If your community resembles the one in which I live, then you know there’s a fierce debate about whether the local K-12 school buildings should reopen next month to allow for in-person teaching.
(Full disclosure: My younger son begins his junior year of high school in a few weeks; it’s for you to determine if that fact influences my thinking.)
Before we go any further, let me state my lines in the sand about K-12 education this academic year:
- Even one K-12 student’s death because of coronavirus during the 2020-21 academic year is one too many
- Even one K-12 teacher’s death because of coronavirus during the 2020-21 academic year is one too many
- No one can guarantee neither a student nor a teacher might die from coronavirus during the academic year if K-12 school buildings are open
- People who absolutely believe no K-12 students or teachers might die from coronavirus during this academic year because of open school buildings are fools
- The possible number of deaths is used by proponents and critics of opening school buildings, and the conversation about whether they ought to be open is far more complex
- The “but you can die from a car accident” and other similar statements miss the mark in the discussion about K-12 schools and coronavirus. Car accidents and the like aren’t contagious and don’t disrupt an entire classroom of 20-30 (if not more) students
With that set up, here’s my argument for why K-12 education ought to be online. Put another way, keep the school buildings closed.
Remote delivery must be the only method of instruction until there’s certainty — and that might never come this academic year — that school buildings are safe for occupancy for up to 8 hours a day.
Once a child (or a teacher) enters a K-12 building at roughly 8 a.m., there’s maybe one opportunity until the end of the school day to go outside and escape the circulating air. I commend school districts that have ample resources for their commitment to tweaking the air units in the building to provide as much fresh air as possible. Likewise, let’s commend the efforts at so-called deep cleaning, in which buildings will be cleansed in far more robust ways than they are in normal situations. But let’s also be realistic: There are thousands of school districts in this country that don’t have those resources. We know many businesses remain eager to keep their employees at home for these reasons: to limit the number of people inhaling and exhaling the circulating air in the building and because it’s costly to deep clean buildings that are used heavily.
Of course, K-12 students and teachers can contract coronavirus from anywhere. However, if they spend 7-8 hours inside a building five days a week with hundreds (or thousands) of other people, then it will be only at home, where hundreds of people don’t live, where they will spend more time under the same roof each day. That’s a lot of people circulating the same air, and those are a lot of buildings that will need to be deep cleaned.
“Hey, you can just open the classroom windows and solve the air circulation problem!” Okay, and what happens on days in which it rains? What if it’s well over 90 degrees? What happens when the temperature drops into the 40s or lower? Oh, and how many of these newer buildings have windows that don’t open? Let’s talk common sense here, please. Opening the windows might be a legitimate option roughly 40 percent of the time. And if you’re going to make the argument that teachers and kids don’t need air conditioning, then please shut down that unit in your house and get rid of it. Let’s see how important it really is, shall we?
Sum it all up, and we’re going to keep students and teachers at home until the air quality issues are neutered and the need for deep cleanings is significantly reduced.
If we get to that point (and let’s be optimistic and say we do), then other factors also could require remote delivery of instruction.
A critical element of any complete plan to keep a school building safe is what I’ll call home care. It’s incumbent on parents to make sure their child(ren) can go to school without signs of coronavirus. But we all know that a child can wake up in the morning and be fine…and by 11:00 a.m. can be found in the nurse‘s office with a fever. If that student is diagnosed with coronavirus, presto, everyone around him or her now is at risk and his or her parents did absolutely nothing wrong when they sent Johnny or Susie out the door that morning.
With online learning, this problem is removed. There will be no need to quarantine and entire class, and at least one teacher, because one child who, along with his or her parents, was following the rules but still brought coronavirus into a classroom.
This school year will be interrupted because of another coronavirus wave; there’s NO WAY we’ll get from September to June without a county’s health situation deteriorating. All signs point to the combination of the still-present coronavirus and the regular flu season crippling the health care system in the winter months all over the country.
The best way to not disrupt K-12 education is to emphasize online teaching and learning from the start. We take off the table the inevitable pivot to remote delivery of instruction that will be required once that public health crisis arrives. And keep in mind that once it arrives, we’ll have no way of knowing how long it will last. Why create that kind of uncertainty and worry for our children, their parents and their teachers?
Let’s also not forget that many of the typical school year activities will have to be restricted or eliminated during this academic year. I don‘t care how much your kids love sports, music, theatre, etc., some (all?) of these activities are going to be called off at some point because of coronavirus. These non-events are another indicator the school year won’t be normal. We can best normalize K-12 education by making it consistently online; students can count on knowing how they will learn, and any certainty in uncertain times is a good thing.
