Reopening Our Schools: A Teacher’s Perspective

c. Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA via Shutterstock

Introduction

Yes. We’re all eager for our schools to reopen. The Covid-19 pandemic has now ravaged our country for over a year, killing more than half a million people, causing great economic hardship to all but the wealthiest, and exacting a savage psychological and emotional toll on our entire population.

Everyone agrees. Social isolation and lack of intellectual stimulation at a critically formative young age damage our children. Parents trapped in the role of full-time childcare providers express frustration and anger: they don’t have the skills or time to educate their children; they need to get back to work. Businesses can’t fully open until kids return to school. And teachers genuinely want to be in the classroom with their students. We need to reopen our schools.

But hold on a minute, folks. Much more is needed to safely reopen our schools than most people are talking about. We can’t just hand our kids over to the teachers, breathe a big sigh of relief, and get on with our lives. It’s not going to be that easy, or cheap, to do it right.

Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security under President Obama wrote in a July 2020 Atlantic article, “Schools do not have a simple on-off switch. To reopen schools will not just take a lot of money. Classroom layouts, buildings, policies, schedules, extracurricular activities, teacher and staff assignments, and even curricula must all be altered to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission. “

As a teacher with thirty years’ experience in our K-12 public schools, I must point out the shameful disrepair, the dangerous, filthy, near Third-World condition, of many public schools in our country. When it comes to thinking about our schools — the place where parents deposit their children for the day while getting on with their lives — most people live in denial, wear rose-colored glasses*; they just don’t want to think about how the sausage is being made where they leave off the kids.
(* NB Clichés are intentionally utilized throughout. Sorry, literary critics.)

Parents deposit their children at school expecting a large return on investment: that the kids will be cared for in a physically and emotionally safe and healthy environment, where any learning difficulties or abnormal behavior the child exhibited at home will be fixed, and every child will receive high-quality teaching, enabling them to “get ahead in the world.”

People resent the uncomfortable suggestion that “the emperor wears no clothes,” that the extremely rundown physical infrastructure of our nation’s schools — grossly underfunded for decades — is toxic and dangerous; that 21st Century technological infrastructure is at best out-of-date and, in many places, non-existent. And few are willing to admit that the special needs of children experiencing rising rates of autism spectrum disorders, chemical and noise sensitivities, extreme hunger and poverty, traumatic stress arising from life in broken alcoholic and abusive families, and the gifted children languishing in our educational system — all of these and other special needs presented in every classroom in America today simply cannot be effectively addressed by regular classroom teachers; not unless we vastly reduce class sizes, provide an abundance of professional support staff trained to meet specific special needs, build ergonomic environments and redesign curriculum that supports and enhances learning.

If you truly care about our children, please take off those rose-colored glasses and face the horrible truth, now — before we rush to stuff the kids back into broken schools and pretend everything is going to be just fine.

Vaccinate Teachers Before Reopening?

I was relieved and grateful to hear President Biden’s announcement directing all states to “prioritize educators, school staff, and child-care workers to receive at least one shot by the end of March.” Thankfully, the President’s directive differs with CDC (National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s statement that teachers do not need to be vaccinated prior to reopening schools.

Dr. Walensky claims that teachers and staff can safely return to in-person learning without being vaccinated as long as schools follow public health precautions established by the CDC. These precautions require that all adults and children in the school properly wear masks, socially distance at least six feet (preferably aided by plastic barriers), frequently wash hands with soap and hot water, access good indoor ventilation, and frequently disinfect surfaces including furniture and learning materials.

c. ROMEO GACAD/AFP via Getty Images

Apparently Dr. Walensky has not been inside a typical American public school classroom. If she had, she’d know that it is not feasible for most of our schools, in their present condition, to implement the CDC guidelines.

In thirty years of teaching, I’ve never seen a public school in the USA where classrooms, and student and staff bathrooms have had access to hot water, much less soap (unless teachers buy the soap themselves). Furthermore, custodial staffs have been so drastically cut over the years that, at least in California, rooms are never dusted (never mind disinfecting surfaces like desktops, chairs, pencils and math blocks with Lysol or Clorox wipes), trash is emptied only once every few days, floors are never vacuumed more often than once a week — in some cases only once a month — and are washed only once a year.

Kids touch things — kinesthetic experience is an important learning modality, to be encouraged. Kids drop stuff on the floor, and often don’t pick it up, or pick up something someone else has touched. Classrooms get filthy and opportunities for the spread of germs abound.

Does responsibility for vigilant disinfecting of surfaces and other deep cleaning fall to the teachers? Who buys the soap and disinfecting wipes? What about the extra masks for students who forget, lose, or soil theirs? Do teachers include masks on the list of supplies they now must buy or ask parents to provide, along with Clorox wipes, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, and copy paper? (A hundred years ago, teachers were expected to chop wood, build a fire in the wood stove, cook soup, and sweep the floors every morning before students arrived. Teachers were also prohibited from marrying. How far we’ve come.)

