I am starting my 27th year in education, and it’s a start like none other. Usually, as I prepare to go back to my high school English classroom, I am preparing my bulletin board. I am evaluating the curriculum from last year and gauging how to make improvements. I am required to use methods that are proven to be research-based and effective. After all, education is about making data driven decisions for the best interest of students. That also means I am looking at my roster and trying to figure out what the needs of my individual students might be. I am looking forward to being back with my students and colleagues.
This year is different. There is a world-wide pandemic that the United States has failed to respond to in a manner that allows any kind of normal return to school. I know the government wants schools to open and help parents go back to work to get the economy started again. I know parents want their kids back in school so they can go to work and their students can learn. I know students want to be back with their friends. I hear you. I hear the desire for schools to be the catch-all fix-all that it has been forced to become over the years. I promise you, as a teacher I do what I can not only to teach your student literature and writing, but also Internet safety, computer skills, and thinking skills, all while trying to help them with their social-emotional learning. I watch for signs of poor mental health and those unhealthy habits like Juuling. I make referrals within our school to the counselor, nurse or resource officer as needed.
This year…I’m not thinking about any of that. The conversations with my colleagues are not about curriculum and school climate. It’s about how not to die. We’re trying to figure out how to put an effective barrier between us and our students—plexiglass vs. shower curtain. It’s trying to figure out how we’re going to safely eat our lunches. It’s discussing how we’re going to be able to have cold water to drink and how to safely drink it. In my second-floor classroom without air conditioning, it’s a conversation of whether or not it’s more dangerous not to have a fan running with the heat or whether it’s too dangerous to run a fan with the virus. All of those reasons why you want your kids back in school are secondary. We know, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that students who do not feel safe do not learn; and while school is usually that safe place for many students, they are not coming back to the same safe place we left last March.
My new job will be enforcing social distancing and one-way hallways and masks. We will have students traumatized by the pandemic, who have lost family to it or who have lost their jobs (or their parents have lost jobs) and homes. We will have students required to wear a mask who think it’s a hoax. We will have students who are afraid to be in school yet need to come for lunch and Internet access to do their work. The learning and socializing, those reasons for wanting students to return to school, will not be anything like it was pre-pandemic. We can’t have students work together in small groups; we can’t walk between our students’ desks and lean down to answer their questions privately. It will not be a return to normal. In some ways it will be more difficult because of the reality we face being so incongruent with the expectation of what school is supposed to be.
I previously mentioned schools are required to make data-based decisions. We teachers hear that term so much it makes us roll our eyes—it’s a constant. Yet, as we go back to school this year, data-based decision making seems to have been completely forgotten. In the middle of a global pandemic the decision to return to full time in-person learning seems to have been made based on government’s desire to stimulate the economy and parents’ comfort level of and a desire for their kids returning to school. What do the data actually suggest?
The most recent study and recommendations suggest that it is impossible to make one plan to effectively meet the needs of an individual district; yet our state has a mandate from the governor that every student must return to in-person learning at least 50% of the time (unless a parent chooses full time virtual learning for their student) and does not require anyone to wear a mask. It’s a mandate that flies against the current data. Even the governor’s guidance on when to move to distance learning defies the CDC guidance of below 5% positivity as the safety marker for in-person learning. Instead she does not allow for short-term full virtual learning until a positivity rate of 15% for the county (plus a 10% absence rate in the school).
A study, reported by The Hill, suggests that the closing of schools across the country last spring helped to reduce the spread of the virus. As we look at returning to school this fall, the researchers outlined some considerations before making the choice to return to in-person learning.
The first is “the level of prevalence of Covid-19 in their communities.” The state of Iowa is currently on a list of hot zone states. According to the New York Times, a federal report shows that Iowa is one of twenty-one states considered a “red zone state” with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 in the last week, and several places around the country have required anyone coming from Iowa to quarantine for two weeks. If you look at individual counties or school districts, there are some places in the state where it would probably be safe to have in-person learning based on the current levels of community spread. However, at the time of this writing the county where I live and teach comes in at number two on the New York Times list based on the number of new cases per capita in the last seven days. The county’s two-week trend shows a fairly steep increase.
Another aspect of understanding the rate of community spread is testing. In nursing homes, in professional sports, and other areas where people are frequently gathering in large groups, there is frequent testing. Journalist and health analyst Laurie Garrett states that to safely open schools, along with the low community spread, it is imperative for students and teachers to have frequent testing to detect and isolate individuals before there is an outbreak. A temperature check upon entering the building is not adequate. The testing and contact tracing that is necessary is currently not possible in most areas. Without this testing, it’s possible a county might meet the ridiculously high 15% threshold for shutting down in-person learning, but they wouldn’t know because of the current lack of testing. It would also be difficult to meet the 10% absences because of the prevalence of asymptomatic cases in this age group.
