Fall School Reopening: What Does Readiness Look Like?

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Disclaimer: The opinions stated in this post on fall school reopening are my own, and only my own. I am a working mother in Vermont, and my views do not reflect the views of my employer or any of my colleagues or co-workers. 

Like many of you, I too have been looking forward to news about fall school reopening pretty much since my two kids and I got unceremoniously and abruptly dropped down the rabbit hole of telecommuting and distance learning alongside each other this past spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

fall school reopening, picture of a computer phone and a cup of coffee

While I love having my kids home and enjoy the extra family time together, the missing elements of their life brought on by the necessity of physical distancing and stay home orders slowly came into focus as the presumably short-term, emergency situation evolved into a longer-term new “normal.” 

Let’s start with hands-on educational support from qualified teachers. Every time I hear a parent say they “homeschooled” their children this spring, I cringe. That’s not what we were doing.

Homeschooling involves curriculum development and delivery. I engaged in technology, homework, and scheduling support. Basically, I served as my kids’ executive assistant for their teacher’s Google Meets and project deadlines. Teachers still provided curriculum and distance learning opportunities, and I am grateful for how quickly they pivoted to meet the challenge, especially with their own families at home with them. 

Fall School Reopening, Learning and Schooling Written on a Chalkboard

As the days of social distancing dragged on, I could tell my kids, especially my 10-year-old daughter, deeply missed their friends and social interactions at school.

School closures occurred mere days before my daughter’s 10th birthday. She had been planning the party since the day after her last birthday party. Having to tell her not only could we no longer host her friends, but that her grandparents wouldn’t be able to attend either, is the worst news I’ve ever had to deliver. The mournful expression she gave me and the waterfall of tears that followed are images permanently scarred on my brain and my heart. After that, she started staying in her pajamas all day, sitting on the couch staring at her ChromeBook, failing to brush her hair to the point where tangles formed, and sinking further into despondency. When the Governor closed schools for the remainder of the spring, she howled in grief. I intervened by getting her on a schedule (wake up, get dressed, brush hair, eat breakfast, sit at the table to do schoolwork, and take a walk with me every day). While it helped a little, it’s no replacement for my little extrovert’s social interaction with her school friends.

Fall School Reopening, B & W Best Friends

For all these reasons, my daughter needs in-person instruction, and I began looking forward to fall school reopening like a kid anticipating Christmas. 

For her sake, I desperately wanted it to be possible. My 14-year-old son is different. He excelled with distance learning, probably due to having more practice with the assignments and communication platforms than my daughter. Being a teenager, he also manages to keep up a vibrant social life with his friends via multiple communication technologies. He even figured out how to host a virtual Dungeons & Dragons gaming group a couple of days a week. He could easily adapt to full distance learning or a hybrid model with limited in-person school instruction. My daughter will continue to struggle

On her behalf, up until a few days ago, I zealously advocated for full in-person fall school reopening in Vermont.

To challenge the “kids are plague-bearers” argument against fall school reopening, I cited research studies about how kids rarely transmit the novel coronavirus. While I believe these studies, I also know that they don’t apply to my own kids. Current research shows it tends to hold true for kids under the age of 10. My kids both exceed that age limit. A new research study from South Korea recently confirmed that older kids, meaning kids the same ages as mine, likely spread the virus at the same rate as adults

Fall School Reopening

I previously hung my hat on Dr. Atul Gawande’s May 13, 2020 article in The New Yorker, Amid the Coronavirus Crisis, A Regimen for Reentry. In it, he assures us that, in spite of Boston, MA, serving as an early hotspot for COVID-19, his hospital system, Mass General Brigham, experienced relatively few “workplace transmissions.” He cites washing/sanitizing your hands every time you enter or exit a group setting or every 2 hours, disinfecting high-touch surfaces at least once a day, wearing masks or cloth facial coverings, staying six feet apart, staying home if you have any symptoms of illness, testing symptomatic individuals, and performing contact tracing and encouraging close contacts of those infected to quarantine and get tested as the means to preventing the spread of the virus.

I thought to myself, “Fabulous! Those steps are so easy! The virus is just going to die out!” Ah, my poor naïve self of two months ago.  

When the Vermont Agency of Education and the Vermont Department of Health released joint guidance for fall school reopening, I breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, good,” I thought, “they’ve figured out how to open schools safely. It must involve all of Dr. Gawande’s steps!” Tellingly, I didn’t read it right away. My protective motherhood denial instinct kicked right in. The bits and pieces that trickled in led me to believe that, from a public health perspective, it all sounded good. My daughter could go back to school and get all the stimulation and interaction she needed that I couldn’t provide at home while staying safe from the virus. Yay! 