It’s normal to have to remind even high school students to cover nose and mouth when sneezing, “sneeze into your elbow; put used tissues in the trash can.” Imagine the added instructional time lost having to monitor appropriate mask wearing and social distancing, even assuming a class where all students are well-mannered and follow instructions.

c. Iza Habur Getty mages

I expect that, after a year out of school, most students will be highly distracted, excited, and disoriented when they return, and most will be eager to connect with their friends above all else. There will probably be large gaps between students in their academic progress or lack thereof. Spring is usually the season when attention deficit sets in for many, and the two months until summer vacation will be too short for most teachers to accomplish much beyond assessment and a kind of re-socialization. The challenges that teachers who reopen our schools face will be enormous.

Schools have always been super spreader sites for diseases — be it colds and flu, pink eye, lice, polio, measles, mumps, whooping cough, or whatever germs kids inevitably bring to school with them. Children may be the least susceptible age group for contracting Covid-19; however, teachers and school staff work into their 60’s and sometimes even beyond age 70, making them the most vulnerable group for contracting Covid-19.

Teachers are essential workers. Should we send them, unvaccinated, into boiling melting pots of disease? Well-educated professionals, teachers have invested a great deal of personal time and money to achieve the qualifications required for the job, a job that is rated one of the most stressful in the American workforce. They put their whole selves into serving their students and communities. Yet in this country, teachers are not given the respect they merit. Let’s change that. Full vaccination of all teachers and staff in our nation must be a prerequisite to reopening schools. It’s the least we can do.

Fifth grade teacher Donna Spivak from Grimmer Middle School in Schererville is urging Governor Holcomb to extend COVID-19 vaccinations to teachers. (Michael Gard / Post-Tribune)

Following are other crucial issues that we need to begin to address before schools reopen, before everyone puts those rose-colored glasses back on and settles into complacent denial with an unwarranted sigh of relief. Nice to have the kids back in school?

Not so fast. Consider this:

1. School Buildings

During my decades as an educator, I’ve observed that every so often, an aging school gets “remodeled” at great expense. Fat construction contracts are awarded, and public education funds are squandered with no real improvements — just a lot of noise, dust, disruption, a slap of paint, and the replacement (for cheap toxic substitutes) of a broken set of blinds, an inoperable window, . . .

c. Kamil Krzaczynski / APFigure https://www.stand.la/health-and-safety.html. photo c. KPCC AirTalk

But most often, maintenance of our public schools is deferred for years and buildings are allowed to deteriorate to the point of being dangerous. Although an issue primarily in “poor” neighborhoods, even in “middle class” neighborhoods, I’ve experienced schools where it’s bad politics for a teacher to bring up such things, and busy parents with high-stress jobs don’t want to see the peeling lead paint, inoperable ventilation systems, mold, inaccessible bathrooms, broken shelves and cupboards, carcinogenic PCBs dripping from ancient flickering lighting ballasts, toxic chemicals leaching into the water and drifting in the air into their child’s school.

We need a massive new FDR-style WPA** to rebuild our nation’s schools — schools that truly serve our communities and our children. (**The Works Progress Administration — “WPA” — founded in 1932 by Franklin D. Roosevelt was an American New Deal agency, employing millions of jobseekers to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads.)

Visualize green LEED-compliant, ergonomic, daylighted, outdoor-oriented learning spaces, with sound & movement issues mitigated for special needs and cutting-edge learning technologies built-in. (See Chartwell School Monterey.)

2. Air

- In many classrooms there are no windows, or only windows that do not open.

- Good air circulation is essential in all seasons, particularly during the pandemic. (See animated illustration of air flow in “NY Times” article on school ventilation: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/02/26/science/reopen-schools-safety-ventilation.html?referringSource=articleShare. )

- Many HVAC systems are defective, usually ancient, often controlled by a distant district office as an efficiency and cost saving measure, leaving teachers and students stranded and powerless, freezing in winter and boiling in late spring and early fall.

- Hot & cold air forced through fiberglass duct liner and insulation in old HVAC systems is hazardous. (See https://www.buildingincalifornia.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/FiberglassHVAC-InsulationHazards1.pdf )

- I taught for a year in a leaky portable in Central California, with paperboard walls covered in pink, green, yellow and orange mold, and HVAC insulation saturated with molds. When the noisy HVAC was turned on, spores blew through fiberglass insulation into the classroom, creating a toxic atmosphere so thick you could smell it. Students had watering eyes, dizziness, headaches, and respiratory crisis. The portable’s one very small, cracked window did not open. The weather was often very hot or cold, but we didn’t dare turn on the HVAC. Aerial application of pesticides took place on the agricultural field adjacent to the school during school days, so we didn’t dare open the classroom door for ventilation either. This happened not in the last century but in 2005.

