On the Subject of Opening Schools in the Fall – Questions to Ponder

Most if not all schools in the United States are at a close, and it is any wonder what will happen in the fall.

If the cases continue to climb precipitously like they’ve done in my home state of Texas, I highly doubt that we will go back to school in a brick and mortar campus.

The reasons for that are obvious: the recent uptick was caused by the smallest subset of holiday Memorial Day meetings among family and friends. Most people (not all) have been rather judicious about maintaining a social distance. Try to imagine school even taking place. You have hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who go to a centralized location, sit closely together up to 30 or more in a close room, and they are taught by teachers who are older and more susceptible, sometimes alarmingly so (we’ll get to that), for eight hours a day. The differences between a small holiday and massive daily gatherings I hope are obvious.

Plus, kids are disgusting.

The problem is that the alternative for school, distance learning, does not work either. According to the Wall Street Journal, the jury is in on distance learning, and it’s not good. Any teacher could have told you that before this all started, but for parents and students to see that now will hopefully reinvigorate a belief in what school hopes to do for young children.

In light of these recent changes to school, I have devised a series of provisional questions to ask myself as a teacher going into summer. Some of the context for this may change in the fall, but as of right now community spread is very much still on the table. Testing and contact tracing seem nowhere in sight. So these questions seem dire and necessary now, but they may recede in August for any number of reasons.

I do this because I am looking for teacher jobs for the fall, and I cannot imagine what a school board or administration is likely going through to address these issues. I hope that these issues are being addressed at all, and not just handed off like some baton in a relay, because their decisions will likely put people in danger, maybe even unnecessarily so.

I am also doing this in order to add some “roughness to the text,” which is to say I’m making the issue more complicated. For many seeing school from the outside in, certain of the choices administrators will make may seem easy. But I assure you that this will not be a pretty set of choices. No matter what, this will not please all parents, students, or teachers. Compromises are good, the most effective compromises are better.

Okay, here we go.

  1. Should Attendance be Mandatory?

Coronavirus gets to the heart of many methods for schools to receive funding and dole out rewards. One of those is attendance. For a student to miss more than 10% of school is to invite truancy and to force make-up days. Unfortunately, for a year consisting of 187 days, that is around 19 days. If a person does get coronavirus, that is going to take a severe chunk of their optional days simply to recover and quarantine.

So at a fundamental level, the simple relationship between school and a student is unhinged. But it goes much further of course. They make others susceptible, and for students who only have grandparents, and those caregivers are worried about their safety, can they really condone having their children go to school only to bring the disease back?

How will schools organize budgets when attendance is clearly not going to be an accurate representation of student count?

2. How many poor people do we have?

I wish I had a more politically correct way of asking this question, but that would waste unnecessary time. When we shut down schools in the spring, the first gut reaction was not, “How are we going to educate our students effectively?” Instead it was, “How are we going to properly feed them?”

Slowly it is being brought to light that in the spring some 20 million children may have gone hungry at some point since social distancing. That’s fully between one-fourth and one-third of all children in the United States. I really hope I am wrong on that number…

In any case, it’s disgusting, and there’s no getting around that: how on earth did school go from a place to educate children to a place that is a safety net for the malfeasance of bad party politics?

So if you’re a Title I school district, your decisions about school are very different from a richer neighborhood, and you’ll have to plan accordingly.

There are some other particular aspects of being poor in some of these other questions and I’ll address it there, but the key issue I wanted to get across is child care and food. Not only that, the likelihood that technology will be an issue escalates among poor neighborhoods as well.

3. Do we have testing?

In the event you finally decide as a campus that you do want to come back, testing of some sort on a wide scale will be the only real way to stop cases before they get out of control. If a student tests positive, they will just have to stay at home. There’s no getting around it.

What makes this so important for students is actually how resilient they are. Old people suffer from this coronavirus, while younger kids have far fewer symptoms, or no symptoms at all.

That makes the coronavirus a very pernicious spy in our midst, with teenagers wiping their noses and putting their disgusting little hands on…everything.

I don’t see this problem going away, despite my disclaimer at the beginning of this post. By August, we will need much more testing, and we will likely not have it.

