I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, July 2, 2020

How Schools Work: A Practical Guide for Policymakers During a Pandemic

This post, unlike most of the others on this blog, does not rely on data analysis or research reviews. It is, instead, the observations of someone who has spent decades working in PreK-12 schools.

I'm offering it because I've read and heard a lot of commentary from a lot of people who seem to think we can quickly prepare for reopening schools in the fall, as long as we have some flexibility and maybe some extra resources. I'll be the first to say (along with others) that more funding is absolutely required if we're going to have any chance of reopening schools.

But even if schools get all of the money they need, and staff show remarkable ingenuity and creativity, there are some basic, inconvenient truths we need to face about how schools work before we claim we can reopen safely this fall. So, in no particular order:

- Children, especially young children, cannot be expected to stay six feet away from everyone else during an entire school day. Sorry, even if a school has the room, it's just not going to happen. One adult can't keep eyes on a couple/few dozen children every second of every hour of every day to ensure they don't drift into each others' spaces. You certainly can't do that and teach. And you can't expect children to self-police. Young children are simply not developmentally able to remind themselves over seven hours not to get near each other.

- Children cannot be expected to wear masks of any kind for the duration of a school day. At some point, the mask has to come off; even adult medical professionals take breaks. And anyone who's worked with young children knows they will play with their masks and not even realize they're doing it. It's simply unrealistic to expect otherwise.

- The typical American school cannot accommodate social distancing of their student population for the duration of the school day. Schools were designed for efficiency, which means crowded hallways and tight classrooms. Schools are expected to foster student and teacher interactions, which means close quarters. Expecting every students and staff member to maintain a 3 foot bubble* around themselves is not realistic given the way most school buildings are laid out.

- School staff do not generally have isolated spaces in their workplaces where they can stay when not working with children. I don't have an office; I have a classroom. I'm only by myself when the kids leave... but everything they breathed on and touched and coughed on stays. I'm not an epidemiologist so I don't know exactly what the consequences of this are, but I suspect it matters.

- School buses cannot easily accommodate social distancing, nor can they easily adjust to accommodate staggered school sessions. School buses aren't as big as you remember (when's the last time you were on one?). Social distancing is the last thing school bus engineers had in mind when designing the things. In addition: school districts often stagger the times of bus routes, usually by grade level, to get all the kids to school (this is why high school often starts much earlier than elementary school). If you go to split shifts, you are conceivably expanding a bus's routes from, say, 6 to 12.** Unless you greatly expand the school day and pay a lot more for busing staff, it's not going to work.

- Like every other workforce, school staff have many people who have preconditions that make them susceptible to becoming critically ill when exposed to Covid-19. The big worry I keep reading about is age -- but that's just the start. Three-fourths of the school workforce are women, and many are in their childbearing years; are we prepared to have pregnant teachers working? What about teachers who think they might be pregnant? And then all the pre-existing conditions...

- Schools are only one part of the childcare system in this country. The big worry seems to be that if we don't get kids to school, parents can't get back to work. But for many (most?) parents, the school day only covers part of the work day. Before- and after-school programs are a big part of the childcare system. Are we going to be able to enforce all the same restrictions on children during these hours that we will during the school day?

- Unsupervised adolescents cannot be expected to socially distance outside of the school day if schools are reopened. If we've got adults showing up at bars without masks in the middle of a frightening peak in Covid-19 cases, what do you think teenagers are going to do when school's done for the day? Especially if we leave them at home, unsupervised, learning remotely while their parents work?

- Teachers are trained and experienced within an area of certification; moving them out of that area will lead to less effective instruction. When you become a teacher, you get a certification -- maybe even two or three -- in a particular area. Each certification requires coursework, and often a placement as a student teacher, in that area. A secondary math teacher, for example, has to study math at a certain level, and then learn how to teach it. You can't expect a kindergartner teacher who's been trained in early childhood education to do that job -- and vice versa.***

- Even within an area of certification, moving teachers on short notice to a new subject or grade will lead to less effective instruction. How hard can it be to move from teaching 4th Grade to 3rd? More than you'd think. Every grade has its own curriculum, materials, assessments, etc. Teachers spend years developing lessons that often can't be transferred to another grade level or subject; a choir teacher, for example, can't just take her lessons over to the school band, even if she is a great music teacher. Expecting teachers to move quickly between grades or within areas and not face a learning curve defies common sense.

