classrooms and subject teachers. We’ll have to severely limit how many attend lunch and recess at the same time (if they get recess) break up the seating in the common areas, and then sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. Alternatively, we could keep students in their classroom for the entire day and have lunch delivered, but this isolating can be draining on both the teacher and the students, which makes me wonder…. what are the consequences for students that break these new norms? When you catch a student with their mask off in the hallway, or breaking social distancing by hanging out in the bathroom? These are just the in-school worries, but what about bussing? Remote learning? Equal access to tech and Wi-fi? Lastly of course is testing, and I don’t mean standardized testing. Will the school provide Covid tests? How often? Will they mandate families do them on their own time & dime? So that when (not if) a student tests positive how do we protect them, their classmates, and the entire community? How will school administrators deal with parents who don’t want to send their students to school for health and safety reasons (will there be an “opt-out’ movement again)? What is the policy for when a student tests positive, is it just them who must quarantine, their class, their grade, (along with the teacher), or the entire school? These decisions need to be established before the year begins, and the sooner the better so teachers can begin preparing.
We just really want to know the plan so we can begin preparing. Honestly, the field is lucky because teachers by nature are very ingenuitive and resilient. However, I think a lot of the decisions that need to be made shouldn’t be their responsibility. Teachers are essentially going to have to re-think how to approach their entire profession, for the second time this year. I’ll talk more about my concerns with that later, but for now, let’s focus on just keeping teachers safe. Again, obviously, PPE will be required, but will it be provided? (UPDATE: Yes – 1.2m masks) We’ll interact with both our students (as an enrichment teacher I will literally see ALL of them) and the other staff members – how often are we tested? Will it be mandatory, will there be on-site testing, will time be provided to go get tested, or is it on our own time & dime? When (not if) a teacher tests positive, I assume a two-week quarantine will be in order. Will the quarantine be considered medical leave, or are teachers expected to use sick days? Who will take over their classroom in the meantime (are subs even a thing anymore?) The staff at my school is mostly young, but what about an older teacher, or pregnant one? Will accommodations be made for “at-risk” adults? The same protections and precautions that are made available for medical professionals are going to need to be provided for teachers as well. All of this is going to place additional burdens on teachers who will already be asked to go over and beyond their typical responsibilities, and that it brings me to my last concern:
How is this even going to work? We all agree that online learning is not an adequate substitute for in-person teaching, but this is assuming pre-Covid classrooms. Now, students are going to have to sit in desks the entire day, 6-feet apart, while they learn and work independently. Gone are the days of collaboration, group work, sharing, projects, presentations, and peer-to-peer interaction. My school has shifted towards a 21st century personalized learning classroom with flexible seating; meaning students typically sit at tables or small groups – I don’t know if we even have enough desks. Same for supplies, working with manipulatives or any other physical object is going to be off-limits. As a music teacher, I don’t know what I’m going to do – because I can’t let kids play instruments and I can’t exactly have the kids sing either. How will blending or subject specific classrooms look? Or for that matter, special education, interventionists, and paraprofessionals – are they allowed to be in the classroom, or are they pulling out their students (but then that’s another problem of mixing more kids or finding more space). How will you accommodate IEPs or 504’s? Teachers are going to have to radically change the way they approach teaching, and students are going to have to be open to new (and honestly less engaging) ways of learning.
And that is the just “in-person” aspect of our new reality. Teachers are going to have to essentially have a second job of re-creating their content digitally. Remember we discussed in my first point that schools will most likely operate at ½ capacity, so the teacher’s time should realistically be split 50/50. Will school administration design a schedule that makes this possible (remember we’ll be redesigning the curriculum from the ground up)? Unfortunately, the most likely scenario is that 100% of the school day will be dedicated to our in-person classes and the implementation of the digital aspect will take place during our lunch break or after typical school hours. Going back to equity, all students might not have the resources to work at home, so then does it become the teacher’s job to prepare alternative resources for them? Will teachers need to submit multiple lesson plans, separate grades, or will we be allowed to grade at all? How accountable can we hold students for this aspect of their curriculum?
This is an opportunity to re-think our approach and the functionality of what school is and can be. There is a viewpoint that the child should grow as an individual; learning not just content, but socially and emotionally as well. Then, there’s the aspect where school helps them fit into social systems, getting a high test score can help you into a selective school, which can set you up for success. Unfortunately one of these schools of thought carries much more weight (and funding) than the other one. However, we canceled standardized tests last year and why couldn’t we do this again? We can use that money to help fund additional staff and supplies needed at schools. This will help keep class sizes down and provide supports for both students and families. There is a huge discrepancy with how much these preventative measures will cost, CPS estimates it at less than $75m, but the CTU is saying as much as $1.7b. Plus, over 400 new custodians will be hired to help sanitize schools. (source) I’m incredibly happy that these preventative measures are being taken and that safeguards are being put in place, but also wondering where did this money suddenly come from? Last year the CTU went on strike, to ask for social workers, nurses, smaller classes etc but their demands were not completely met – suddenly there’s enough for 400 employees and $75m in masks. Every school needs a fulltime nurse, full stop. We need to invest in our students, our schools, and a quality education The way we approach education is radically changing and so it seems incredible that we’d be beholden to the same academic tests and scores as before. Schools could be repurposed into something more like community centers, providing not just academic services but a variety of resources that will help make holistic education possible. However, in order for this to happen there needs to be both focus on and funding for schools. However, these costs are being framed as “budget neutral” which means that even in the middle of a pandemic, extra funding doesn’t appear to be available for schools. Unfortunately, too many see schools as little more than glorified child care centers and when state and local governments realize their budget has a massive income shortfall (no one was working, or paying sale tax during the pandemic) they’ll slash education spending further. Politicians are already requiring schools to open without addressing any of the concerns I’ve talked about here. This crisis is not just going to impact education, but it really will determine the future of our country. It’s not a burden that should fall on the shoulders of the individual teacher, but it unfortunately already has.