4. How many at-risk teachers do we have?

This is the sort of issue that is awkward to talk about, so bear with me. Many of our teachers in k-12 do not take care of themselves. This is likely because they are overworked, underpaid, generally burned out, and they are stressed constantly. As a result, we have many overweight and obese teachers. Not only that, but a huge cohort of adults who got into teaching, baby boomers, are still in the process of building up a 401(k), and that situation looks a bit dire right now. Some baby boomers are lucky and they are taking early retirement, but that makes a teacher shortage which already existed before the coronavirus that much wider.

So forget about the binary notion of “distance learning” and “at-school learning” and instead ask the question: if we were to open school, how effective would we be in real terms? Imagine teachers dropping like flies in August and September. Someone will get infected. Okay, that’s one teacher per school, out for two weeks at the minimum. And if it is a teacher who has prior conditions, it may be for months. I do not exaggerate. There are some coronavirus cases that do not get mentioned because they are neither asymptomatic, nor are they the ventilator near-death kind. Instead, they are called “long termers” and I advise you to do some digging on your own for these. They simply cannot function well given the demands of teaching, as many of these coronavirus long termers report a “brain fog” of the highest order.

Okay, so you have one teacher out for every school, and they are absent anywhere from two days to two months. Now, substitute teachers are hard to find (at least in Texas) on a good day. But all teachers know that anytime during flu season, any time in April or May, you can just forget it. Administrators often take draconian measures and simply write emails that suggest that they “have to come to school.” Many times the gray area has teachers covering other classrooms. If you did not know about how precarious the situation for teaching is…well…here you go. The truth is that the most important part of teaching is simply showing up. Teachers, like students, receive rewards at the end of the year for having perfect attendance. Some of those teachers cannot even get days off the next year for a sonogram.

This happened.

That’s all out the window.

Some teachers are young and healthy and that is rare. Many are not ready for this, and what is more distressing is that many of the backup systems to keep schools running were not ready either.

How each school addresses this will be different, depending on case load, but it will be bad all around.

5. What is the best blended/hyrbrid set up for learning?

Okay, so a school may realize that “all in” or “all out” is impossible. What happens next?

I will admit that many humanities courses for high school students are much easier to do distance learning in. Although, it is not really “learning,” but rather work that a person turns in to their supervisor. Still, having students read papers and write essays and collaborate over peer reviews has never been easier than now to do with the advent of the internet. English and History can distance learn somewhat effectively.

But you tell a science teacher to do an experiment through distance learning.

Suffice it to say, there is a very real difference between subjects when it comes to what works better for distance learning.

Not only that, but to imagine any elementary school child working through Zoom seems like a failed experiment right from the start. Older students can easily social distance, while resources will need to be poured into K-5th, which is honestly the place that it matters most. Otherwise, instead of the “Summer slide,” we’re going to have a coronavirus slide for students over the next decade from the lack of learning.

6. What to do about class size and case load?

It’s very hard to teach 30 students in a classroom period. To not expect any infections in that situation is to invite a huge spike in cases. How are we going to teach less at a time when schools were already pushed to the brink with the amount of students at a time?

Not only that, but having 140 students total was very difficult to give proper feedback to. This is something I’ll talk about more down below when I bring up the idea of “flattening,” but here I’ll simply say that many options are on the table.

Some have recommended students stay in one room while teachers go from class to class. This increases the chance of teacher infection and clearly does not understand how variable student schedules are. Others have recommended more portable classrooms. Trying to bring those into every school in two months is simply not feasible. The demand for construction would mean that some schools would have it and some schools would not.

Some have recommended having AM and PM sessions, like kindergarten, where students only show up for one or the other, and do not show up each day but scatter it, like having Monday, Wednesday, Friday. This allows more space between students and lessens infections, but it would make teaching extremely hard. It would be the same amount of work multiplied immensely, and with the same caseload, there would be a lot of grading that would have to happen at nights or on weekends.

It’s nothing I haven’t done before, but this seems particularly cumbersome.

7. How to get students to school?

Public transportation has been fraught with complications since coronavirus. In New York, cases among service workers in the public transportation sector were well above average, and to imagine that as an issue for every single school is a little scary. No matter how the school is organized once they get there, there will still be the problem of having to collect them and distribute them again. Consider buying your child a bike I suppose, although imagining bikes on the side of the road and the little tykes dying of heat stroke (for those who never took P.E.) is also a possibility. Walking to school with a big backpack sounds painful. Driving your child to school sounds privileged.

