By David Nurenberg
As a teacher preparing to begin an unprecedented new school year in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been consumed with reading, and writing, tips and best practices for online and remote education. Preparing for this new world alone is an enormous task for teachers already grappling with all the other stresses of this time. But as September draws near, I am feeling even more nervous, and even less prepared, about how to conduct in-person education in this new climate.
The federal and state governments are requiring schools to develop plans for both full and partial/“hybrid” returns to school. That means teachers’ plans for setting up our classroom must account for disinfection and hazardous material handling. We must somehow figure out how to conduct class activities without ever bringing students closer than 6 feet from one another, how to conference with students or intervene in discipline situations from that distance. We have to figure out how to cover required content and meet student learning goals when classes might be meeting only half or one-third as frequently. We must include, and teach, entirely online and remote versions of every lesson for absent students, find ways to catch up students who miss large amounts of school, and figure out how to emotionally support anxious students – and ourselves.
I’m not surprised I haven’t been able to find a best practices guide for all of this. And remember, this is still a best-case scenario, assuming our schools don’t become viral hot zones within days.
While Sweden and Japan reopened schools without that happening, Israel’s reopening saw over 2,000 new COVID cases among students in the first few weeks – 130 in one school alone – forcing re-closures. Israel’s public health director resigned in protest over the government ignoring her predictions that just this sort of thing would happen. Similarly ignored predictions were also fulfilled in the USA when several states, including Florida, Texas, Georgia, Ohio and Tennessee, reopened businesses and facilities far less jam-packed than schools, causing dramatic spikes in infections.
CDC guidance has been vague: “physical distancing in classrooms, healthy hygiene habits, cleaning and disinfection, use of cloth face coverings, staggering student schedules.” Unlike in Sweden, Japan, or almost every other country, there is no singular authority governing American schools. Every state and, in many cases, every school district is making its own decisions. Six feet of separation in one school, three feet in the school one town over. Some districts plan to have more relaxed precautions in their elementary schools, citing a South Korean study suggesting smaller children are less likely to transmit the virus (ignoring the study’s caveats about problems accounting for asymptomatic infections and transmissions), and some aren’t. A New Hampshire teacher summed it up succinctly: “We had hoped for a set of minimum safety standards for all schools to achieve before they were safe to reopen. Instead, we received…pages of ‘shoulds,’ not ‘shalls.’”
Whatever guidelines get set may not even be followed, just because kids are kids, or because many Americans still reject wearing masks, or plan to refuse a vaccination for COVID even once one is developed, or oppose mandatory testing. It is no surprise that a growing number of teachers’ preparation for the school year includes making out their wills.
So no, I will not be writing, nor will I take seriously, any “guide for in-person teaching” this fall. I understand the push for in-person return. The CDC guidelines contain lengthy justifications for school re-openings, citing a well-established body of research indicating that remote teaching results in worse learning outcomes than in-person classes, that student social and emotional health (especially for our most vulnerable and needy students) benefit from in-person interactions, that schools play a critical role in the well-being of communities. Not mentioned is the obvious reality that parents and guardians across the nation rely on schools for childcare. I take all of this seriously.
But at the same time, none of these goals – learning, socioemotional and community support, even childcare – can be met if COVID-19 is running rampant through schools, sickening or even killing students, teachers, and their family members. Fully remote learning, for all its many drawbacks, is the lesser of two evils.
Many districts will try “aiming for the middle” with some sort of hybrid plan, but this still constitutes exposure for millions of people. You can no more be “a little” open during a pandemic than you can be, as the adage goes, “a little” pregnant. I worry these hybrid plans will result in infections, whereupon schools will close and go to 100% remote learning anyway. Then district leaders will be able to say, “see, we tried,” sacrificing people’s lives just to gain that political insurance. To be fair, it is not often that these kinds of public officials have life and death decisions in their hands, but the fact remains that this time they do.
Any degree of in-person re-opening forces parents and teachers alike to face the impossible choice of their jobs or their health – even their lives. We should not be in this position. The “best practice” in this case is to demand of our elected officials that they provide the most robust economic and learning supports they can to a school population that is staying home this year.
David Nurenberg, PhD is an associate professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA. He taught high school ELA for 20 years, and now trains teachers and consults for schools in the Boston area. David is also the host of the progressive-education podcast Ed Infinitum. His latest book, What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?, was published by Rowman and Littlefield this year.