Why Teachers Are So Concerned About School Reopenings

Schools, previously ill-equipped to handle health issues, will need significant support to re-open in person during the pandemic
Blog Post
"grade school classroom" by Michael R. Shaughnessy is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
July 16, 2020

I knew Maya* was sick the moment she shuffled into my classroom, eyes watery, cheeks flushed. I asked if she was okay and she shook her head, almost crying. She was definitely sick, and that wasn’t good; it wasn’t Thursday.

Thursday was the only day we had a nurse on-site at the school in Memphis where I taught. This is not abnormal. Nationally, only 52 percent of public schools had at least one full-time nurse in the 2015-2016 school year. Eighteen percent of traditional public schools and 48 percent of charter schools did not even have a part-time nurse.

Without a nurse, I had nowhere to send Maya. And without another staff member to monitor my other students, Maya had to wait in the back of my classroom, napping at her desk (which I would later disinfect) until class ended an hour later. Then, I walked her to the front office where our one thermometer was located to check her temperature. She had a fever.

I called and texted her emergency contacts—no response. This wasn’t unusual in the high-poverty community in Memphis where I taught. My students’ parents primarily worked in service-industry jobs like housekeeping or restaurants, and found it difficult to get out of work. An hour later, Maya’s grandmother finally arrived to find her asleep on a bean-bag chair.

Maya was at school sick for nearly three hours without medical support before someone took her home. This was January 2020.

Now imagine if she had COVID-19.

Opening our schools in-person will require a massive investment in labor and resources

The debate about when and how to reopen schools in-person has been simmering since March, but it exploded last week. Citing the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) guidance urging schools to work toward having “students physically present in school,” the White House went on the offensive, threatening to withhold federal funds from schools that remained virtual.

The AAP guidance was premised on the fact that students have suffered during school shutdowns. Many students rely on schools for meals and counseling, in addition to specialized services like speech therapy and behavioral supports. Schools serve as a first line of defense in identifying children who may be homeless or abused. When schools went virtual last spring during COVID, they struggled to continue serving these roles. Students also learned less, with those in vulnerable communities like mine suffering the largest ramifications because of limited access to technology and the internet. Finding a safe way for schools to open in-person is ideal, especially for the low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners most in need of school services.

“Safe” being the operative word.

While evidence suggests children may be less susceptible to COVID-19, children have developed serious conditions and even died from the virus. And transfer from children to adults happens, although it’s less common. The virus can spread from adult to adult just as easily in a school as it can elsewhere. Schools are not immune and, in response to the president’s threat, AAP recently joined with educator groups to emphasize that science should outweigh political considerations for reopening schools.

The CDC and WHO are two widely-respected organizations that have issued guidelines for in-person school re-openings. To follow them, schools would need to overhaul how they operate. For example:

  1. Social distancing in classrooms. One year I taught a class of 30 students. I would have loved to have them sit six feet apart to keep them from kicking each other’s chairs—but there wasn’t space. Enforcing social-distancing means reducing in-person class sizes or implementing a “blended” approach (online and in-person). Both require more teachers at a time when 20 percent say they’re unlikely to return if schooling is in-person, and others are being laid off because of shrinking school budgets.
  2. Discouraging sharing. After decades of budget cuts, sharing materials in classrooms is the norm. But my kindergartners loved sticking those shared crayons up their noses. Schools will need more supplies to minimize spread of COVID-19.
  3. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for teachers. Like many of my colleagues, I frequently caught illnesses from my students (probably because they were sticking crayons up their noses). This is in the back of many educators' minds as they insist on adequate PPE this fall.

I haven’t even covered additional technology for remote learning, disinfecting supplies, expanded transportation, counseling, and custodial budgets, or, of course, the need for a full-time nurse. Advocates' estimates of what it will take to re-open schools safely in-person vary from $250 billion to $370 billion**. Regardless of the exact amount, it is clear that opening our schools in-person will require a massive investment in labor and resources. An investment that is impossible without the federal government deciding to send more emergency funding to schools, not threatening to cut them off.

Unfortunately, to date, politicians have only sowed more uncertainty about what is necessary for schools to reopen, and whether there will be sufficient funds to safely and effectively do so.

This week, the Secretary of Education could not say what a school should do if a student contracted COVID-19. The White House is planning on releasing a set of guidelines that partially competes with the CDC’s. Senate Democrats and Republicans, in recess until July 20th, have conflicting funding proposals with little sign of expedient compromise. All of this is happening as American COVID-19 cases are on the upswing, not decline. Should we be surprised that teachers and administrators have so many questions?

American schools need a clear, safe plan for in-person reopening handed down from unified leadership, yet it has not emerged. They need certainty about additional funding to adequately prepare, yet there is no sign there will be any before the start of the school year.

Without these things, the schools we’re asking students and teachers to return to are no different from the one I left in early March—poorly equipped to handle minor illnesses, let alone the likes of COVID-19.

*All references to the student’s name have been changed to protect their identity.

**An earlier version of this post provided a less specific range of estimates for the cost of reopening schools in-person safely.

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