Education Health SPM

Opening Schools This Fall Is a Complicated Matter: What You Should Know

Before we delve into the topic of schools, I have to make this abundantly clear: The pandemic is NOT a political issue; it is simply a matter of science that has been turned into something political by both sides. In addition, I do not believe that education should be a political issue, but it has been for years for the same reasons. Because of both of these things, there are items we must consider when we talk about re-opening schools that we should absolutely NOT have to worry about. But that’s our society, so let’s move forward.

Let me start with my credentials so you understand where I’m coming from. I am both a teacher and a parent. I have taught in Florida and Michigan with student populations that vary drastically. I have three children in multiple schools, and both of us work with few options for alternative education plans. I feel I am in a considerably better situation than many people, but am aware of the multitude of issues other people may face this upcoming year.

When schools shut down in March, we were all in crisis mode. Teachers didn’t know how to adequately educate their students remotely, and parents didn’t know how to help their children be successful. School districts didn’t know how to mandate their education plans in a way that would cater to equity (meeting the needs of ALL students – especially those without access to technology, independent learning strategies, and even a reliable meal every day) as well as the demands of local, state, and federal governments. Suffice it to say, it was a shit show.

When we return in the fall, things cannot and will not look that way. Governors have (hopefully) been working with experts and stakeholders to develop a solid plan based on the current knowledge of Covid-19 as well as some common sense. How will a classroom look in August? Will students and staff be required to wear masks? Will students be seated 6 feet apart? Will enrichment activities be available to students? These are important questions that don’t have simple answers.

Contractually (and logistically) I can have up to 33 students in my high school classroom. I estimate that in previous years, students sat 1-2 feet apart and with a full class, it was crowded. If I get creative with seating arrangements, I could probably stretch that to 3 feet, but currently use tables (that are 6×2) so I would need all new furniture to accommodate half of the 6 feet distance that will be expected.

Ok, well what if we make class sizes smaller?

Great! Small class sizes are much better for student learning. Teachers have been asking for this for years and all it took was a global pandemic for it to become a reality! However, smaller class sizes means we need more teachers, which is a financial burden most districts aren’t willing or able to take on, especially given the threats of withholding funding passed down by the federal government. In addition, many schools simply don’t have the open classrooms to accommodate more sections of classes.

I think the reality most schools will come to is some sort of hybrid learning environment or alternate calendar. This means that students would have remote virtual learning on alternating days from their own homes. This would obviously be difficult for younger students (and especially their parents) and older ones who cannot drive themselves. There are many variations of what this might look like, none of which are ideal.

No matter what, we will not be able to use the current classroom model to accommodate 6 feet distance, so we must be prepared for drastic changes if we are to accomplish that.

Will students and teachers be required to wear masks all throughout the day?

Probably. I know that I am not looking forward to the difficulties that will come with that from a teacher’s perspective. For myself, it is more difficult to talk with a mask on, which is kind of a major element of my job. It will also become a battle with the students (much like dress code and cell phones) that will distract from education. We also have to consider what exceptions will exist. I am sure that students with asthma will be exempted, and students (and parents of students) who do not have diagnosed asthma will take advantage of the exception to avoid having to wear a mask. It will also be a nightmare for teachers of younger students, especially those who have not been regularly wearing a mask these past few months.

Unless there are strict mandates and follow-through, the whole mask thing will be a major issue, and I expect we will see many schools required to quarantine throughout the school year.

Am I going to end up having to help homeschool my child?

At some point this school year, yes. Absolutely. Until a vaccine is developed, tested, and proven, schools are at the mercy of the population, which has already shown it is not willing to take the steps to safely conduct business. Schools should be preparing to provide high-quality virtual learning, and with an effective plan in place, you shouldn’t have to do too much more than you normally might. That being said, it is impossible to make a one-size-fits-all plan. Teachers, students, parents, and districts will all have to be flexible in order for this to be successful.

Schools understand that they cannot afford to lose students to private or traditional homeschooling, and should be working hard to ensure that they can be a reliable source of education. Most parents cannot afford to leave their job in order to help educate their children. In having this mutual understanding of need, parents and schools will both need to be accommodating in order for this to work.

There are dozens of other questions without solid answers, but it’s important we ask them for discussion to take place. Next year will not be perfect. It will be inconvenient, irritating at times, and uncomfortable. We will not see a return to normal, and will have to be accepting of change. We may find new and better ways to educate our children, however. They may not be perfect right away, but given some time, they could be the silver lining we need.