This March, 50 million public school students and families had to make a swift gear shift from traditional school as they’ve known it for generations, to online learning. Despite 18 years as an NYC public school teacher, my experience in no way prepared me for this transition. Like the other 75,000 public school teachers across the country who suddenly found themselves in this same position, I scrambled to figure out a way to go from teaching in a classroom to teaching remotely. I was in awe of the teachers who, within days, shifted their thinking and plans to provide “school” for their students. I was more in awe, however, of the students and families – particularly my fifth grade class – who immediately got on board, learned a virtual platform they had never heard of before, and came to our morning meetings bright-eyed and ready to take on this new way of thinking, learning, and being.
Challenges of Virtual School
However, despite their willingness to adapt to this abrupt change, students and families faced many struggles. This learning-from-home model was particularly difficult for families with multiple children in small apartments (as is the norm for many in NYC). How would each child be able to be “ready” for a morning meeting and live classes throughout the day with one device, limited space, and very little privacy?
One mother regretfully told me that her daughter could not attend live classes during the day because her older daughter was in her critical junior year of high school and would need to apply to colleges soon, so she felt forced to prioritize her education over that of her 10-year-old. Her younger daughter would have to miss live teaching and be left to independently complete her work in the evening. These were the types of crucial decisions our families had to weigh.
Another mother attended an Individualized Education Program meeting for her child with special services in between shifts as a nurse at a hospital. Masked and gloved, she made the time to review her son’s accommodations for the year ahead, this balance between caring for her own family and caring for COVID-stricken strangers a daily struggle.
As preteens, many students struggled with self-consciousness and felt embarrassed about their grown out hair or how they looked on screen, and some refused to put their cameras on because they didn't want their classmates to see their living conditions. One young fifth grader even logged on while in the backseat of her mother’s car while she was at work, using her phone’s hotspot to connect to Zoom to be part of our Writing lesson while frequently muting herself so that we would not hear her also trying to set up her 2nd grade sister on an iPad for virtual learning. The families in this community in Harlem had no choice but to work during this time. They could not stay home, many of them essential workers, keeping the city afloat as well as their families.
While we should commend these parents and 10-year-olds for the tenacity they exhibited, we might also feel tremendous shame for the ways school closings affected working families and for the increased pressure we put on public schools to do more than just educate students. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has said that school is “one of the three pillars of our economy,” directly linking what, in non-pandemic times, is considered a separate and autonomous part of the social order. This widely held belief that schools are a “pillar” of our economy is part of the problem because if it is true (and no doubt it is), we need to dramatically reconceive this pillar’s relation to the other two (mass transit and the healthcare system). From a conventional economic point of view, countries provide funding for primary and secondary education to improve overall economic performance. From this height of abstraction, an investment in education is really an investment in human capital – not unlike buying better equipment to keep up with production standards. So if schools are a pillar of our economy, they are a pillar unlike other pillars, providing a nebulous and hard-to-define return on investment.
Concepts to Consider in Reopening Schools During a Global Pandemic
There are, in essence, two key concepts that seem central to the way the problem of reopening schools in a pandemic is discussed: economic prosperity and health. Based on my reading of what’s out there in the media, these two issues are pretty much all that most people care about. It is worth observing that education is basically a tertiary concern (the economy must continue to spin and hum; but health is important, too. And, yes, of course, education, but first economic and health concerns.) So how do we keep the economy booming, ensure the health of students and teachers, and continue to educate children as they pass through key stages on their life’s way?
Economic concerns and education do not at all have to be at odds. It’s just that the prioritization, as it stands now, shows – or perhaps more reveals – what we as a country actually value. In my opinion, it should be:
However, the current prioritization seems to be:
One of the biggest underlying problems in the debate about whether or not to reopen schools is that we can’t have a reasonable discussion without agreeing upon these basic priorities.
Times of crisis clarify what was always there, but invisible because so familiar: Schools are not just places of education, they allow the economy to run, families to function, are food sanctuaries, and places for children to socialize and find their way in the world.
The definition of "school"
"What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destorys our democracy." - John Dewey
As education pioneer John Dewey emphasized nearly a century ago, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”
Therefore, how members of the community define school matters greatly in this discussion.
What school is to educators:
- a place of collaboration, problem solving, and working together
- a place to play with other students and learn social skills
- a place to have discussions with peers
- a place to grapple with fictional and historical texts, mathematical concepts, and scientific experiments
- a place to learn cultural knowledge of the arts: visual, musical, dance
- a place for one-on-one conferences over a piece of work
What school is to students, according to some fifth graders in my class:
- a place to make friends and work through problems
- a place to learn how to play sports
- a place to practice and learn an instrument
- a place to read and think about society
- a place to practice writing for different purposes
- a place to have book talks and make projects
What school is to families:
- partners in raising children
- partners in education
- opportunities for learning and growing
- necessary childcare
What school is to the nation:
- An economy pillar
- Social Services
- Childcare services
- Food security stations
Why these definitions of school are problematic:
- Schools and teachers bear the burden of not only educating our children, but of also providing the social and economic services for our country.
- Families depend on schools for their own economic health.
- Teachers have their own families and underlying conditions, and trying to manage students under these conditions just so that people can work creates tension instead of unity.
- The health and safety of school staff and children seem to be at the cost of economic stability.
But what do we know about the health risks?
