Analyzing “Stronger Together” – The California Public Schools Guide for Safe Reopening

You can find the document here if you would like to read for yourself.

It’s difficult really for any administrative higher up to say anything relevant in June of 2020 in light of recent Coronavirus numbers.

Indeed in 29 states (including California), cases are on the rise…some precipitously so.

This is not even considering schools reopening in any way, shape, or form, but may simply be the remnants of opening businesses and society, catering to high school graduations, or simply Memorial Day.

And the CDC believes that the recorded cases are only representative of 1 in 10 of the actual cases.

Despite the alarming trend that young people have the highest incidence of asymptomatic cases, a greater proportion of young people are still showing up in hospitals, as the median age in Florida has decreased significantly from the prerecorded age of 65.

So even in the month of June, releasing a guide for reopening is provisional and likely to change.

Still it is in our best interest (read…fun) to take a look from a top-down perspective to see just what exactly is going on in the minds of administration. One of the key reasons for looking at California is the way that the state sets a precedent for many ideas in education, most notably standardized testing.

Another key reason for looking at administrative jargon is that teachers will undoubtedly die at a higher ratio than administrators, as the Department of Education in New York has recorded.

To be sure, I have quite a lot of empathy for those required to make decisions that, likely, no cohort will find perfect. I cannot imagine a superintendent right now juggling the binary now in front of them between lives and public safety, and the future education of our children.

Regardless, having an honest conversation with ourselves and remaining transparent on the issues will lead to better outcomes. The reason the Challenger Shuttle exploded in 1986 was because there was a disconnect between engineers, who knew a problem existed, and administration, who decided to launch anyway. Considering that coronavirus copies this dilemma at a global scale, we cannot succumb to “bottom line” thinking.

Let’s begin.

Health and Safety

The first major section of the California guide concerns hygienic practices. There are plenty lovely phrases, including teaching staff and students to, “Use tissue to wipe the nose and cough and sneeze inside the tissue.”

I did not know how to use a tissue until now…

But on the other hand, plenty of lip service is given to help staff with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). It remains to be seen whether schools can provide enough PPE to thousands when I myself had to purchase pencils and pens on a regular basis, especially in what appears to be a dwindling economy. Lower housing prices and values means lower property taxes which means lower budgets for schools.

In accordance with CDC and CDPH guidance, ensure desks are a minimum of 6 feet apart
and arrange desks in a way that minimizes face-to-face contact.

My classroom at the charter school I taught at last year was one of the smallest in our school. According to a colleague, they have been using it as well as her classroom (as she too has one of the smallest) to experiment with space. If the CDC guideline were followed explicitly, that would mean that there would be enough desks for…11 students.

On average, my classes had 29 students in them, to give you an idea of the disparity.

Moving right along…

In accordance with CDC guidance, avoid sharing of electronic devices, toys, books, and other
games or learning aids.

I just do not see how children and teenagers are going to be able to take this claim to heart. For anyone who has been in a school, you can conclude quickly that we really are social creatures, to the extent that building a social rapport with people close by has been the method for ensuring survival for thousands of years. To ask students to prevent themselves from absent-mindedly touching each other’s things is going to prove very difficult. Sharing air pods in my school was a very common thing.

Consider rolling staff cohorts to meet needs and avoid overwork.

(Snorts while laughing)

When has this ever been the case in education?

Instructional Programs

Okay, the nitty gritty. We’ve got different examples of how to do school. They are:
A – Two-Day Rotation (Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday) in class, followed by out of school “enrichment programs”
B – Blended Model (Half in-person classes, Half distance learning for a week, and then the students switch)
C – Looping Structure (Similar to Finland, classes and teachers stay together for multiple grade levels)
D – Staggered Schedules (AM/PM sessions)

Each of these has strengths and weaknesses. Plan A has less time in school, but it also seems like it allows for more interaction with people, which may be a bad idea. Plan B lowers classroom size and interaction but, if a student tests positive, they may have to adjust where they are in the schedule, which could be a burden that places many students out of the blended model for a time. Plan C sounds interesting, and based on the language used in the examples, is clearly the one they want, but no school can predict interactions with the students out of school, and supposing that one student unknowingly gets infected and then brings it into the closed system, everyone is compromised. Plan D’s staggered schedule works well for the school and for students, but still leaves the teachers exposed to the full range of students, as presumably they would be there all day.

Office hours in post-secondary education could be useful here. Teachers could provide times for “distance collaboration” where they have a set range of times for students to meet teachers at school. The teachers would be in the back of the classroom, away from the door, and students could come in and take a seat and ask about work and assignments that they couldn’t get from a Zoom session or from an email. Teachers could provide real time feedback. To me, that is the essential reason you would need a human being with you in a classroom. If students wanted to sign up for those sessions, they could, and the calendar could offer a maximum of 7 to 11 students (or however many) in that slot. Similar to college (or therapy) the sessions would be 50 minutes rather than an hour, in order to allow teachers to clean and disinfect the area.

To me, this is the way. I’m sure there are problems with this idea, but this offers the greatest amount of safety and reinforces why a person would want human contact in the first place.

