The case against reopening schools — by a teacher

In the earlier piece, the author, a former award-winning principal, Carol Burris, cited recent guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics that said districts should do everything they can to bring students back into classrooms. She wrote:

Students at risk can easily slip through cracks. Due to the isolation of remote learning, those cracks have become crevices. Anecdotally, pediatricians are reporting rises in depression, obesity, and stress disorders as well as young children having heart palpitations absent a physical cause.

Research tells us that socially isolated children and adolescents are at risk of depression and anxiety. We know that too much screen time can result in inattention and impulsivity, and mental health disorders in both children and adolescents. And preliminary studies have shown that all but top students are academically falling behind — with the most disadvantaged students experiencing the most significant learning loss.

But in this piece, Rose Levine, a fifth-grade teacher in Cambridge, Mass., says she fears that bringing students back to class to learn during the pandemic could be more harmful than leaving them at home.

Her argument goes entirely against President Trump’s new demand that schools fully reopen for all students this fall, even in areas where the pandemic is spiking. School districts are still trying to figure out what they will do in the fall, ensuring they have plans for various contingencies, and are more likely to be responsive to facts on the ground in their communities than to the president’s wants.

Both Burris and Levine note something that any schools superintendent in the country can tell you: There are no great answers about what districts should do this fall. The best option is the one that causes the least damage.

Levine wrote the following about herself as a preface to her piece:

A note on my perspective: I am a white, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual teacher in a well-resourced, heterogeneous school district that has provided 1:1 technology access to all students. I teach fifth graders who are able to read, write, type, and use computers somewhat independently. Some of the many structural advantages I had this spring included a full-time paraprofessional, a super-competent technology specialist dedicated to our staff, social workers and school administrators who could help support students in crisis, a reasonable class size, well-established relationships with students and families, and a spouse on parental leave to help care for our baby in our home. No one in my immediate family was sick with covid-19 and we were able to stay in isolation without economic or psychological hardship. All of these factors of my identity, circumstances, and setting contribute to my experience this past spring and my concerns about the future.

By Rose Levine

I hate remote teaching and can’t wait for it to end. It is isolating and alienating. Troubleshooting video and WiFi is maddening even for those of us with access to appropriate technologies. And yet, I still think it’s a better option for our upcoming school year than any of the proposals that involve returning to buildings.

When we consider returning to physical school under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, we must center this question: which benefits of in-person education will be available to us with these restrictions in place? Sadly, I believe that a classroom operating under these protocols will be less effective and more traumatic than the inadequate and painful experience of remote learning.

Here are some of the benefits of a classroom during pre-pandemic times, none of which can be achieved given covid-19 restrictions:

Building relationships and community

Sharing a classroom allows our elementary cohorts to become like family. We play games, exchange smiles, sit in circles on the rug and tell stories. We taste each other’s food and whisper in each other’s ears. We have casual exchanges during downtimes at recess or transitions between subjects. We share supplies, collaborate and take turns, and in so doing we build a model of accountability to one another and our community.

None of this is possible with six feet of social distancing. If we attempt to maintain this distance in the classroom — an impractical feat on its own — community building would be challenging.

Face masks would make it hard to hear each other or read expressions, especially for new English speakers. Private and informal conversation would disappear, as would most classroom and playground games. Eating together would become an exercise in compliance and restraint. Students could not share materials or sit together at tables or on the rug.

Under these restrictions, we would feel less like a community and more like office workers in cubicles: occupying the same space, but disconnected from one another.

Safe, welcoming environment

Safety is the prerequisite for all learning. Ordinarily, we offer hugs and reassurance when a child is upset. We encourage students to walk their peers to the nurse’s office when they get injured on the playing field. We give high-fives and pats on the back when students achieve their goals. We provide private spaces for students to share confidential information, or to de-escalate from distress.

In a social-distancing school setting, everything is inverted. Closeness and warmth are now dangerous. Students and teachers must remain hypervigilant, watching for face mask violations, friends too near, an uncovered cough, unwashed hands, and unsanitized surfaces.

At recess, soccer lovers can’t touch the ball, the monkey bars are off-limits, and best friends from two different classes can’t meet to chat. The bus ride to and from school becomes a miserable slog as monitors work to enforce developmentally unachievable rules. Anxious students are afraid to visit the bathroom because of the door handles they might need to touch. A student experiencing abuse at home can’t find a way to share that information with a trusted adult without the whole class overhearing.

All of this rigidity and tension is compounded for students of color. For many black and brown children, school already feels like a surveillance state in which something about their bodies is always deemed wrong.

In a pandemic, stressed educators and staff will come down hard on students who misbehave, and implicit biases will mean that black and brown children are likely to be unfairly affected by this more than their white peers. We know the weathering effects this has on even very young children, and the alienation and self-hatred it can instill. We will not intend to be inequitable in our enforcement, but the impact is what matters.

What worries us the most about school closure is knowing that for many kids, school was their safe space. They may be in danger at home, facing neglect, violence, or hunger. As teachers, we want to do everything we possibly can to reduce the trauma that this generation is facing. But counterintuitive as it may seem, bringing children back into the building that has served as their refuge may actually serve to exacerbate and heighten their trauma. Virtual school poses great risks for our most marginalized and vulnerable children. But returning to school under these conditions may hurt them even more.

