Coronavirus, Covid, Education, Teachers — July 1, 2020 at 11:44 am

Let’s Talk About “Reopening Schools”


Like many of us, I’ve been paying close attention to the various plans and suggestions for “reopening schools” this fall. It’s been more than a tad confusing to track the various recommendations coming from partisan legislative groups, professional associations, school district task forces, and the governor’s advisory board on reopening schools.I wish more than anything that there was more clear and decisive leadership from “the top” so that we aren’t faced with what amounts to “dueling proposals” regarding the efficacy of various virus mitigation strategies–3 feet vs. 6 feet, masks or no masks, etc.–a cacophony of confusing and contradictory recommendations that serve only to frustrate the public, and not provide any really meaningful advice to help families prepare for an uncertain future.

I’m also observing these deliberations from two distinct vantage points: as a parent of two boys–one a rising high school senior, and the other a third-year college student; and, as a college professor who was thrown into the chaos of distance learning back in March with roughly 48 hours of preparation time.

One of the things that has bothered me throughout this process is the nagging realization that the premise of this “Reopen the Schools!” narrative is the assumption that teachers–those adults that work in schools along with all of those wonderful children–are somehow…expendable.

(And since most teachers are women, this is yet another example of the toxic sexism that runs rampant through our society.)

Teachers–and all of the other adults who keep schools running, like custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, administrators, social workers, counselors, and many more–are rarely, if ever, mentioned in these recommendations. It’s as though teachers are nothing more than robotic drones, moving from classroom to classroom interchangeably (or, more likely, virtually), delivering instruction in various subjects to “cohort groups” of masked students who stay fixed at their socially-distanced desks.

If teachers are mentioned, it’s solely to identify them by their age (“over 60”) or infirmities (“diabetes, obesity, heart disease”)–and perhaps suggest that they “remain home” if possible–as though there’s a ready supply of eager, young, healthy “replacement parts” to take their spots (Narrator: There is not.).

There is also an assumption that teachers–who have largely been left out of the deliberations around these reopening plans–will just simply “show up” in the fall, having magically retooled to teach their classes and subjects in entirely new ways and modes, with precious little guidance in the way of “professional development” or technical or IT support, even as states are slashing school budgets across the country.

So, let’s assume that schools are going to reopen this fall. And let’s assume that at some point that instruction will involve some form of distance or remote teaching and learning–either by choice, or as the result of surges in infections and hospitalizations of students and faculty.

If teachers are going to be expected to provide instruction virtually, then effective immediately, school budgets should be adjusted to cover the following costs incurred by teachers:

  • Home internet access with broadband sufficient to conduct video conferences and deliver instruction–too many school faculty (and students) live in places with spotty or unreliable internet coverage, making virtual teaching and learning frustrating, if not impossible. School districts need to insure that all teachers (and students) have access to robust internet service, offering hotspots, satellite service, or other alternatives where needed–and this does not mean parking school buses in store parking lots so teachers and students can do their work in their cars.
  • Updated/upgraded computing devices (laptops, tablets, smart phones)–teachers should not be forced to use their own personal devices to conduct school tasks. Faculty expected to move their teaching online should not be forced to struggle with “hand me down” devices, with outmoded software and unsupported operating systems
  • Other equipment as needed to allow teachers to do their jobs remotely–this might include: professional quality microphones, headphones, and digital recording/mixing equipment for music teachers; high quality mics and headsets for video conferencing; subscriptions/site licenses for software applications for teaching, lab experiments, record keeping, etc.
  • Adequate and effective personal protective equipment (PPE)–every faculty member should be provided with masks, face shields, gloves and whatever PPE is deemed necessary to keep them safe while doing their jobs. This includes access to a health professional in their building who can conduct health and symptom screenings, free Covid-19 tests on demand, and the development of an infectious disease protocol, with clear guidelines for what happens if and when someone is suspected of being infected with the virus in their building or school system.

As I write this post there are thousands of teachers across this country sitting in Zoom meetings and FaceTime chats with their colleagues, planning for fall. And there are thousands more taking graduate classes and workshops in the pursuit of advanced degrees–or simply to get better at their jobs.

These teachers are doing this work on their own time, using their own internet access and equipment–even as Congress deliberates on extending support for small businesses for an additional 5 weeks. Support that public schools were excluded from applying for, but that was available to billionaire-funded charter schools who consider themselves more “business” than “school.”

If it’s important enough to “reopen schools” that we are willing to knowingly put thousands of teachers and other school staff in danger, then it’s important enough to dedicate the resources to doing so as safely as possible. And to provide these “essential workers” with the resources, equipment, and respect we failed–and continue to fail–to provide our nurses, doctors, and other health care workers so far during this pandemic.

Or just admit that we consider teachers to be “collateral damage” in the race to reopen the economy, and give them the opportunity to decide if they wish to volunteer to become expendable widgets in this draconian game of chance.