Let’s talk about teachers. (Soap box moment: Anyone advocating that teachers need to suck it up and get back to face-to-face teaching need to cool their jets.) God love them, but would you blame teachers if they chose to walk if told to go back into their school building? (I addressed this possibility a few days ago; here’s the link to that post.) We know teachers in at least one state are deeply afraid of returning to their K-12 classrooms; they’re not alone. If you’re a substitute teacher, would you want to walk into a classroom in which a teacher has been ruled out of for at least two weeks because he or she has coronavirus? (Or worse, would you want to replace a teacher who died from it?) Doubt it.
We reduce the potential for teachers to retire — taking all sorts of experience with that decision — by allowing them to teach online from day one this school year.
I absolutely accept learning online isn’t the same as learning on ground. You can place me firmly in the camp that advocates students learn far more with the critical interaction that comes from having a teacher alongside them in the classroom. I can’t guarantee that online K-12 education will be delivered synchronously 100 percent of time; in fact, I accept that’s certainly not going to happen. However, right now, we need to place K-12 students and teachers in the place where they’re safest: in their own homes. If the typical teaching methods educators use need to be modified during this academic year, then that’s a commitment teachers will have to make.
I also absolutely accept K-12 students at home will place an untold number of families in difficult financial situations, and our most vulnerable populations are especially at risk here. A one-parent home in which that parent works or a two-parent home in which both parents work will face major disruption if they must change their employment status because their children are staying home. (Yes, women are more likely than men to sacrifice their professional lives in such situations.) I confess I don’t have a good answer to get around this issue, especially for parents who don’t have extended family or trusted friends to help watch their kids. Good employers will do the right thing and assist in coming up with solutions knowing it’s safer right now for students to stay home and for their parents to be there to keep an eye on them.
I also absolutely accept that countless numbers of students lack the technology to remain up to date with their classes in good times, and this problem will be exacerbated if they need to learn from home. I implore school district leaders and teachers to find creative solutions to keep all students engaged with assignments. Saying that, I have no magic wand to wave to ensure that happens. But I reiterate, it’s safer right now for students to stay home.
Earlier this week in a separate blog post, I provided a list of questions and issues that must be addressed in any conversation about the reopening of K-12 school buildings. Although I’ve answered some of them in this blog post, I reiterate all of them here because I know they’re not getting the attention they require. The non-stop argument about how many K-12 students and teachers might die during the upcoming academic year dominates such return-to-school conversations.
- What are the implications for parents/guardians and their work schedules if the health conditions in a particular county deteriorate and therefore require online instruction? Will employers who might have been patient with relaxed work rules a couple months ago continue to be so in the fall?
- What role might charter schools play in educating kids this fall? (Or this entire academic year?) Should they play any?
- What happens if a sizable number of teachers in any one school district (and by extension across the country) abandon the profession because of their fears of contracting (and perhaps passing on) coronavirus?
- Is the “we need to be cautious” crowd being mocked? Why?
- Is “we have little to worry about? crowd being mocked? Why?
- How do we ensure that children with underlying health conditions and who are told to stay home by their doctors retain some semblance of a typical school experience if so many of his/her friends are in the school building each day?
- Do we know with certainty that one reason the number of cases in America’s youth is as low as it is is because that population was isolated at almost the same time cases in the U.S. began to skyrocket?
- There’s been much talk about the flu, and yet all of us agree that the quarantine period for coronavirus is longer than the typical amount of days any one kid would miss if he/she caught the flu. How will that affect a child’s ability to keep up in school?
- Are there any data that indicate whether substitute teachers would accept a short-term (say 2 weeks) assignment in a room where the teacher is out because of coronavirus?
- Who — political figures, scientists, parents, doctors, etc. — will influence the decisions made by school superintendents in the coming weeks as they decide whether to re-open their buildings?
- Has there been a series of detailed conversations with staff about re-opening?
- What do we do with school districts that lack the resources to offer either a fully online or hybrid teaching program?
- What do the data from the spring tell us about how well and how much students learned after they were sent home?
- How much of the typical school experience — everything from extracurricular activities to recess — will be eliminated for part/all of the year?
- Why should any parental choice about how their child learns this school year be questioned by anyone else?
Children learn better inside a brick-and-mortar classroom. Parents’ lives are less complicated when their children can attend a brick-and-mortar school building. Extracurricular activities enrich the K-12 learning environment.
However, the health and safety crisis in which the country finds itself, and the revolting absence of leadership from the Executive Branch is a large reason why, mandates that students and teachers be placed in the safest environment: home.