Disclaimer: Any information in this piece that is not from my own first person account has not been absolutely verified.
The topsy-turvy return to school is by now in full swing and the results have been decidedly mixed. So far, we’ve been gathering some success stories and a few hopeful developments as well as darker news and cautionary tales. I’ve got my own stories to tell and I’ve had my ear to the ground and have picked up some information from teachers in other places. I’m going to sift through what I have seen and heard and offer you, my readers, samplings of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Despite the fears, anxieties, and uncertainties of reopening schools, I have heard almost universal gratitude from teachers and students about actually seeing each other face to face again. Whether or not it was a good idea to reopen—that’s been argued ad nauseum and that’s not what I’m here to weigh in on necessarily—students, by and large, were glad to be back in school, as strange as that sounds. Teachers, while carrying tons of apprehension with them, are happy to actually interact with students again, albeit behind masks and at a healthy distance. How long this all lasts is the big question mark. Right now, it feels like we are just waiting for the inevitable decision to close back up and go back to all e-learning.
Many schools, including mine, have reopened with a hybrid schedule. That means that students are divided into groups and only one group of students at a time is in the school building. In the case of my school, we have two groups of students. The first group meets in person at school on Mondays and Thursdays and the second group meets in person on Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are virtual learning days for all students. This means that each student comes to school twice a week and has three days of virtual lessons at home. The purpose of this is to strictly limit the number of students in the building on any given day. I’m here to tell you that this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Since about 30% of our student body opted for full time e-learning, my class sizes are less than half of normal. In fact, my largest class right now is 13 students. This is a real joy for a teacher to be able to offer much better one on one help with students and it has, so far, all but eliminated behavior issues.
Another positive has been that our teachers within our content areas have banded together to share the load in producing much more interactive, in depth, and higher quality virtual lessons for kids to do at home, as opposed to the makeshift busywork that we had to slap together on the fly when schools first shut down back in March. We have been given more tools, training, and time to create these lessons and that has made a big difference. Now, if we are forced to go back into an all e-learning mode, we will be much better prepared for it.
What I just described about the hybrid model can’t be done as easily at all schools or for all age levels. Most of the elementary schools I’m aware of, for instance, have all of the students coming in every day. I presume this is because the younger children can’t be left at home alone while parents are at work. This means that class sizes are still too large and when you fill them full of kids who don’t want to wear masks and can’t or won’t practice proper social distancing, you have a potential mess on your hands. I’ve heard reports from several elementary schools that dozens of students are being sent home for periods of quarantine because of Covid symptoms, positive tests, or because contact tracing has had them in close proximity to someone who is infected. If that trend continues, I don’t see how school districts can continue to operate on an in person basis.
While I don’t see very many people in my school who are being cavalier about safety precautions, I have heard reports from teachers in other schools that have said that far too many students and, in some cases, even staff are not wearing masks properly and are not following safety protocols. Those reports are pretty disturbing to hear because they are obviously flirting with a real potential problem in those cases.
The most disturbing reports I’ve heard are truly ugly and, if true, I find them appalling. In some places, there seems to be a strong effort being made by powers-that-be to keep info about positive tests and quarantined students and staff from getting out. In fact, I’m told that, in some buildings, the only people who are notified about positive test results are those individuals who were identified through contact tracing as having been put in direct risk by someone who is Covid positive. I’ve even seen one report of a building principal (not where I teach) who tested positive for Covid. Central office personnel were said to have addressed the staff of that school and assured them the all the people identified as at risk through contract tracing had been notified and quarantined so there was nothing to worry about. And then the staff was allegedly told to keep that information from “going public.” As it turns out, in the state where this allegedly occurred, it is not required by law that those things have to be reported, as crazy as that sounds. I believe that teachers have the right to know of any reports of potential health hazards in their workplace. I also firmly believe that families have the right to that same information. If such information is truly being deliberately hidden from the public, that’s a dangerous disservice, in my opinion. And if the laws of a state don’t already require such information to be made public, they should be changed immediately.
Nobody expected the reopening of schools to be without problems. It is the way schools react to these problems that will make the difference between being able to stay open and having to close back down. Being honest, forthright and transparent is a good place to start.
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