Unwillingly, I started to notice a ruckus on social media. phone, Scrabble letters

At first, it seemed like needless vitriol – selfie videos of teachers reading the guidance out loud, scoffing at it as unworkable drivel, and chucking it into a trash can; more videos of teachers showing all the ways that students would play with the masks instead of using them as protective shields, and rants against pediatricians to the tune of “how would they like it if 30 kids sat indoors in their waiting rooms all day given the risk of infection”? 

The new knowledge and fervent concerns started to encroach on my denial bubble and made me both sad and angry. How could these teachers, my best hope for some normalcy for my daughter with fall school reopening, betray me this way? I couldn’t understand how teachers, who walk into schools every day prepared to take a bullet from a school shooter, could act so afraid of a virus. I failed to see the difference in risk acceptance. I just didn’t get it.   

Finally, two things happened that made me do a 180 on my vocal advocacy for fall school reopening. 

First, I read the safety and health guidance for fall school reopening, all 25 pages of it. The recommendations include kids sitting at desks (not tables) facing forward six feet apart, though recent new guidance reduces this distance to three feet apart. Kids will be assigned seats for the entire school year and will remain in class pods/groups without moving. They will wear cloth facial coverings and/or plastic face shields, will eat individual meals served at their assigned seats in the classroom, and will need to go to the bathroom in shifts to discourage congregating. Before they enter school, they will answer health screening questions, have their temperature taken, and then immediately wash or sanitize their hands before proceeding directly to class. 

Ummmm…yes, I see all of the disease prevention and public health measures. Unfortunately, we all need to acknowledge that it’s going to seem like a scene out of a futuristic science fiction movie – and not in a good way. 

children with various masks

Both my son and daughter have now attended outdoor summer camps with physical spacing, fixed group pods, and mask precautions. While they both successfully and uncomplainingly endured mask wearing all day, they both agree that the groups/pods restriction hamstrings the social-emotional connections they’ve been craving. Being assigned to a seat in a classroom or on a bus for the entirety of the school year isn’t going to allow them to interact with their friends; it’s going to discourage it. My daughter also found herself policing the other kids on the six-feet-apart rule once when two unmasked little girls indoors put their heads together to admire some slime. Predictably, these little girls retorted that she couldn’t tell them what to do when she barked “Six feet apart!” at them. When I asked her where the camp counselors were, she said “Cleaning the bathroom.” 

Ah, yes, the recommendations also include requirements that teachers or other school staff clean and disinfect all day long, which probably won’t leave much time for educating. 

Second, I read an article thoughtfully and thoroughly written by a 5th-grade teacher, which happens to be the exact grade my daughter is entering. She explains in detail why teachers will be unable to implement and enforce the guidelines. 

This teacher states that most of the safety protocols are developmentally inappropriate for children and would hamper their social, emotional, and educational growth rather than foster it.

Many of the guidelines could even cause more trauma for kids, such as if a teacher got sick and disappeared rapidly from the classroom – or died. She also pointed out that if any kind of in-person instruction is required for fall school reopening, then teachers will necessarily have to work twice as hard to develop both in-person and virtual learning plans. Due to students with underlying health conditions and students who become ill with COVID-19 or the common cold, and need to stay home or quarantine, teachers will necessarily always have to prepare for and potentially conduct in-person instruction and virtual classes at the same time

In a scenario where fall school reopening involves in-person instruction, we are asking teachers to work twice as hard on curriculum development and delivery, in addition to classroom management that includes policing safety protocols and thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting as needed. When Vermont’s school plans started trickling in last month, this hybrid model of both remote and in-person instruction emerged as the most pervasive proposal. 

This teacher’s calm and clear arguments, unlike the vitriolic social media videos, make a lot of sense. If adults are unable to follow the steps Dr. Gawande outlined for preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, how can we expect children to do so, especially if their parents fail to model the appropriate behaviors for them? If kids can’t follow the protocols, do we really expect teachers to be responsible for enforcing safety AND provide a high-quality education to our kids on two different learning platforms at the same time while risking their own lives in the process? It all feels like too much to ask. 

After reading this 5th-grade teacher’s commentary and feeling myself waffle on my pro- fall school reopening stance, I went back and re-read Vermont’s safety guidance for reopening schools. 

This time, I saw the guidance through a teacher’s eyes and tried to imagine the overwhelming logistics of implementing and enforcing these safety measures in my classroom, having to teach all day while wearing a mask, and having to prepare lessons in two different modalities. It made me want to lie down and take a nap. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. 

