Is now the right time to open schools at the secondary level? I didn’t know how to feel about it. So I decided to ask the experts--the ones who would know best. I decided to ask a handful of my teacher-mom friends, some of the smartest women I know.
Meet Annie, Beth, Carrie, Donna, Ellie, and Frances. Each woman is (or has been) an educator in a public school--their total experience combined adds up to 109 years in schools. Each one is a mom of school-aged children. Each one is a smart, thoughtful, caring, well-educated woman, whom I would trust to give me carefully weighed answers based on facts and data. Each one is (or was) a teacher to admire, both in pedagogical prowess and building strong relationships with students. And each one faces the inevitable reopening of public secondary schools in the Denver Metro area, the earliest on March 22 and the latest on April 5.
So what did they have to say?
The Current Situation: Hybrid and “Chromebook Zombies”
All of the teacher-moms agree that hybrid learning, in its current mostly-synchronous iteration, is a poor substitute for full time in-person learning. Absolutely no one said that the current situation is what’s best for kids. But all four women who are in the classroom are doing their best to make it work.
But does hybrid have to be so awful? Not necessarily. The synchronous decision for students’ at home days was done “purely for optics,” according to Donna. If at-home days had been asynchronous, used as front-loading, reading, and preparing for the next class, it could have been much different. Parents, most school districts surmised, wanted to ensure that eyes are kept on their secondary students, creating more accountability and structure for their time at home. But all of this non-stop screentime comes with consequences. Frances, who has a middle-schooler said of her daughter, “She’s turning into a Chromebook Zombie.”
But as with most compromises, no one is happy. But some teacher-moms, like Donna, feel that it’s the best option we’ve got. “[T]he kids, the teachers, the staff in the building all seem to understand in an unspoken way that this is the best [alternative, with hybrid] we’ve got” (Donna).
It would seem that professional development and time spent on equipping teachers with best-practice techniques for managing hybrid and remote learning would have been the priority. But it was not. Beth’s district did not have any trainings for teachers on best-practices with remote or hybrid instruction, and so she, like so many other teachers, has had to figure out how to navigate this new way of teaching on her own. Beth remarked, “The district has optional trainings, but [teachers] may not realize they don’t know enough or that they could do it better.” Another factor could be the already-existing boa-constrictor-like squeeze on time, as it is. Regardless, Beth’s district has not made teacher training a priority and so many teachers have floundered or are, in Beth’s words, “just trying to get through it, thinking things will go back to normal next year.”
While school operations may be far from normal, some students have continued living their lives on the outside as normal. “I know students are seeing each other outside of school. They are not getting infected from my classroom,” Carrie, a high school teacher said.
But will relatively low infection rates within schools continue, if all students return?
Is it Time? What Science Suggests
The CDC’s recommendations for schools had remained much the same throughout the pandemic: six feet of social distancing, frequent handwashing, mandatory masks except for when eating and drinking, improved ventilation and open doors and windows (when possible), and students all facing the same direction are still best practice for schools.
However, just days ago, the CDC changed the guidelines. Now, the recommended distance is three feet. The CDC’s justification is this: “Three studies, published in today’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)...build on evidence that physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students can safely be adopted in classroom settings where mask use is universal and other prevention measures are taken.”
In some cases, such as communities where transmission of the virus is high, the CDC has maintained that classrooms be set up with six feet of separation with one-way traffic patterns, which is--if schools move to 100% in-person--entirely impossible.
What about earlier fears about teenagers catching and spreading COVID-19 in ways similar to adults? Are teenagers less at risk than was thought March when most schools first closed?
According to the most recent report released jointly by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, of the 3,168,274 child cases throughout the United States and its territories, “[c]hildren were 0.00%-0.19% of all COVID-19 deaths, and 10 states reported zero child deaths.” This is good news. It still doesn’t say what the age ranges of the infected children were (Infants? Elementary school-aged? Teenagers?) as the data wasn’t collected that way, it seems. But nonetheless, for many parents, this is the rainbow they’d been waiting for for almost a year now.
During the winter of 2020-2021, there has been just one child death reported throughout the entire United States due to the flu, according to reporting by The Washington Post. It would seem that the mitigation strategies, including masks and distancing, set in place to prevent COVID-19 infection, have had a startlingly positive effect on beating child flu deaths into near oblivion this year.
If mitigation strategies, such as universal masking and social distancing in classrooms are working, this is a cause for celebration. But will just masking be enough with the 100% return of students in-person?
The teacher-moms I spoke to are well aware of the conundrums they face when secondary schools resume at 100% in person. “[W]e still can’t make class look like it did, pre-COVID. Everyone is still going to be on a screen. We can do fewer hands-on activities because I can’t sanitize everything quickly enough to turn it around for the next big group” (Donna). Beth noted that due to increased class sizes and an inability to socially distance in the average classroom, “Schools [currently] close for [deep cleanings] with quarantining [when there are a handful of cases]--there will likely be more of that.” She also noted, in regard to her daughter’s experience, “Cohorting at the high school level is impossible.” And Beth also said what all of the women I interviewed knew to be true: “[We] won’t be able to keep the six feet of distancing with everyone back. Other protocols won’t be able to be followed, either.”
