We Need to Ask Educators How to Open School Safely This Year
Like most educators, I am interested in the suggestions for school resuming in a few weeks. Many of the people making recommendations are health experts, not school experts. School people, teachers and administrators need key questions answered and these responses, if honest and practical, can guide us into best practice for K-12 education within a pandemic.
· How to enforce social distancing expectations among children? The little people like to touch each other, and they share community supplies and spaces. We actually emphasize sharing as a principle we value. An elementary classroom is likely the best experience of community many of us get in life. The older kids aren’t keen on social distancing either. Teens share their innermost thoughts and feelings with their closest companions, and those conversations are held in whispers, not shouted from 6 feet away. How much teaching can a teacher do when s/he is walking around with a yard stick measuring 6 feet distances trying to separate kids from one another?
· The mask dilemma. We can make masks optional or mandatory. I can assure you as many parents who refuse to mask their children can be matched by an equal number of parents who demand that their child not be around un-masked people. How can schools reconcile these groups? Some say teachers should wear masks but not children. Not only does teaching in a mask tax the body significantly, but also what is the health benefit of 1 person in a classroom being required to wear a mask when the other 20 or 35 are not?
· Where do you buy disinfectant wipes? Let’s pretend for a moment that money is no object, and everyone had all the funds to buy what they needed to clean schools. Finding antibacterial wipes is nothing short of a search for a unicorn in 2020. Last week I found 2 cans of disinfectant spray in the grocery store, ending my 3 month quest to replenish the supply for my family. While 2 cans may work well for home use, in a school 2 cans don’t go that far.
· Who supervises kids when they eat in classrooms? Some experts recommend that kids do not eat in cafeterias to reduce the spread of the virus. In many states, like the one I work in, teachers are entitled to a “duty-free” lunch meaning they do not supervise children during their (unpaid) lunch time. This is their one time of day to eat, make a phone call, use the restroom or to sit down. The majority of school employees (80%+) are teachers. There are not hordes of some other magic people who can supervise kids if they aren’t teachers. Some may suggest that we demand teachers forgo their duty free lunch because we are in an unprecedented situation. Using the restroom is a right, not a privilege. Having a meal break is an OSHA required standard. As it is, teachers have lost cost of living and step raises due to state budget shortfalls and have been asked to do more with less for decades, long before this pandemic occurred, so we now believe we can just ask them to give up their only personal time as well? In a word, no.
· Temperature Checks? Why are we taking everyone’s temperature if the virus can spread when people are asymptomatic who have normal temperatures? Enough said.
· Where Should Sick Kids Wait for Parents? Some parents work more than an hour away from their child’s school. The idea of waiting in the nurse’s office (if your school is fortunate enough to have a nurse) does not work because school nurses care for some of the most health compromised children in a school. A child who needs a feeding tube for nutrition, for example, should not be seated next to a child with a highly contagious illness. So now, schools need another location for the symptomatic or feverish while they wait for a parent, and guess what, they need to be supervised, but by whom?
· Hand Washing. Hot water availability for hand washing is more easily a suggestion, than reality. Many schools have self-closing faucets for water conservation so one cannot run the water long enough for hot water to ever appear.
· Compulsory Attendance. Attendance is required, and many states count chronic absenteeism rates against schools which sometime results in incentives or sanctions issued to encourage school attendance. While they may reduce truancy, they also encourage sick children to attend school because of fear of sanctions or the loss of the incentive. If we value the health of those who are in school, then we need to press pause on these “data points” that work against the concept of wellness.
The answers to these questions are what we need to effectively open school this year and to determine if schools, based on the answered questions above should operate remotely, on a hybrid or normally. While public health experts and the CDC should share their expertise about health, there must be educators at the table sharing their critical, real world experiences. People who work in classrooms, with children of all ages need to be included in the planning because their expertise is missing from this conversation. While educators have often been left out of important discussions, we cannot afford to make this mistake now. The results of educators being excluded about how to safely educate could have life and death consequences for our children in 2020.