Morally, I cannot proceed to the points I wish to make about schools reopening without first noting just how many individuals in America did (and do) not have the political and economic power to stay home from work and engage in a debate about their safety before returning to their place of employment. These have disproportionately been people of color. Teachers, on the other hand, have considerable political and economic power and are disproportionately white.
As the demand to reopen schools in the fall grows, I have been thinking more and more about what I actually do as a high school teacher. I suspect that when many visualize what a classroom would look like during COVID, they picture an adult at the front of a mostly empty room lecturing to a smattering of children. But lecturing has long been understood to be poor pedagogical practice. Yes, each day I give instruction, but that instruction is only a small percentage of the time I spend with students. Much of my time involves going to individuals’ desks, getting down on one knee right next to them, looking at their work with them, and talking through the questions they have. That’s what teaching looks like.
Even if we returned to school with limited students, I couldn’t do that. The best I would be able to do is stare at my computer while the student stares at their own computer, sharing the same document, and try to address their points from 6 feet away. If this is the case, I see no benefit to being in the same room at all, as it would be no different from performing the same task over the internet in our individual homes in safety.
Likewise, any teacher worth their salt understands that classroom management requires proximity. Keeping kids on task dictates that the educator move continuously about the room, engaging in soft, subtle redirection to individuals as they tune out or become distracted. Again, this can’t be done from 6 feet away.
Now, I have seen some reference to schools’ facilities and their antiquated ventilation systems. I have also been heartened that this pandemic has served to illuminate overcrowding in classrooms.
Let me give you specifics as they pertain to me, just to provide one data point. The architectural drawings for my building were done with the designers intending that there be 20 to 25 desks in each classroom. As late as the early 2000s, class sizes in my school seldom exceeded 25. My classroom currently has 40 desks jammed into it. Students cannot reach their seats without shimmying past (and physically touching) their classmates; I cannot move about the room without continually brushing against individuals — it’s that tight in there. My class sizes would need to be dropped by two-thirds to comply with the separation mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As far as airborne virus transmission goes, my classroom does not have a ventilation system at all. Instead, it has a large rectangular box that, depending on the season, has either hot or cold water flowing through a pipe within it. A fan in the unit draws the room’s own air past the pipe, blowing it right back into the classroom again. Yes, my room has windows, but, being in Minnesota, there are few days when the temperature outside permits their use. Without studies to indicate what is and isn’t safe regarding the virus and airflow, there is no way to know whether my room (which seems, anecdotally, to be dangerous) is safe or not.
As the New York Times reported on July 10, a CDC report issued guidelines for reopening schools that President Donald Trump has criticized as “expensive.” Vice President Mike Pence has announced the CDC will be changing its recommendations, adding that “we just don’t want the guidance to be too tough.” The Trump administration’s rejection of science has already resulted in American deaths. The lack of any nationally coordinated effort to address the pandemic, and the Trump administration’s subversion of scientific findings as they come out, shows a pattern of disregard for human life. As pertains to schools, the administration is once again choosing to ignore science. Given what has already occurred, we can expect more sickness and death to follow. This leads me to my final point.
The demand that teachers return to work in an unsafe environment has, thus far, ignored what medical professionals do when they get home at the end of the day: self-isolate from their families so as not to risk infecting them. Given the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19, it would be unethical for me to have physical contact, or even physical proximity, to my loved ones for the duration of the school year or the duration of the pandemic. When people casually note that teachers might get sick or get the people they care about sick, they are ignoring the immorality of the act of putting others at risk. It would be immoral for me, if I must return to the classroom, to do anything that might jeopardize the health of others, including the people I love. That means I would have to cut myself off from the people I care for entirely. Otherwise, there is the very real possibility I might kill them.
At the end of it all, reopening schools in the fall is folly — deadly folly. I am not dying for Donald. And I am damn sure not going to let Donald kill the people I love.
Bryan Legrand, of Minneapolis, is a high school teacher.