Emily wondered, “What will the protocol be if someone gets sick?”
It is possible that quarantining and temporary school closures for deep-cleaning may rise with a 100% return. Donna, speaking for her son’s experience and for that of her students’ said, “I don’t want to see kids quarantined over and over again, getting less time in the building than before.”
Beth, speaking not out of fear but merely being pragmatic, cautioned that it will take some time to figure things out before students can come back. “All furniture has to go back in the rooms, and we have to figure out where kids are eating, when hand-washing times will be, and [time is needed to allow for] schedule changes that will occur” [when parents shift either from in-person to remote or remote to in-person],” she said.
Despite these challenges, schools are in a race to get ready for reopening.
What Teacher-Moms Think
The teacher-moms I interviewed are gearing up for the impending return to 100%. Frances said that, “The safety of it makes me nervous but the mental health of [her daughter] and the rest of our family overpowers any concern.” She added, “The last 10 months have been the worst family dynamics we have ever had and I am very concerned for all of our mental health.”
Carrie is looking forward to returning to 100% in-person. “I miss my students desperately,” she said.
Donna is not enthusiastic about her district’s decision. “Going back to 100% in-person...feels like the choice [of hybrid] that I really carefully considered [for her own son] is being taken away from us.” She also discussed the reality that some students will choose to stay 100% remote, which in her district, means Zooming in and watching from home. “One of my biggest worries is what happens to [remote students]... If my classroom population increases...my eyeballs will be on my in-person class more. I worry that my remote students will be getting even less of my attention and I don’t know how to fix that” (Donna).
Beth and her husband “think school [this] year should finish as-is. At earliest,” she said, “we should go back in April so that all [teachers] who want the vaccine can get it.”
While Annie is “excited for the kids to come back,” she is also concerned. As a mom of a high schooler, Annie thinks students could still get sick if they come to school in larger numbers, as they are not vaccinated. While she believes it’s not likely they will get seriously ill, she realizes that they still could. Despite this clear-headed awareness, “I would rather have the kids come back now,” Annie said.
Emily would prefer to remain hybrid for the rest of the year. “Why change another thing?” she said, in reference to the many changes teachers and students have had to adjust to this year. “I would like to wait until more of the country has been vaccinated.” But she also “sympathizes and empathizes” with parents. She can’t imagine, if her own five children were younger and all spread out through the grade levels, doing remote learning of any sort would be very hard. “Logistically, I get it,” she said, about parents’ challenges at home. “It’s tough.”
And so, out of the educator-moms I spoke to, four said yes; two of them resoundingly so, with the other two far more tentative. Two said, continuing with hybrid would be their preference. For the record, no one said they wanted to have students return to 100% remote learning.
Teachers, Parents, and District Leadership: “I wish we could all be on the same team”
The clock is ticking and by April 5, nearly all public middle and high schools throughout the Denver Metro area will be fully in-person. While all of these caring educators enjoy seeing their students in the classroom, many of them spoke to the chasm they feel has grown between educators and parents.
Donna said, “I wish the public knew that a lot of us teachers are parents and [we] get it. But we can’t be irresponsible. And we can’t wish away the reality that we are still dealing with a pandemic.” Annie feels that teachers have been lumped together and perceived as callous. “Parents might think that teachers don’t want the kids to come back, but it’s not true.” Emily feels the parent perception of teachers’ workload falls far short of the reality this year. “Non-educators are not seeing the amount of blood, sweat, and tears,” she said.
In addition to a disconnect with many parents, teachers have felt sidelined by their districts, as well. “[Forces] outside of the building are making this harder than it has to be,” Donna said. “Teachers, kids, and support staff have great ideas and suggestions, if anyone in charge would just listen. We live this day to day, and yet, we seem to have no agency.” Annie agreed that district leadership has been lackluster, at best. “District communication has been poor, and it shows a lack of trust in staff [members] with messages being sent out to staff and parents simultaneously.” Emily also felt a disconnect between the district she is associated with and its teachers and staff. “Why can’t we follow a proven method?” she wondered aloud, commenting on his dislike for the soon-to-be phased out synchronous version of hybrid learning that has been the model in so many schools. Many of the teacher-moms I expressed a lack of support from all sides.
“I wish we could all be on the same team,” Donna said. “I feel like I work for the world’s most hated profession these days.”
While it is nearly time to return 100%, the time for healing strained relationships has yet to arrive and may be a long time coming. Meanwhile, with the 100% return to the classroom, teachers will have to cross their fingers, adjust their masks, and hope for the best.
Cindy Shapiro is long-time teacher living in Colorado. She is the founder of Teacher Says, a budding podcast and website designed with the idea in mind of listening to and raising up teachers' voices. She has two school-aged children. Her book, For the Love of (Remote) Teaching is available on Amazon for Kindle.