What We Did Not Do for Students
(on our Summer Vacation)
By Sheldon Firem
American students of all ages are preparing to return to school with the time-honored tradition of buying new clothes and classroom materials. Commercial establishments are more than eager to welcome them and their parents’ credit cards.
School districts are preparing the buildings. Teachers are planning the learning objectives. Parents are anticipating a return to a normal routine. Bus drivers are memorizing their routes.
But stop the bus!
Covid-19 does not honor tradition. Covid-19 does not pass over students wearing a certain ‘brand’ of clothing. Covid-19 does not find school security cameras to be a barrier. Covid-19 does not respect the time that teachers put into their lesson plans. Covid-19 does not fear the school nurse. Covid-19 does not empathize that parents are frazzled and ready for some ‘down-time’ away from their children.
Covid-19 merely exists, replicating itself to replicate itself. It reproduces quickly. It mutates quickly. It does not bother to reason or feel. It behaves consistently, without malice, following its genetic imperative, taking a free ride on our laughing, talking, coughing, sneezing and singing. All of these now risky behaviors transpire in schools thousands of times each day.
Humans, on the other hand, exist to fulfill their needs: to learn, to grow spiritually, to reason, to feel, to laugh, to achieve, to propagate and to build communities; however, humans do not behave consistently. If we have a genetic imperative, it seems to be to get together, to work together and to socialize in close quarters in small and large groups.
This comparison between humans and Covid-19 suggests a compelling case for not opening schools, colleges and universities or at least for delaying their openings. Covid-19 is genetically focused. Humans are behaviorally unfocused.
As a former school psychologist, high school social studies teacher and school board member there are many reasons to intensely consider not re-opening schools as usual. From this educator’s perspective, while there are multiple reasons to not reopen schools, the primary reason is that we have not learned from our recent past.
America does not have enough Covid-19 tests currently for hospitals and the general population. We are testing, for the richest country on earth, at a lower per capita rate than less wealthy countries. Many school plans have in them requirements to test students and staff. Test results come back very late. Our follow-up tracing is even at a more dismal level. Test availability for schools is an issue.
Schools are traditionally underfunded or derive their funding from inconsistent sources of income, such as levies. The requirement to follow all the CDC recommendations as to sanitizers, antiseptic products, student spacing, extra materials and supplying students with the needed laptops if on-line learning is used will further drain the school districts’ coffers. There has even been a threat from the Executive Branch to cut off federal funding to schools not re-opening this Fall. This is comparable to the captain of the Titanic drilling holes into the remaining lifeboats. One might also project that extra teachers, aides and nurses may be needed, requiring additional monies if all the students return at once. Funding to promote a healthy learning environment is an issue.
Depending on the size of the classroom, maintaining a six-foot spacing between students will reduce the number of students able to be in one classroom by half or more. Some tutorial rooms are so small currently that only the teacher and one student may be able to occupy that space. Small group instruction (3 students possibly) for special education students will need to be curtailed. Spacing is an issue.
Some or all of the students may be picked up by a school bus if school begins. Students would be spaced six feet apart presumably. The students on the bus and the driver would be travelling together twice daily for at least 180 school days and more in some districts.
This scenario appears to be a mobile, metal petri dish on wheels. In addition, bus drivers are sometimes older, retired persons more susceptible to the virus. Finding enough replacement bus drivers has always been difficult. Would political leaders endure this same risk? Busing is an issue.
All students are not created developmentally equal. Schools, by federal and state law, are correctly required to educate students with disabilities. Compared to the general population of students, special education students have more emotional, learning and physical vulnerabilities as to functioning in class. They require consistency.
The world of Covid-19 is not consistent. Given the nature of many special education students’ mandated learning plans (IEPs), they will come into contact with more teachers, therapists and students than the typical student increasing the potential for Covid-19 spread. Some students have significant pre-existing medical conditions that increase their vulnerability. The education of the vulnerable student is an issue.
The elementary and secondary student will contact multiple adults during the course of a school day, not merely the homeroom teacher. Those adults and children will return to their respective families each night. Covid-19 is nothing else but patient in its genetic directive to spread and replicate. Students will come into contact with custodians, school resource officers, maintenance personnel, secretaries, principals, bus drivers, special education teachers, aides, lunch staff, recess staff as well as other teachers when they change class.
In addition, schools have multiple outside visitors to the office throughout the day. While social distancing is a goal, if we re-open too soon, the school day for the student may become a risky social event. Contact with multiple adults is an issue.
The Health vs. Economy Dilemna
The political urgency to re-open the economy early seems to have resulted in an unlocked door for Covid-19 to re-emerge with a vengeance this summer. The CDC’s re-opening guidelines were not followed consistently.
Citizens sallied forth into old habits with the blessings of more than a few political leaders who seem to value a healthy economy over a healthy populace. Of course, both issues are intertwined. We have lost 136,000 plus Americans at this point. Four to five percent of the diagnosed cases are fatal.
Students and their education should not be collateral damage. If the health of students and their relatives is valued, the political urgency to re-open schools is an issue.
Parents, grandparents and caregivers have inherited the wind as they deal with issues of day-care, lost job time/income and the stress of managing their children 24/7. Frazzled may not begin to describe their lives at this time. Children are stressed with new routines or the uncertainty they see in their parents’ eyes.
The Fall & the Flu
The Fall will bring the expected outbreaks of the flu, colds and other weather-related illnesses. The immune systems of students and adults are lowered due to illness and stress. Covid-19 will gain these un-expected allies in its march to replicate.
We already know that some schools close due to normal outbreaks of the flu. The flu (actually there are several strains) is a close relative to Covid-19. It will become a viral family affair just when we seek to protect our students and their families. The coming flu season is an issue.
If we deny, deflect, and condemn uniform medical recommendations to defeat Covid-19, if we play partisan politics and if we view those who disagree with our point of view from either a masked or unmasked perspective, Covid-19 will do what it has already done to Americans……..Covid-19 will take us to school.