I have not heard of a good solution yet to this problem, especially in rural districts where it is simply impossible for a child to make the large distance to school on their own each day.

8. The issue of technology

For poorer districts, having internet is not a guarantee. When each member of the family is watching Netflix or playing Xbox or watching Zoom, consistent internet is no guarantee either. The internet has a sordid history in the United States, and telecommunications monopolies have made it all but impossible to ensure fiber internet across the country. So even our infrastructure is an issue.

Between that and cost, not to mention how families share devices, or the fact that not every school is a 1:1 school, meaning that not every student is given an iPad or laptop, and we have a very real issue if we need to do long term distance learning.

The widening gaps between richer neighborhoods with technology and poorer neighborhoods without technology were made stark with coronavirus. They were already there before (please consult The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits) but now they are even more egregious.

9. Handling misbehavior

This is simply to do with one issue, though the aspect of grading and assessment is another form of behavior that I will tackle below.

It’s common knowledge (by now I hope) that wearing a mask in public helps to actively lower cases. But as I have navigated a Chipotle, found myself inside of a Tom Thumb grocery store, and walked around the neighborhood, I’ve noticed that very few people will wear a mask even if it is recommended. I wrote about this in an earlier blog post about the differences in styles of social distancing between Central Market and Spec’s Liquor when it comes to curbside pickup, but you have to imagine that this occurs with all mandates. People interpret mandates and judge risks at their own volition, and it is very easy to imagine a teenager taking off a mask and refusing to wear it because it makes them feel uncomfortable, or it infringes on their rights, or because, and I cannot stress this enough, it makes them look ugly.

If you’ve ever taught teenagers, you know that this latter point may be the most used response.

What happens in this scenario? Clearly they are endangering themselves and everybody else? But what if they cannot go home? And what if they cannot miss school?

How do you punish someone in this scenario? Quite suddenly in the era of coronavirus, out-of-school suspension seems like a blessing. In-school suspension seems like a moral hazard: a small room with people close together from different classrooms and grades? Please.

10. Materials and supplies

Many teachers know that they often have to provide their own supplies. Pens, pencils, posters, scissors, glue, tissue. The amount I spend each year simply to do my job is sickening. Imagine a doctor having to invest in his own stethoscope, his own thermometer, his own blood pressure gauge, and you have an idea.

But the idea runs deeper than that. More than anything, students ask to borrow a pencil. How exactly do I give them a pencil in light of social distancing measures? Would we all have to use hand sanitizer every single time I handed something out and took something up? What school would have enough hand sanitizer to even get through the week!?

The issue runs deeper if we’re all distance learning and the teacher gives out a project for science fair and the parents either cannot or will not provide the supplies. What is a student to do? What is a teacher to do? “I can’t afford it” may be an issue for art teachers if they have a unit on oil painting and the family simply does not want to cater to that.

Honestly, art teachers will likely just engage in a yearlong drawing unit with pencils. Some of these will be easy fixes. But others? Not so much.

11. Common Spaces: Gyms, Cafeterias, Libraries

I think it goes without saying that these will have to be off limits. On the one hand, that seems like an obvious answer, except when you consider that two out of the three of these things have to do with public health, while libraries are important for students to read and increase their learning. All of these are potential cesspools of touching. How to cancel these while still ensuring that they take place? P.E. outside seems fine unless it’s August in Texas, or winter in Minnesota.

12. Older Siblings

This is a larger economic issue. Many people have lost their service jobs, yet we need young healthy people to work these service jobs to make sure that the family is still earning money.

In the event of distance learning, many older siblings may have found themselves maintaining household duties and becoming a parent in some way. They provided much needed childcare.

Many times, when I met with my high school students on Zoom, the volume of yelling from children in the background was simply impossible to ignore. How are some students going to be able to do school work when they are busy propping up the family either through very real income or through child care and household duties?

13. Specialty Subjects and Electives

Music class does not really seem possible anymore. Not only is it something that requires people in groups tightly packed playing and sharing instruments, or through singing and exhaling a lot of air. Theater class seems impossible. Art class seems difficult.

Other classes like Journalism will be fine.

But Yearbook. I know for a fact that in Spring, many of the clubs and organizations that would have had an entire page dedicated to them were simply blank due to the coronavirus. That certainly does not bode well for learning, though it starkly connotes the history of how the virus affected our schools.

