Returning to school during the pandemic

The beginning of any school year is stressful, exciting, and full of unknowns. Teachers and staff look forward to seeing new faces and feeling the energy of a new year. As teachers, we’ll have new supplies and our classrooms will be ready for the new students. There is elation in returning to doing what we love. This is true for every teacher, regardless of the number of years they’ve been in the classroom. 

Now, have you wondered about the anticipation of a teacher waiting for the start of the school year in the middle of a global pandemic? Let's consider the following: Parents need to work; students need to resume their studies, and they need person-to-person interaction that facilitates learning. While I agree that these are all valid reasons to return to in-person classes, there are many reasons to approach the reopening of our schools with caution.

Even if kids don’t spread the coronavirus or become as sick with Covid-19 as adults, schools don’t house only kids. The fear that even one of our students could become gravely ill, or worse, causes great anxiety among our [teachers union] members. 

What happens if a teacher gets the virus? Is that teacher quarantined, and for how long? What about the students that teacher had contact with? Will the district be able to hire substitutes? Too many unanswered questions remain. 

We have heard that an entire building wouldn’t be quarantined—only those who had been in contact with an infected person. That’s only after it is known that someone is infected. There is currently no way to guarantee that we can prevent this virus from entering a school building.

The cleanliness of a school building is essential to reduce the spread of any virus. During this pandemic, cleanliness and hygiene are constantly brought to the forefront. Our school buildings have only limited hand-washing stations, space, and ventilation. Because of the funds lost to EdChoice vouchers, the district is unable to hire more cleaners.

Think about what it’s like at commercial gyms, salons, restaurants and stores, where constant cleaning and sanitizing occur. Who is going to perform those tasks in our schools? We don’t have adequate cleaning personnel. Will we need to take our students to the few bathrooms we have to wash their hands several times a day? Lots of questions about cleaning and hygiene, but zero answers.

I have used the word debacle to describe what wearing masks will be like when we return. We’ve heard that masks will be required for staff, but it’s not yet known if students will have to wear them. Furthermore, I have mixed feelings about small children wearing masks. 

I know about the research on masks and that they are our best line of defense (along with keeping students six feet apart), but wearing a mask in one of our five elementary buildings, without air conditioning, isn’t something I can even comprehend. 

Will teachers need to supply masks like we do pencils, crayons, notebooks and snacks? How many masks per day will students need? If they can lose the pencil you gave them in just a few minutes, I’m assuming they will lose their masks, too.

There are many reasons to return to in-person teaching, but also compelling reasons to continue remote learning. Much can change between my writing of this column (in early July) and the start of the school year. Our administration needs a sound and sensible plan that staff can actually follow, and that guarantees the safety of students and staff. Until we have that plan, teaching and learning should be remote for all. We miss our students and want to be back in person, but at what risk?

Karen Rego

Karen Rego has taught multiple grades, K–8, and currently teaches at Monticello Middle School. She is the new president of Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.

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Volume 13, Issue 8, Posted 9:40 AM, 07.31.2020