Disinfecting, distancing, efficiency, equity are among the weighty concerns
1. If we open schools, they will inevitably close almost immediately. Cases will spread no matter how many masks are distributed or temperatures are taken. We know that this virus can be transmitted before any symptoms, including fever, are shown. And when the schools do close, it will mean even more disruption and disappointment for students.
2. Cleaning surfaces is not enough. We know that COVID-19 is capable of hanging in the air for hours at a time. No matter how many times you clean the students’ desks, or the floor, or the doorknobs, I will not feel safe, because the virus will be in the air. I find it suspicious that this well-known fact is never discussed when I hear the topic of school openings debated in the news.
3. The required social distancing is not developmentally appropriate for young children. And children will not be able to meet these expectations. Elementary students in particular do not yet have the self-control or awareness necessary to follow social distancing guidelines. Attempting to force students to behave like automatons — when they know the consequences of failure could be deadly for them, their friends or their family — is a recipe for anxious, unhappy and fearful children. Furthermore, many students have disabilities that make it impossible for them to successfully follow social distancing guidelines. And finally, I remind you again, that even if students did socially distance perfectly, the masks do not prevent infection; they reduce risk. The virus will still be in the air.
4. Instruction will be drastically less effective. Because of the inability to share materials and work in collaborative groups, teachers will be forced to rely heavily on direct instruction, which is teacher-centered and less effective than student-centered instructional strategies. Children will not be able to work together, play games or do any of the everyday activities that make the type of school they are used to fun. Because of this, online learning may actually give students a greater sense of community and produce better, though imperfect, learning outcomes.
5. We cannot be confident that teachers and students will have protective equipment. In a normal school year, teachers have to pay for even basic materials like crayons, pencils, paper and books out of their own pockets. When our country can’t even ensure that doctors and nurses have enough PPE, why would we ever believe they’ll have enough masks and gloves for teachers and their students? And if the answer is to have students supply their own masks, think again. Some of my students start school without even a pencil.
6. It’s an equity nightmare. If schools do provide an option for families to opt out, as many school systems are doing, this will put disadvantaged students and families at an even higher health risk. The students whose families can’t afford to keep them at home, and desperately need child care, will be forced to send their children to school. These families are more likely not to have health insurance (yet another reason we need universal health care) and also are more likely to have extended family, like grandparents, living at home. This means that our most vulnerable children will be sent to school, and will bring the virus home to their families, who are less able to seek medical care.
7. The emotional safety of school will be lost. The children in my classroom think of school as a place where they are greeted at the door each morning with a smile and a hug from their teacher. This warmth and sense of caring that all teachers strive to create in their classrooms will be replaced with the cold, sterile space that we hope will keep us safe. Children will not be able to play with their friends, learn to share with each other or have any meaningful semblance of a classroom community. At least I can smile at my students when I teach online.
8. Standardized testing will be the priority. One major benefit of opening brick-and-mortar classrooms for school systems is that this will allow standardized testing to occur. Knowing how much instructional time is already lost to lengthy standardized math and reading tests, this will be a top priority for schools that are desperate to show that students are still learning, and to find out where students are falling behind. For what little time children are actually physically in school, how much of their time will be spent testing rather than learning?
9. COVID-19 spread in our communities will be accelerated. Schools reopening will cause more interaction between community members. Children will see their friends at school. Teachers will be out and about more often, traveling to gas stations and then into the classroom. Parents, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff will all have increased exposure to this virus, and will all be circulating throughout our communities at an increased rate. This will lead to a higher prevalence of virus in areas near schools — which is pretty much everywhere, right?
10. Teachers and students will die. It is an inevitable fact that when schools open, cases will spread. When the virus does spread throughout schools, teachers and students are likely to be the first to get sick. And even if it takes two weeks or a month to see the consequences, we will see them. Students will die, and teachers will also die. And maybe then schools will close again. So the question is: How many teachers and students will have to die before schools stay closed? How many lives is it worth to you?
Hannah Glaser teaches third grade in Rockville for Montgomery County Public Schools