14. “Flattening” of teachers in distance learning

This one is going to be difficult to describe, so let me do the best I can.

No teacher I talked to felt good about distance learning. Part of it had to do with the manner of interaction all getting flattened to one medium. In school, sure you receive emails, but many of the problems and scenarios of school were dealt with in a second-by-second basis with interpersonal communication face-to-face.

But with distance learning, all problems got placed online. Soon there was a bottleneck of digital information, and the only way they could handle it was by typing faster, making a video, or making some announcement on learning software like Google Classroom.

There was really no “clock in clock out” hours. Many teenagers stay up late. They send an email at 2 AM saying they’ve turned in all their work, and then an angry parent emails at 9 AM that same morning, asking why it hasn’t been graded yet.

This happened.

Teachers had to deal with all of this and none of us felt good about it. The benefit of being close to people is for empathy triggers to fire. But when everything gets placed at a distance, not only does it clog up the only avenue for handling information, but it also lets people enact their worst selves.

15. Standardized Testing

Will these matter anymore? Honestly, they hardly mattered before, but now we have some very real sliding issues with learning, and it’s any wonder how they are going to make a test that accurately conveys learning. I’m not just talking about these years either. I’m talking about the years to come. There’s no getting around it: elementary school students now will see a dip in their standardized test scores in high school. I guarantee you that SAT scores, should they continue the way they do, will drop even more than they already have in the past 30 years for the subject of reading comprehension.

What does a standardized test hope to accomplish in light of such disparate circumstances?

It was already an explicit problem before, but it’s a key issue now. Many performance bonuses and budgets are tied to flat results and for growth between grades. You can kiss that assessment goodbye.

16. Funding based on property taxes

One of the most harrowing answers for why American schools have such wide disparities has to do with differences in budgets based on local property taxes. How this was ever a good idea I do not know. In the same way that property taxes provide wildly different budgets, coronavirus too creates wildly different responses. Some urban districts will have massive issues, while some rural districts may have far fewer cases. The truth is that property tax funding continues to widen the gap between the best and worst public schools, and if we have any hope for a more egalitarian set of children growing up through the coronavirus pandemic, we need to start asking questions on how best to provide students the resources they need.

17. How best to grade/assess students?

Grading students without any sort of disease run rampant has been a difficult issue in the past. Now to see the work students perform without seeing their labor is going to make this that much harder. The amount of cheating that occurs in distance learning is beyond question. Copying answers, copy-pasting. It’s bad. American students will go to great lengths to avoid doing the cognitive work required to learn something. Learning is hard.

Coronavirus is harder, and teachers had a complicated time providing an accurate assessment of performance. Simple pass-fail binaries do not reward the hardest workers at the valedictorian level, and they do not reveal the borderline cases where students, in a brick-and-mortar setting, likely would have failed with that 68 or 69, but under new stipulations or guidelines, they must be passed.

I bring this up because ever since standardized testing and the rise of administration in schools, teachers are no longer trusted to provide an accurate assessment of student performance. I am very upset that it turned out this way, and while I wish it were different, I think now with coronavirus we saw a very real problem among school districts where various ideals for grading policy were widened and made explicit. Many schools are using software like ALEKS, Khan Academy, and Schoology because they want to export responsibility for grading from teachers to third party software. There’s clearly an acceleration going on. For years, teachers have been reduced from professionals to laborers. It seems coronavirus is working to make that a much more real possibility.

Conclusion

There are a number of problems here. Problems not just of school as a theoretical pursuit, but also problems of pragmatic consequence that seem to need answers, and none of the answers will be pretty.

I sincerely hope that these questions are being addressed by school districts, because to avoid them or wave them away is to put needless suffering at the forefront of our conversation about school. Denmark has had elementary school sessions of three or four in one classroom. To imagine that happening in the United States is laughable. South Korea, one of the best to handle the outbreak, has repeatedly had to close schools in order to quash recent hotspots. Remember, these are in the best cases.

The United States is so far from the best case when it comes to coronavirus that I am genuinely worried about the future of our teachers and children, whether they receive a good education or not. Whether they bring the disease back to their families or not. Whether they receive a horrible case of the disease themselves.

These problems with education had already existed before, but now they have become unacceptable.

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