On second reading, I also noticed the glaring absence of two key strategies in the guidance document: testing and discipline.

If schools identify and isolate a sick student or staff member, how quickly can that individual receive a COVID-19 test and notify the school of the results for the purposes of outbreak prevention and contact tracing?

Due to student privacy concerns, days could elapse without the school knowing about a positive case, and by then, it’s too late to take appropriate mitigation measures. Rapid tests performed in schools would seem like the best option, but these types of tests aren’t accurate yet. Additionally, there is still a shortage of the less invasive testing kits used on children. For safe fall school reopening, a robust testing kit supply chain to rule out COVID-19 for every symptomatic student needs to exist, and it doesn’t yet. 

In terms of discipline, teachers need a standard set of consequences approved by administrators at the ready to dole out in the event of safety infractions by students.

For those of us with kids in school, we all know there is always at least one kid who can’t follow the rules and who becomes the subject of every negative narrative our own kids bring home from school. Unfortunately, in the era of COVID-19, pulling off someone’s mask as a schoolyard joke or an act of bullying could evolve into assault with a deadly weapon if the child doing the bullying infects the child being bullied with the novel coronavirus. 

Fall School Reopening, Bullying 3
From stopbullying.gov

Teachers need swift recourse to shut these dangerous incidents down and ensure the safety of the rest of the educational community. Unfortunately, by the time discipline is enacted, it may already be too late. Should we really expect this level of vigilance from teachers, especially when it will serve as a constant, stressful distraction from the already stressful work of educating? Israel’s experience with reopening schools is instructive. Israel found that while younger children mostly complied with safety protocols, like mask-wearing, middle- and high-school students did not. At a certain point, teachers stopped trying to enforce the safety protocols, outbreaks happened, and the schools shut down. 

At this point in time and much to my dismay, I personally must conclude that we aren’t ready yet for fall school reopening.

fall school reopening, school lockdown, school safety, classroom, education
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Schools, administrators, teachers, and other staff need more time to sort through the guidance and come up with well-thought-out strategies. Two months isn’t enough time to implement these monumental changes. Interestingly, in the time between writing this post and moving it to publication, Vermont’s Governor agreed and issued an Executive Order delaying the start of school in our state until September 8.

A continuing shortage of cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and soap means there won’t necessarily be enough to ensure the continuation of safe in-person instruction.

The absence of a rigorous school-based testing strategy, an accurate test that delivers rapid results, and a reliable supply chain of testing kits means uncertainty about which students may be infected with COVID-19 and which ones merely have a common cold. School usage of limited personal protective equipment (PPE), like gowns, surgical masks, and gloves, means diminishing the supply needed by healthcare workers in other settings. 

Sign: Sorry we don't have an sanitizer

Teachers need time to learn how to provide quality educational experiences through virtual learning modalities, in either a fully remote or hybrid school reopening plan.

They are rapidly running out of time this summer to focus on learning that delivery mechanism. It also goes without saying that all of these additional health and safety protocols require significant additional funding – for plexiglass, cleaning supplies, thermometers, PPE, staffing for school safety and health monitors, and so on. We all know public schools are already underfunded, and the financial burden of implementing COVID-19 prevention measures will only exacerbate the situation. 

As much as I hate to say it as a working mother (and I’ll save the economic impact of schools staying virtual or going to a hybrid model for a separate discussion), we just aren’t ready yet for fall school reopening.

Everyone needs more time to figure out the logistics of this massive undertaking. In Vermont, due to our low rate of COVID-19 prevalence, we are probably more ready than most states for fall school reopening. Even so, the words of another educator in another thoughtfully written opinion piece continue to ring in my ears, “The acceptable number of deaths is zero.” With that goal in mind, everyone needs to slow down and get fall school reopening right. 

How have your opinions changed (or not) about fall school reopening over the last few months? Do you plan to send your kids to school if in-person instruction is offered?

Fall School Reopening: What Does Readiness Look Like?

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Miki grew up in Florida and felt skeptical (to say the least) when her parents announced their move to Vermont during her freshman year of college. She moved away a few times to escape the cold, but once she had children, nowhere else felt like home. Miki is a divorced mom of two fabulous kiddos: a funny, outgoing son born in 2006 and a creative, talented daughter born in 2010. A few years back, she met and married the love of her life, and they (mostly) enjoy their adventures as a blended family together. Miki loves to read on her deck, see movies at the drive-in, and sled down the hill in her parents’ backyard. Miki holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and is thrilled to be writing something other than a contract, grant, or software manual.

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