- Moving a teacher to another school building is often difficult. First, there's the stuff: the materials, the equipment, and so on. Then there are the relationships, often built over years. These things matter; they are the foundation that builds a school into a community of learning. Breaking them apart has real consequences.

- Many schools had a hard time getting qualified people to become substitute teachers before the pandemic. It doesn't pay particularly well, has little to no job security, and requires at least some college credit (in many states). Now districts have to find workers who are willing to do the job in a school full of potential virus transmitters.


I'm leaving out a lot, but this should be enough to at least give everyone pause. Operating schools during a pandemic will not be easy. I'm not at the point yet where I'm saying we shouldn't try, but we have got to think carefully and challenge assumptions before we open the schoolhouse doors this fall.

And we shouldn't even consider opening without substantially more money. More on that in a bit.


* It's already become a source of confusion: if each kid has a 3 foot bubble, and two bubbles bump against each other, the kids are 6 feet away from each other. Right?

** Say a bus does an elementary, middle and high school route every day; that's 6 trips, because there's pick up and drop off. Now double that.

*** In fact -- and I say this as someone who has taught at all grade levels from Pre-K to 12 -- it is, in my opinion, more difficult for a secondary teacher to learn how to teach young children than the other way around.

18 comments:

Unknown said...

Great article and thanks so much for going to bat for substitute teachers.

Unknown said...

Your observations are accurate and timely. I am forwarding your blog entry to my colleagues and student parents. We, as teachers, know these real-life facts and barriers to reopening. In Louisiana, a very recent law prevents teachers or parents of students from suing a school system if an illness is contracted from the classroom/school setting. Cynically, this new law seemed to make reopening in early August a certainty.

Unknown said...

You made some good valid points that even as a parent I didnt think about.

Charley said...

What happens if a child tests positive? Will the whole class be required to quarentine? If so, for how long, will the teachers have to use sick days, some only get 10 for the year. And if it happens a second time?

Unknown said...

Just a note from a parent: thank you very much!

Gina Rochelle said...

Yes! I'm a preschool teacher with my classroom in my home and trying to study and decide how and if to open. There is no way a 3-yr-old is going to wear a mask all day And social distance. And I don't think it's even emotionally healthy if not just physically impossible. And I think destroys all the benefits of preschool- it's all about social learning, sharing, working with others, feeling loved and secure. I also wonder and concerned about what it does to a young child if their teacher wears a mask all day and they don't get to read their facial expressions and see their smile and hear a friendly, unmuffled voice reading them a story. Especially at the beginning of the year when they are meeting them for the first time and they can't see their face or shake their hand or connect. I think I'd rather not open if these are the conditions, it's sad and probably more harm than good. May I share your post on my Instagram?

Unknown said...

Thank you from an elementary school teacher! These are all points we have brought up over and over as plans are discussed. Most common response we get is talk to HR. No joke. Have a reason to not be in the classroom? Talk to HR. Have our own children who will only be in school a couple days themselves while you are expected to be at school all day/week with other children? Talk to HR. Want to know how an absence will be handled if you need to be out (Covid-19 is NOT the only reason teachers may be out...unfortunately the regular old flu and colds are still going around plus many other illnesses)? Talk to HR. Seriously. Zero actual real answers. Plus they keep mentioning the good of social interaction for children - how do you interact with others when you are not even allowed to be near them (we are not having recess, PE, any rotations, etc.)?! We have already been told we may not assign partner/group work and it all must be individual. I keep saying this is physical distancing in a school building that has recirculated air and no opening windows...

Unknown said...

One key factor that nobody seems to be talking about is the rising cases of pediatric multi organ inflammatory post COVID syndrome. Even with all the closed schools there are still new cases every day. This syndrome strikes kids WITHOUT pre existing conditions 4 to 8 weeks after a mild or asymptomatic original infection. What's going to happen after schools reopen?? Skyrocketing cases in september and October I would be willing to bet.