The second consideration is “policies and practices regarding mask wearing.” Iowa’s governor has staunchly maintained the position that she will not mandate wearing a mask (and has not required it of school districts), making us one of a minority of states not requiring masks in public. In fact, she has fought mayors in the state who have tried to implement mask requirements. This is despite the overwhelming data from the scientific community that wearing masks is the best way to quickly bring the pandemic under control. Based on a study sponsored by the New York Times, 45 – 48% of people in Marshall County report wearing a mask all the time. My district does have a plan to require masks of both staff and students, for which I am grateful. However, if fewer than half of our citizens wear a mask, our students and staff are still likely to be exposed and carry it into the building.
The final consideration listed in this study is the “risk of transmission among children of different ages.” For the first several months of the pandemic it was reported that this was a disease that didn’t seem to effect children, and if they did happen to contract it, the severity was not as bad. As time went on, there became the rare and potentially fatal complication. Nearly five months after the beginning of the pandemic, new data are coming out that helps provide a more complete and more complex picture based on information disaggregated by age. Sciencealert.com reported a major study from South Korea suggests that children below the age of ten are least likely to spread the virus. Individuals between the ages of ten and nineteen are the most likely to spread the virus, even compared to adult age groups. The implications of this study make it even more important to think about re-opening schools based on the ages of children in attendance within each building.
Along with the research on how children and teens spread the virus, it’s important to consider the impact on those who contract the virus. One study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nationwide one in four teachers are at risk for serious illness. Recent studies have shown heart damage, as well as lung damage. Most recently there has been a focus on the neurological effects of the disease, which a Spanish study found present in over half the reported cases. While the majority of child infections are considered mild, the recent trend in the United States is increasing hospitalizations among young people, with the hot spot of Florida seeing a 23% increase in child hospitalizations. Because this is a new virus, there is no way to predict the long-term impact of the virus. As more studies are being done on the long-term effects of Covid-19, we are seeing that it is more likely to cause life-long health issues. With the increase in hospitalizations of young adults, Dr. Fauci stated that there is no way to predict the long-term impact. While it is possible that some people might eventually fully recover, it is also possible that the virus could result in a lifelong autoimmune disorder, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
What is the implication for schools? There can be no one-size-fits all plan, even within a district. While it might be possible to safely open an elementary because of the age of children in a community with low community spread, schools with children age ten and older will be at much greater risk. As the district plans to implement social distancing practices, I’ve already seen that I have a class with twenty-eight students and one with thirty. It is physically impossible to provide social distancing with that size of a class. I fear for myself and my students when we go into that unairconditioned second floor room and have to wear a mask or shield all day. I know parents want their children in school for social reasons, but I’m going to spend my time telling the students to maintain social distance. They can’t sit next to their friend, and they will be required to follow a seating chart for contract tracing because we know people will be exposed. They can’t borrow a chrome book charger because of the risk of contamination; we are even stripping our rooms bare to help with sanitation. They have to keep their nose covered and their tri-fold shield on their desk. Providing open campus and grab-and-go bags for lunch because we can’t provide social distances in the cafeteria means students will have time to fling off their masks and hang out with their friends in the community before returning to class. One-way halls and stairs are great in theory, but try telling a fifteen-year-old they have to walk all the way around the rectangular building to get two doors down because it’s the wrong way. We’ll still have over sixteen hundred people in those halls and divided into rooms with different classmates each class period. In my classroom, I’ll have fifty-seven students or ninety-two students on alternate days.
So, looking at all the data and all my years of working with teens, I am afraid I won’t be able to provide them with the education you want them to have, the education they deserve, because all of my focus will be on trying to keep them and me alive. I will do my best to provide them with an education—I always do. But I don’t want them to contract a virus with so many unknown consequences. I fear the neurological effects might mean that they aren’t as capable of learning after their still-developing brains are damaged. I fear their hearts and lungs won’t allow them to be athletes again. I fear I won’t be able to come back to a twenty-eighth year of teaching. Because, you see, there are no data to indicate it is safe to bring our high school students back for in-person learning at this time.
I ask our leaders to hold themselves to the same standard of making data-based decisions they ask of their teachers—delay in person learning until it can be done safely.