I’ve done a lot of talking about what the problems are, and I was asked (very rightfully so) about what I think the solutions are. Buckle up, folx. This is going to be a long one.
To begin: I’ve been thinking about this deeply and I wish I had more crystallized ideas. I think a lot of things that we should do are things that should have been done sooner and weren’t done, and now it’s too late. That’s frustrating because the ship has sailed there. But I’ll give you what’s been bubbling around in my head so far. Apologies in advance if it’s not super organized, I’ll do my best to structure it so it’s readable.
I see 2 options at this point.
OPTION 1: REOPEN SCHOOLS SAFELY
If the government is bent on reopening schools, then we need funding. That is non-negotiable. In a typical year, parents and teachers spend money out of pocket for all school and cleaning supplies. Every child will need separate supplies now (no shared materials) and cleaning frequency and intensity has to go up. That cannot be the financial responsibility of parents and teachers any longer.
Every school needs VERY CLEAR spelled out plans in terms of the following:
– what a modified teaching model will look like
– a protocol for testing staff and students for COVID-19
– how student, staff, and visitor traffic will move around the building (i.e. hallway transitions for classes, bathroom, and water breaks, exiting for recess, admin/regional staff coming in for coaching or observations, cafeteria staff bringing meals to classrooms)
– how students, staff, and visitors will move in and out of the building (car-rider lines? walk-in pickups? late arrivals? early dismissal? bussing?)
– how items will move in and out of the building (i.e. are students and staff bringing materials that can carry the virus in and out of the building daily?)
– safety drills (how do we safely execute state-mandated fire drills, tornado drills, lockdown drills, and active shooter drills?)
– handling potential infections
– handling verified infections
Let’s expand on handling verified infections for a moment because that is an involved process. This means we will need to have a clear response plan in place in terms of potential evacuation, school shutdown, the transition to virtual learning, communication to the student and staff population, likely additional testing… the works.
Infections can result in long-term absences for students. And staff. What does the substitute teaching situation look like? What does bringing in an individual from the outside, who has potentially been at other schools, and will be at other schools in the future, look like?
Infections can result in death. Do we have a plan in place for dealing with this trauma? What do we tell students if their classmates die, their teachers die, or someone’s family member dies directly as a result of re-entry into schools? Counselors and support staff need to be prepared and equipped in advance to handle this. And the same trauma-response initiatives need to be available to staff, who can be just as significantly impacted by this type of loss.
The handling of potential infections will initially most likely fall on the school nurse. School nurses are typically not equipped with resources or physical space to address even day-to-day school medical concerns. I cannot count the number of times a child with an active fever or who has been actively vomiting has been sent back to my classroom to wait to be picked up because there wasn’t any more room left in the nurse’s office. And I’m not alone. This cannot continue to be the case if we reopen schools. School nurses must be given everything they require to do their jobs.
Note: schools also need a clear plan for how deep-cleaning and disinfection of buildings will take place. They will require whatever funding is necessary to clean buildings to standard. They also will need funding to provide custodial staff with PPE and specialized cleaning implements and supplies. Custodial staff should also receive hazard pay since they bear a massive risk in order to do their jobs.
Policies will need to be re-evaluated, rewritten, or modified. What does this mean?
– Workers Compensation: this must now include contraction of COVID-19 as an on-the-job injury/illness. It must extend to any family members living at home with staff who could also contract the virus from being exposed to staff.
– Healthcare Coverage: if staff contract COVID-19, healthcare coverage needs to be comprehensive for treatment. It must also be expanded to include any family members residing with staff who are at risk because staff is now in schools.
– Sick leave: sick leave policies must be modified for staff, and attendance policies modified for students. If the staff has to quarantine, or be hospitalized, they should not take pay penalties for that. If students need to quarantine or be hospitalized, they should not have attendance penalties for this. By extension, state education agencies cannot penalize schools and withhold funding based on student attendance that is reduced due to COVID-19.
If staff is being put at risk then they must be accommodated, no questions asked, and I’d even push further and say they probably deserve hazard pay. I say this because we do not have enough data to say with certainty how risky reopening is, which yes, could mean it’ll be okay. It could also mean it’ll be catastrophic. That risk deems hazard pay.
We also need clear plans for how to meet CDC safety guidelines. And it’s not a “we meet them wherever possible” situation. We meet them, period.
It’d be remiss of us not to note that at the time of my writing this, it’s July 11. Many teachers return for service in just a couple of weeks. Students all over the country are scheduled to return to school as soon as early August. Just something to consider when we look at what must be done, and the time that’s left to do it.
That aside, if the powers that be are unwilling to provide the funding to make the above possible, that leaves us with option 2.
OPTION 2: FULL VIRTUAL LEARNING
I should note here that I am aware that different states are in very different situations in terms of COVID-19 management, so what I’m saying could differ depending on location and community spread.
If we go full virtual, funding needs to be put into maximizing effectiveness. This means schools must have the funds to put technology, learning tools/supplies, and reliable internet access in the hands of all children and families, as well as for teachers to ensure they have what they need to teach most effectively from home.
If we go full virtual, the government must also provide relief payments to working parents so they can either afford childcare (if they are comfortable with that) OR afford to stay home while their children are learning. By extension, childcare centers would also then need the funding in order to be able to support virtual learning on behalf of parents, if children are spending their days in daycare.
That’s the family/student-facing side. On the teacher-facing side, professional development will need to be modified. Differentiated training for those who are at varying levels of technological proficiency should be accounted for and addressed by meeting teachers where they are. We advocate for this model with student education, and it should not be any different from teacher education. Curriculum development teams need to devote their focus to how to best modify instructional content to be delivered in a virtual format. This MUST also include how we are meeting instructional minutes, accommodations, and modifications for our special needs students. Do IEPs need to be edited to reflect what virtual special education will look like? Ultimately, whatever solutions they arrive at in terms of instructional delivery then need to be gradually disseminated to staff via online training.
Teachers need time to process, practice and implement new initiatives. This won’t be a perfect execution without bumps. It is new for everyone. But when our students encounter new challenges, we don’t tell them to throw in the towel or not move forward just because it is unfamiliar or difficult. We provide them with all the necessary resources, and then we encourage them to persist, be creative and learn. Developing the ability to educate America’s children effectively and meaningfully in a virtual setting can only be a net positive in a world that is ever-increasingly expanding online.
If you’ve read this and it sounds outrageous to you, I encourage you to research the US government and how it funds various entities in our country. We have the money to do this.
If you work at and/or send your children to a wealthy private school or a public school in a wealthy area, you may already have many of these resources (either at home or at school), or the means to acquire them.
Countless public schools in America do NOT have this level of access. And they are most often the school districts that serve the nation’s Black and Brown children. Not only have these children continuously battled grievous injustice in terms of being deprived of equal access to educational resources that their wealthier (often white) counterparts receive, their communities are also being destroyed by COVID-19. Black and Indigenous Americans are contracting this virus at 5 times the rate of white Americans, and Latinx Americans are contracting it at 4 times the rate of white Americans. Black and Indigenous Americans are dying at over twice the rate of white Americans.
Lastly, making the argument that virtual learning didn’t work in the spring, therefore it is not a viable option any longer, is deeply flawed. It didn’t work, perhaps, on the whole, because we had no time to prepare, we had very limited resources, and it was born out of a completely unexpected national shutdown.
It wasn’t virtual education, it was emergency learning.
If we are given the resources and time, it can be much more impactful and effective moving forward.