The Health risks of reopening schools
For one, they are unevenly distributed and disproportionately borne by low-income communities and people of color. There is some evidence to suggest that children are less likely to get sick or die from the virus, but this is currently not well understood and continues to be debated. What is clear is that there remains much we don’t understand about how the virus affects children and the teachers who come into contact with them.
Because so little is understood about the effects of COVID-19 on bodies of different ages, both students and teachers are being coerced into participating in what is, in effect, an involuntary clinical trial to see what works and what doesn’t. What risks are we willing to bear? How many deaths of students and, more likely, of teachers are we willing to accept as part of this prospective calculus before we decide it is perhaps not worth bringing millions of breathing beings together in small rooms?
For guidance, we might look to Greenfield Central Junior High School in Indiana, where, mere hours into the first day of classes, they had to immediately quarantine one student who was identified as positive for the virus and in turn try to isolate everyone who had come into contact with the person. Clearly no one knows how to pull this off. And if many schools can’t even ensure that there is soap in the bathrooms, the ability to perform the logistical complexities of reopening schools during a pandemic seems to set an impossibly high bar.
Returning to the Classroom
A few weeks ago I went back into my classroom to tidy up and collect some personal belongings. It instantly felt like I was in a museum; in a place of how things once were. Everything that makes a school a school cannot occur if we can’t talk freely, engage with one another, use our faces and our tone of voice to carry students from a place of not knowing to a place of understanding. My desks were in collaborative hexagons, the art center full of communal supplies, a rug to gather in the center of the room to share work, ask questions, take risks. The Coronavirus has taken this community from us for now, and if we have to be in impenetrable sections of the room, and teachers have to teach with masks, and students have to respond with masks and have their safety and distance constantly policed, is it even school at all?
The concept of school has to change during a national health crisis – it can’t be what it was prior, and if it has to look/feel different, how can we create a new definition of what school is during the pandemic?
Is this a chance to move away from traditional testing and use this pandemic to learn about and discuss health, economics, and racial justice issues across the board?
Can school buildings be just a place for social-emotional learning while we all get trained on the best remote teaching possibilities with each student given proper technology?
Can we use parks and outdoor spaces to change the way classes are taught and highlight being outside for most of, if not all of the day?
Can we combine grades and create a different kind of curriculum to create pods of smaller class sizes in larger spaces?
What can be done, and whose responsibility will it be, to help parents and teachers meet the burden of this new way of schooling?
If this crisis has taught us something about what we were doing wrong, what was missing, what was always there but never visible, and what we might learn from all this to improve the ways schools work and what we can reasonably expect from them, what might that be?
The gamble of reopening
Outside of wartime and sending young troops to fight and possibly die, this is one of the biggest gambles our country has ever made. The wartime analogy is apt: how many deaths are acceptable before we withdraw and reconceive our strategy and tactics?
Here’s another analogy: in a randomized clinical trial, participants are voluntary and are divided by chance into separate groups to compare the effectiveness of different interventions. Participants give informed consent based upon knowledge of possible consequences and an understanding of the risks and benefits. Should teachers and students be offered a kind of informed consent and a written contract that acknowledges the possibility of sickness and death associated with attending school while our country is at odds as to how to control the virus and keep people safe? What parent would participate in this kind of contract?
We are putting families in the position to spar with their instincts – do I protect my child from this virus, or do I provide for my child and my family? Where is our federal government in providing relief for families as we get a handle on all of this?
It is true that essential workers have returned and, indeed, never stopped working. The key difference is that there are (relatively) controlled conditions and clear protocols in place at their workplace. Try keeping a mask on an eight-year-old. Try to enforce social distancing. Try to keep kids from touching each other or touching me. Try maintaining any of the minimal requirements for safety in an elementary school classroom.
How safe is it really to reopen schools?
According to the New York Times, in New York State, “fewer than one percent of Coronavirus tests statewide were positive, well below the five percent positivity threshold that both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have targeted as a safe standard for reopening schools.” So we are cleared for opening, but should we open?
Certainly, a part of the reason New York got numbers so low is because we closed schools, went to virtual learning, and have worked together to follow the guidelines of mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing. But if we are still not allowed to eat inside of restaurants, how can we allow kids and teachers inside of schools? Are we willing to risk containment by sending our children back into an environment that will look and feel so different from all they’ve known? An environment full of fear, and distance, and pulsing with worry? Even with child infection rates low, they are able to spread it within the concentric circles of people with whom they live. And even at below 3% of the positivity threshold, some students and school staff could get infected and some will die. From an economic standpoint, that may not seem so bad. But for families and teachers, even one death is too many.
This is the challenge of the 21st century, and we must come up with 21st century solutions. There is a way to reprioritize and redefine what school is and means so that children are receiving the best possible solution to this complex problem. Children learn best together and families need to go back to work. Teachers and school personnel, however, are caught in this crossfire. The vast majority of teachers are women, and they are mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts themselves. Where does their health fall on our list of priorities?
Teachers already give so much of themselves in this profession, how much more can we ask of them?
Can we be a society that values health, education, and the economy in that order?
How can we come together to agree on priorities and move on from there?
What are we willing to risk as we are confronted with these priorities and make crucial decisions in the midst of this pandemic for all students and all families of varying social classes?
What side of history will we be on here?
Perhaps we know the risks and benefits. But we don’t know the consequences. And that makes all the difference.