States have finally started to release guidance to school districts for the “safe” reopening of buildings for in-person instruction. My state’s Return to School Roadmap takes a phased approach, with each phase providing guidelines that are either “required,” “strongly recommended” or “recommended.” In Phase 4, some of the requirements are:
“Facial coverings must be worn in classrooms by all students grades 6-12 ” and that “Facial coverings must always be worn by staff except for meals.”
Schools “must cooperate with the local public health department regarding implementing protocols for screening students and staff.”
Schools are also required to “provide adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors (including soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for safe use by staff and students, paper towels, tissues, and signs reinforcing proper handwashing techniques).”
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ letter advocating the reopening of in-person learning provides similarly authoritative guidance. It says that,
Bus drivers “should be a minimum of 6 feet from students; drivers must wear face coverings; consider physical barriers for drivers (eg, plexiglass).”
“Surfaces that are used frequently, such a drinking fountains, door handles, sinks and faucet handles, etc, should be cleaned and disinfected at least daily and as often as possible.”
“Children should wear face coverings when harms (eg, increasing hand-mouth/nose contact) do not outweigh benefits (potential COVID-19 risk reduction).”
I’ve got few reservations about the recommendations and I don’t envy any leaders trying to figure out how to make face-to-face instruction work in the middle of a pandemic, but neither Michigan’s Roadmap nor the AAP’s letter say anything about enforcement.
They’ve written a rulebook and left out the part where it explains what happens when the rules are broken.
No matter what states “require” or what plans districts formulate in the next month, it’s all useless if one question doesn’t get answered and answered definitively:
What happens when they don’t?
What happens when students don’t wear their masks? What happens when I, as the teacher, tells Mark to put on his mask and he tells me no? What then?
That’s not rhetorical. What then?
What happens when parents walk their children to their classrooms each morning even though school policy forbids non-employee adult access to the building? What happens when after I politely remind them of the policy they return the next day? What happens when they tell me that as taxpayers they have the right to walk their five-year-old to the classroom each morning? What do I do about that?
What happens when a sick kid is sent to school and parents refuse to pick them up because they can’t leave work without risking their job? It’s been made abundantly clear that schools are child care providers that produce the oil that lubricates the engine of the American economy. So what happens when Mom says she’ll get fired if she has to miss work to watch over her coughing child? What does the student do with that student and about that parent?
What is a bus driver to do with a student who starts violently coughing five minutes after she’s boarded? There may be no one at home to leave her with, but keeping her on the bus risks infecting others, including the driver himself. So what’s the policy? What does that bus driver, at that moment in time, do?
What happens when custodians don’t clean as often as they’re supposed to?
What happens when the district doesn’t provide what it’s”required” to?
Where does an employee report such grievances? How does a teacher complain without making herself vulnerable to staffing reductions which many districts will still be looking to make?
It’s as if those who’ve designed the plans are deluded by the fanciful dream that everyone will simply abide. They seem to not understand what every teacher in the country who will enter their classrooms knows with the same certitude that the President will say something stupid today. Teachers will be confronted with defiance because they have always been confronted with defiance. It’s not a matter of if students and parents will ignore or willfully defy the rules; it’s only a matter of how quickly and how often they will.
And if teachers required further assurance of such inevitabilities, they need look no further than their own social media accounts. Twitter provides daily examples of people flouting even the mildest mitigation efforts. Young people congregating at parties, hysterically intransigent Karens shouting about their “right” to not wear masks, toxically masculine Trump-loving bros slandering mask-wearers as unthinking sheep. All of them will be sending their kids to school. Judging by your Facebook, is there any doubt that some of these students, having marinated in the stew of their parents’ opinions for six months, are going to manifest those beliefs when they board buses and stomp through schoolhouse doors?
Teachers are being told that it’s critically important for students and teachers to return to in-person education. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance argues that academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech/mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity are all harmed by further time away from school. They claim that the interruption of school services results in social isolation and leaves kids more vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicide. According to these pediatricians, school reopenings are literally a matter of life and death.
The opening of schools is therefore so important we are willing to impose and accept a number of aggravations to make it possible, and, we hope, safe.
If it is indeed so crucial that students return to school, then it’s equally crucial that funding is provided to open in the safest ways possible. And if new rules are the only way we can ensure such safety, then the state must provide the authority to enforce those rules.
Teachers, bus drivers, principals, and school boards have to know what they should do when the rules, which, again, are meant to prevent death, are disregarded or brazenly contradicted.
Just how serious are we prepared to be with those who don’t comply?
It’s not enough for states to punt enforcement to districts. I’m a local control guy as much as the next teacher but states already insert themselves in areas of significant consequence. They don’t allow districts to create their own policies around standardized testing, special education services, or contact hours. Much of what my district does is at the behest of the state, with severe consequences for noncompliance.
When things are important enough – and it’s hard to argue that the reopening of schools during a pandemic doesn’t meet that standard – then the state steps in. Some things are non-negotiable. Limiting the spread of a deadly virus should be one of them.
If the state doesn’t provide direction, some districts will abdicate their responsibilities. Afraid of lawsuits, they’ll adopt overly timid approaches. Because so much of the pandemic has become political, districts will be reluctant to enter such divisive territory. Unwilling to offend those they serve, they’ll choose no side at all. Such dereliction will do what it always does: leaves teachers in the lurch.
Teachers will be expected, as they always are, to fill the void created by governments unwilling to pay for the very things they will require and too timorous to boldly stand behind their new rules. Or they’ll be betrayed by district leaders who cravenly elect to avoid conflict with vocal parents. Instead of clear direction and support, teachers will be told to have a growth mindset! To sacrifice because kids are worth it! To be a team player!
If teachers want the door handles disinfected, they’ll be the ones to do it.
If they want Kleenex, they’ll buy it or ask parents to.
If they want masks, they’ll head to DonorsChoose.
If they want to be protected from kids coughing in their faces they’ll … well, I don’t know what they’ll do, which is the whole point.
It is unconscionable to send teachers back to school with a set of new rules meant to keep society safe while depriving them of the authority necessary to enforce those rules.It is unconscionable to send teachers back to school with a set of new rules meant to keep society safe while depriving them of the authority necessary to enforce those rules. Click To Tweet
We teachers have learned to expect little from the rest of society. In spite of our essentialness to the American economy, we don’t expect a raise this year. We don’t expect our employers to actually provide everything we need to do our jobs; we’re conditioned to fill those gaps with our own money. We’ve gotten used to taxpayers sniping about our “part-time” status. We’re not really surprised at the insincerity of those who at the start of the pandemic professed newfound gratitude for what we do each day. It doesn’t shock us that we’re being sent back to classrooms with little more than hope that everything will work out.
We’re not too sure about the new rules put in place for students’ return to school. But we might be willing to give them a shot if you could tell us what to do when they’re not followed.