The remaining sections in the Instructional Programs category include assessments, social-emotional learning, special education, English language learners, career and technical education, and expanded learning. I only have some brief comments on these categories.

First, as college board discovered, arranging any kind of assessments during this time that will be accurate, reliable, and formidable, will be an uphill battle. The amount of cheating from my students in the form of plagiarism, was absurd. One teacher reported to me that a child copy-pasted an article from The Guardian and then proceeded to use a thesaurus to change every content word. With the amount of effort that likely required, you would think that they would simply just do the work.

But learning is hard.

Second, students were already at a disadvantage for the small amount of in-person communication they got to have, with smart phone use on the rise from 2013 onward. I shudder to imagine the stunted growth in the ability to talk and, more importantly, actively listen, in a post-coronavirus world.

Third, many of the deaths from the Department of Education in New York reported that they came from paraprofessionals. I have no doubt that special education has a unique challenge. When I taught special education for two years, I often had to grab students. For example I had a nonverbal student in a wheelchair who would occasionally practice walking with a walker. Several times she fell, so I literally had to pick her back up again.

How anyone is supposed to do this in coronavirus-world I have no idea…

Mental Health and Well-Being of All

Another troubling development among young people in the past decade is the rise of stress and anxiety, most notably the rise in suicide. For girls in middle school under the influence of social media, or for boys in late high school suffering bouts of depression from developed amygdalas and still developing frontal lobes, coronavirus seems to be the ultimate test tube nightmare that will catalyze worrying trends.

Unfortunately, the recommendations from this section of the plan are mostly guiding questions and lip service, with many resources and links. What the section unwittingly unveils is that the recent problem of education under coronavirus has been bad and will continue to be bad. Rather than thinking dangerously and widely and coming up with some ingenuity, I worry that schools will do anything to maintain the status quo of education, even when that status quo was hemorrhaging.

It would be like if an underground leper colony suffered a cave collapse. Rather than address the sicknesses and ailments of the victims, we have decided to prop the cave back up with 2 x 4’s and continued on with our day.

Provide routine communication (in-person or virtual) to staff members to encourage self-care,
including examples, and examples of wellness (e.g., saying no, accepting oneself and others, and not
being at 100% all the time).

This is a lovely phrase, but where is the threshold for “saying no”? Where does that begin and end? Let’s suppose that we decide to go back into the classroom in August when cases are still climbing. Let’s suppose I refused. Would they respect my decision to stay at home when my caseload of 140+ students needs an English teacher?

Hardly.

More than any other section, the Mental Health and Well-Being of All section seems the most “CYA” of the document.

School Services

I’m skipping Early Learning and Care and Communication and Community Engagement because their brevity only enunciates more clearly their hot-airedness.

The system comprises 24,201 public and privately owned school buses, which transport approximately 1,121,857 students to and from school each day.

That’s 46 students per bus. Keep that in mind while I show you the next phrase.

In order to practice physical distancing on a school bus, the seating capacity must be reduced. This may necessitate the use of a seating chart to designate which seats are available for use.

The most obvious problem here is the sheer amount of students who use a bus to get to school. How on earth are we going to space students out to six feet apart?

A cursory glance on schoolbusinfo.com gives us some detail on typical arrangements for grade level:

Using these guidelines, typical bus maximum capacities will be:

  • Grades K-8: 60 students per standard bus
  • Grades K-12: 54 students per standard bus
  • Grades 9-12: 48 students per standard bus

According to my arithmetic and these guidelines, high school is at capacity on average. Obviously, if school were to resume normally, bus drivers would have to make multiple trips.

It seems the best method would be to design an instructional program first, and then create bus routes that grouped people together geographically to be the arrangement for class schedules. That way bus drivers spend the least amount of time on the road possible.

That needs to happen. The reports from New York on public transit workers and their increased likelihood for COVID-19 was not pretty. Having drivers drop like flies means that regardless of how brilliant your instructional strategy is at school, if there are no bus drivers, students won’t even be able to get there.

Thank God there are easier solutions for school meals, where the California guide offers anything and everything, including “offsite meal service” where students can get “grab and go” meals. This may logistically be difficult to package or bag, but it’ll go a long way to keep people safe while eating.

Cafeterias straight up will not work as they used to. Taking a mask off in such close proximity in order for gross children to stuff their mouth hole is a scary thought.

Conclusion

If you made it this far enduring some analysis of dry discussion of schools returning, I am impressed and I am grateful that this is on your mind too. What remains to be seen is whether testing for COVID-19 can sustainably account for millions of staff and students “at regular and ongoing intervals,” according to the document.

I highly doubt it, and that’s a real problem. If we cannot predict and close down cases to better protect others, then all this talk about exactly how to reopen is moot. There’s no getting around it: we have to be given accurate ways to better know who has it and who doesn’t. Even in the best cities like Seoul and Beijing, schools are routinely opening and closing based on up-to-date testing knowledge of who has the infection and where. It’s been months since schools shut down in March and the increased opportunities to test have been spotty. To put older teachers and students with pre-existing conditions into that unknown maelstrom is a dangerous idea indeed.

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