Unknown said...

As a longtime kindergarten teacher, getting kids from one place to another, usually accomplished by lining up in twos, creating two lines that go to lunch, gym, Art, dismissal, morning pickup, or anywhere else the entire class has to move to. The logistics that currently define an American school day cannot apply in this pandemic.

Unknown said...

THANK YOU =) from a secondary teacher

Jen said...

Thank you from a middle-school French 1 teacher and expat Jersey girl. I can manage 16 conversations among 32 students x multiple partner changes much more effectively and safely in online breakout rooms than in a physically distanced classroom. And even though I am credentialed in two other subjects, it's been nearly a decade since I've taught them and I'd be un poisson hors de l'eau if thrown into either tank with no advance preparation time. Thank you for raising awareness of the complexities involved. To most people the adult side of K-12 education is a mystery box.

miscellaneousmusingsruth said...

Thanks for mentioning the substitute teachers. Many of us are older (over 60) and would then not be able or willing to even enter the school. This only exacerbates the problem of finding subs.

And all of this presupposes that children themselves do not have any pre-existing conditions. My granddaughter is diabetic. There are others with diabetes, with compromised immune system, etc. The conditions would preclude them fro even being in the school, never mind six feet apart. As dictated by the ADA compliances, this would then mean homebound instruction of some sort. Where are you going to find these specialists?

Unknown said...

Thank you for your clear and unabated insight. These are serious issues, and for those of us who got to read your message are certainly more informed, although we still have more questions than answers. We should have questions and proceed with caution.

This is the most serious issue that any of us has experienced in our lifetime. I am 72 years old and I only read about epidemics. I never lived through one!

Again, thank you for doing such a wonderful public service.

Sincerely,
Donna M. Israe(ESL teacher)l

Kaitlin said...

Thank you! I'm a SAHM and I feel equipped to facilitate home school/ distance learning and can see the problems going back in. Think of this = what happens if my husband comes in contact with a COVID positive co-worker and we're supposed to self quarantine as a family? Even if none of us end up sick or symptomatic, we would have to be able to be home to keep from spreading what we potentially have. So will I be able to quickly jump back to distance learning while my children's classmates are still in the classroom? Will they just be missing school and curriculum every time there's a potential exposure? Will other parents extend the same courtesy to us and keep their children home if the person they had lunch with yesterday comes back COVID positive? Are we going to get those truancy letters for missing school because we're trying to be safe not sorry, respecting our teachers, administrators, bus drivers, custodians and classmates? We will just be rotating kids in and out of the classrooms, and the teachers will have to be individually instructing kids who were out last week to catch them up, while missing other kids this week. Teaching curriculum that's already feeling pressure from the weight of teaching to the tests will be crushing to our teachers. Until we have herd immunity, there won't be normal. :(

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this article. This is what we real teachers know the actual logistics of a school day. Everything you have said is bang on. Policy makers have little knowledge of how a school functions un real life.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for publishing this very important information. I am a grandmother of an autistic 5 yr old and I can tell you now that he is not wearing a mask for an hour let alone 8 hrs. He's clostrophobic at times and its really hard to keep his mask on even for his appts. Elementary students are going to find ways to touch and breath on eachother.They have too much energy to burn and you can not keep them in the same position for very long. Iam really terrified about them reopening schools at this time. Thanks again and will be sharing this as much as possible.

Steve Muratore aka Arizona Eagletarian said...

Mark, I've retweeted this blog post extensively.

When push comes to shove (and that's what I think Trump is trying to do), my money would be on teachers and parents rather than on any elected official trying to force schools to re-open this fall.

davefinnigan said...

Thanks for the great article. It led to my petition, started last night to Governor DeSantis to keep Florida schools closed this Fall. In 24 hours we've gotten 3,000 signatures. If you are in Florida, please sign on and pass this to other Floridians. https://sign.moveon.org/petitions/keep-florida-school-buildings-closed-in-2020-2021/