Learning in multiple modalities

One of the most difficult hurdles to clear during remote instruction is the way technology flattens everything. What most of us love most about the elementary classroom is the many opportunities it affords to teach in multiple modalities. It’s a good day when a child comes home covered in paint and dirt, carrying a trumpet case and a model of the solar system.

Given the challenge of adapting this physical world to our new virtual reality, it makes sense that we would want to return to classrooms as soon as possible. But in a restricted environment, these hands-on opportunities are out of reach. Most music, including bands and choruses, will be banned. Because students will be unable to share supplies, art and science projects may become prohibitively complex and expensive.

And given the limitations on student movement within the classroom, collaboration on projects will be a challenge. Will teachers still find creative ways to engage students? Absolutely! But we could find just as many ways in the virtual world, where students have been learning to record and create videos, code programs, design games, and make artwork.

Differentiating instruction

Elementary teachers pride ourselves on our ability to differentiate instruction for young learners. We place children in flexible groupings that shift constantly throughout the day. Any given fifth-grader in my class might have one partner for morning meeting, a different partner for writing, a table group of four to work with throughout whole-class instruction in social studies, a math group of three, and a book club of six readers sharing a text later in the day. Why do we make our lives so complicated? Because we know that students learn best when they collaborate with peers, discuss their thinking aloud, and experience instruction tailored to exactly the skills they need to learn next.

The CDC’s guidance suggests that students should be seated at individual desks, six feet apart, all facing the same direction, for the entirety of the school day. If students are to be seated at individual desks, unable to see each other or interact, they may as well be home on their laptops. At least in that setting, they can meet in smaller groups and see each other face to face. We can conference with students one on one and give them meaningful, targeted feedback without the rest of the class listening in. Can we replicate the complex choreography of the in-person school day in a virtual setting? No, of course not. But under the CDC restrictions, we can’t even begin to approximate it.

Child care and what we actually can do

Many families must continue working to survive, and the children in these families cannot be left unsupervised. We already had a child-care crisis in this country before covid-19, and it is greatly exacerbated now. It is the job of schools to provide care and education to children.

But in this catastrophic moment in our history, the care component may need to take precedence over the education component. If we have clarity about this — that our main purpose in this unprecedented time is to provide a safe location for those children who need it during the workday — then we should proceed accordingly.

Instead of attempting to re-create the in-person school experience for the maximum number of children, we should bifurcate our efforts:

  1. Focus on creating small cohorts of young children whose families need and want district-provided child care. Prioritize children under age 7, who are unable to access anything remotely without a parent’s assistance; children with moderate to severe disabilities; those without any access to technology; and new English speakers. Place these students in classrooms across the district with educators who specialize in their needs. Try to place educators in in-person settings who are able and willing to handle the increased risk (younger educators, those who are not caring for elderly parents, etc.). In these district-provided child-care facilities, offer full-day, five-days-a-week care. Keep the focus on children’s holistic well-being, joy and safety. Yes, we have a responsibility to ensure that academic gaps do not grow into chasms during this period, but meaningful instruction just may not be possible in these circumstances.
  2. Grades 6-12, and as much of grades 2-5 as possible, should be held remotely. Significant academic progress during this period will be difficult to achieve. The prerequisite for any learning, though, is for students to feel safe, supported, and engaged. Our educators are getting better and better at achieving this from a distance, and need to be given time to focus on improving our digital pedagogy for the coming year. All families who are able to select this option should be encouraged to do so.

Like all plans for school next year, this one is imperfect. Its pitfalls include:

  • Families opting for in-person instruction may well be disproportionately low-income, black and brown families who require child care. Thus, our school buildings will become de facto segregated spaces. This will be harmful for the students who attend and for the students who don’t. It will likely mean that we are providing two entirely different educational and social experiences for different social classes of children. This is an equity disaster in the making.
  • The students who most need to return to school, especially those with disabilities and very young children, require specialized staff to work with them. Do we have a sufficient number of staff members trained to work with these populations who aren’t themselves caring for young children, and who are not medically vulnerable? Is it ethical to, for example, require staff who happen to teach little kids to return to work, while other faculty can stay home safely? At a minimum, any staff members who are asked to come back to buildings will need to be provided hazard pay and child-care subsidies for their own families.
  • When we fail to offer in-person schooling as an option for all families, we are disproportionately placing a burden on the shoulders of women everywhere. Women continue to be the primary caregivers (and homework-helpers, and snack-makers, and schedule-managers) in most homes, and moms who are trying to balance their careers and their children’s remote schooling are paying a price (literally!) at work.

These are all very serious concerns with profound implications. But the fact is, we don’t have a plan that will not cause harm. We can only choose a plan that will cause the least harm. We are attempting to construct an emergency policy on top of a system that already penalizes the most marginalized members, in a country that fails to provide a social safety net, under a government that has utterly failed to control — and has, in fact, exacerbated — a deadly pandemic.

We cannot get this “right.” We can only get it less wrong.

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