- Deadly pesticides, including brain-harming chemicals, from adjacent agricultural fields drift into classrooms at above “allowable” levels.

1. http://www.safeagsafeschools.org/index.html

2. http://www.panna.org/human-health-harms/children

- Carcinogens, neurotoxins, etc. drift into classrooms from nearby toxic chemical operations (e.g., oil wells, fracking, manufacturing)

1. https://www.colorlines.com/articles/some-california-kids-back-school-means-back-dangers-fracking-wells

2. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/22/california-oil-and-gas-wells-setback

https://www.stand.la/health-and-safety.html. photo c. KPCC AirTalk

3. Water

- In my experience, there is often no potable water available anywhere in the school. (Water can be contaminated because a school is built on top of or near a toxic landfill, there is agricultural runoff or a chemical plant nearby, etc.)

- Broken, filthy, disconnected drinking fountains are the norm.

- Teachers purchase their own bottled water and the “water situation” is not discussed with students or their parents, due to implicit pressure from above.

- Working sinks in classrooms are rare. They are non-existent in the “temporary portable” trailers (most of which are aging, toxic, moldy, and dilapidated).

- The CDC recommends frequently washing hands with soap and hot water? Nope. HOT water is not available anywhere in the schools. (A cost saving measure.)

4. Environmental Racism: Dangerous contaminants in the schools — including mold, lead, PCBs, pesticides, chemical landfills, oil wells — primarily impact poor communities & communities of color, causing life-long harm to many children. Social Equity, Respect for Diversity, & Racism must be addressed in every aspect of schooling.

5. Technology: All schools everywhere in the country, including remote rural schools, must be upgraded to the most up-to-date internet connectivity with access to an internet-connected device for every student. Provide qualified teachers and curriculum to train and support all students in STEAM*** (***Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) — from appropriate use of technology, including safe internet browsing and social media activity, how to verify the validity and security of a web site, and how to fact check the accuracy of information found online — to advanced tech skills.

6. Class Size: 30 is too big; 20 too big for Covid-19. To effectively implement social distancing in the average-sized classroom, 10–15 is okay. Research supports the assertion that all students need small class sizes, and as much 1-on-1 teacher/parent/adult mentor time as possible. Build more schools. Hire more teachers.

7. We need a National Standards-based 21st Century Curriculum:

Rigor and universally-assessed accountability in math, science (including scientific method, history of science, biology, ecology, climate change, etc.), geography, technology, engineering, logic, civics, ethics, literature, language arts, second language literacy, history, social science, cultural literacy, art, social-emotional skills including non-violent conflict resolution.

— Our National Curriculum should emphasize logical thinking skills. E.g., Students Will Be Able To distinguish between non-fiction and fiction, fact and opinion. SWBAT use classical logic to defend their opinions, employing factual evidence based on verifiable data.

— Each standard shall be progressively developed from K through 12, with mastery at each grade confirmed by criterion-referenced assessment.

— Our National Curriculum should accommodate varied learning modalities and cultural styles, promoting innovation and creativity, intellectual curiosity above materialistic pursuit of grades, cooperation, personal responsibility, community, respect for all, compassion, national and global citizenship, and other humanitarian life skills and values.

8. Adequately Fund Public Education & Redistribute Funds to Benefit Students:

Guard against private for-profit corporations siphoning off public education funds in the guise of “charter schools.”

— Rebalance the top-heavy administrative payrolls, decision-making power, and funding of high-status “big shot” projects of little benefit to most students.

— Trust, pay, and empower teachers more.

— Refocus funding and priorities to directly benefit students in the classroom.

9. Protect and Support Teachers, Teacher Tenure, and Teachers’ Unions.

Teacher tenure and teachers’ unions protect freedom of speech and thought. Without tenure, teachers are pressured and intimidated into silence, justifiably afraid to speak inconvenient truths about science, encourage intellectual debate, and speak out about issues affecting student health, safety, and well-being.

In conclusion, long ago, one of my students gave me a wall plaque that still hangs in my home. It states, “Teachers preserve the past, reveal the present, and create the future.”

As we move forward in our quest to forge a more perfect union and create a truly democratic country — with liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all, we must assure that all people living in this nation have access to an excellent, safe and nurturing, free public education, guaranteeing that everyone will have the opportunity to develop the requisite skills to make reasoned, just, informed decisions about his/her own life and our shared future. A strong Democracy depends upon excellent public schools.

photo copyright https://www.apa.org/education/k12/diversity

Mary’s clifi eco-thriller, Fruit of the Devil, a finalist for the PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, was published by Paper Angel Press in 2019.