This past week my district hosted a virtual “happy hour” during which administrators provided an update on planning for the fall and invited questions from staff. There were many questions and not quite as many answers. I do not fault district leaders for this. When the Secretary of Education has no plan and the state’s school reopening Roadmap is not really a plan, it’s a bit much to expect local administrators to have a plan.
Part of the reason for the lack of a plan is that there are no answers. The pandemic has acted as a stress test for our entire society and schools, barely surviving in normal times, have broken under that stress. We haven’t witnessed the destruction yet because schools are not in session, but if they reopen in the manner advocated for by the President, Secretary of Education, and ill-informed parents on Facebook who want to get back to work and are sick of watching their own kids, then the crumbling will be swift, vivid, and startling.
Teachers who actually work in schools have thousands of questions about how in-person education will work. Those questions will continue to go unanswered because most are unanswerable.
Either there are no answers or the answers are so unpalatable that to voice them exposes the absurdity of the entire effort.
Those who insist we embark on this ill-fated escapade have either given no serious thought to how any of it will work or they’ve placed their heads firmly in the sand and are, unimaginably, relying on nothing more than hope to see us through.
Hope may be the thing with feathers but it’s a terrible strategy.
Consider just one relatively simple (and likely) scenario and see if you can provide reasonable answers to the questions that arise.
What happens if I, a fourth-grade teacher, get sick?
Imagine the following scene:
I have woken up in the night with a fever. It’s 4 a.m. As advised by my state’s Roadmap and mandated by district policy, I take my temperature. It’s 100 degrees. I will be staying home. So I log on to my laptop and put in for a sub.
Does my district notify the substitute pool that I am absent because of a high temperature (which of course implies that I may be COVID-positive)? If so, can we reasonably expect any sub to take the job? If not, isn’t my district being unethical? Do they open themselves up to a lawsuit if a sub, ignorant of the reason for my absence, takes the job and then gets infected and dies?
What should my wife, who teaches at a different building in the same district, do? Although she has no temperature or other symptoms, should she take precautions against possible infection and also stay home? Should she explain the situation to our employer? If she does, every question asked above must be asked again.
And what about our daughter, who will be a ninth-grader this year? Should we also assume she might be infected and keep her home? Should we notify the district that it’s possible she has been walking around the hallways of the high school as an asymptomatic carrier of the virus?
Which parents should be notified if I wake up with a temperature? Surely the parents of my students, but what about the parents of my wife’s students? What about my daughter’s classmates?
How will these parents be notified? Wouldn’t parents want the earliest possible notification if their children may have been exposed to COVID by their teacher or a classmate? Does the district send a robocall at 5 a.m. to give parents enough time to find child care?
What about privacy? Will the district be informing parents which teacher might be positive so parents can assess their child’s risk for themselves?
Being a responsible person, I, of course, don’t rely on a thermometer. I go get tested for the virus. Now I wait, possibly for as long as a week, for the results.
What do my students do in the meantime? Are they taught by a sub? Who would take such a job, knowing I had been in the room touching and breathing on everything? If a sub isn’t acquired, who will teach my students? Perhaps nobody will and my students, having been exposed to me, will have to stay home and do remote learning. Who’s teaching them? Me, even though COVID can leave its victims bedridden and bereft of energy and appetite? Is it even legal to require sick teachers to perform their jobs? Or will the district have to find a substitute to teach my students remotely? Have subs been trained to do so? Will I need to turn my Google Classroom and Google Meet credentials over to this person? Will I be expected, as I always have been, to furnish my substitute with lesson plans, even though I can’t get out of bed and can barely stay awake? Who provides these plans if I’m hospitalized?
And what of my wife? Every question asked for my situation must also be asked (and answered) for hers.
What about my COVID-possible daughter? Which high school students should be asked to self-quarantine? Every student she shares a class with? Every student with whom she may have shared air while walking the hallways? What about those students’ younger siblings? For that matter, what about the siblings of my and my wife’s students? Should they also stay home for two weeks? Should they get tested? What should they do while they wait for the results?
Let’s say my test comes back positive. I won’t be returning until I test negative, which could take a month. When can my students return to school? Who will teach them? Does the district get a long-term sub to teach my students remotely until my return? What happens when I run out of sick days? What happens when my wife also runs out of sick days? Do we just not get paid for two weeks?
And what’s the threshold for total school closure? How many teachers and/or students have to test positive before everyone goes remote? What if 20 kids are sick one morning and are in the process of waiting for test results? Do we just assume they don’t have COVID and keep schools operating as normal, or do we assume they’re infected and shut down immediately?
When teachers complain there isn’t a plan, this is just a sliver of what they’re talking about. The above is one scenario – it doesn’t address questions about what happens when students don’t follow guidelines, or how to provide special education and intervention services without increasing the risk of spreading the virus, or what bus drivers should do when a student has a coughing fit on the bus ride to school in the morning – and it’s hardly inconceivable. It’s also just one family in one district. What happens if three teachers, all of whom have multiple children in the district, wake up with a fever that might be COVID?
Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to start school in the fall. What’s unacceptable is to begin without a plan that answers the most challenging questions. Teachers, parents, and students deserve to know what school will look like and what will happen when the inevitable occurs. To not develop detailed plans is to either admit hopelessness or to put all your eggs in the basket of providence, praying that everything will magically work out.
That’s not just irresponsible, it’s stupid.
If you can’t answer basic questions about likely scenarios, then you can’t reopen schools.If you can't answer basic questions about likely scenarios, then you can't reopen schools. Click To Tweet
We’ve already tried hope. We hoped this would stay in China. We hoped it would disappear. We hoped anti-malarial drugs would be therapeutic. We hoped the virus would weaken with the summer. The South hoped it could reopen its economy without a subsequent spike.
Now we hope children won’t get sick. We hope kids won’t spread the virus to their teachers, parents, and siblings. We hope it will all work out.
Hope has failed us because hope, for all its wonder, isn’t a strategy.
The education system should not make the same mistake as the federal government. Instead of hoping our problems away, we should come up with plans that deal with them or we should admit that we can’t and give up on a return to in-person education.Instead of hoping our problems away, we should come up with plans that deal with them or we should admit that we can't and give up on a return to in-person education. Click To Tweet