The Challenges of Reopening Public Schools in Fall 2020

It’s hard to get a handle on how reopening public schools this autumn is going across the United States. A lot of blame and anger is floating around—for botched plans on the one hand and COVID-19 outbreaks on the other. Nobody endorses full-time remote learning, but it seems to be the reality in most places, especially in the nation’s biggest school districts where school operations on a huge scale complicate the best intentions of the people trying to work it all out.

On Monday to examine trends across the country, the NY Times published a major analysis including charts and maps of several states. The conclusion: “Schools are not islands, and so it was inevitable that when students and teachers returned this fall to classrooms, coronavirus cases would follow them. But more than a month after the first school districts welcomed students back for in-person instruction, it is nearly impossible to tally a precise figure of how many cases have been identified in schools.”

Just as the Trump administration has failed to institute national COVID-19 testing and contact tracing across the states, the Trump administration also failed, during many months before schools were scheduled to reopen this fall, to convene health and education experts with state school superintendents, local superintendents, principals and school teachers to listen to their concerns and plan for contingencies.  While the states are, through the mandates of their own constitutions, themselves responsible for providing “a thorough and efficient system of common schools” (the language in several of the state constitutions), some effort at least to coordinate school opening plans with broader testing and contact tracing would have made things smoother. The NY Times reports that there has been no systematic collection of data and in many places no reporting of data: “In an effort to better account for virus cases in Kindergarten through 12th grade, The New York Times set out to collect data from state and local health and education agencies and through directly surveying school districts in eight states. Our goal was to understand, as well as possible, how prevalent the virus was in America’s schools over the first weeks of classes… The Times directly surveyed every school district in eight states: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, and Utah. The Response rate was 26 percent.  Where possible, The Times sought to identify case totals since July 1. Case counts represent the latest available data for each district or state, covering a period from Aug. 21 to Sept. 17.”

Chalkbeat reports on what is commonly regarded as the fiasco in New York City, after the Mayor promised schools would open according to a hybrid in-person/online plan. I have considerable sympathy for Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s intentions to make it possible for all of the district’s 1.1 million students—114,000 of them homeless and many others living in poverty—to connect personally with school personnel at least once a week. Despite the best efforts of the school district, many students struggled to find online access last spring.

But the hybrid schedule in NYC has looked pretty unworkable from the beginning. Chalkbeat describes the plan: “To head back to school, the mayor settled on a hybrid model with students attending socially distanced classes at least once a week and learning online the rest of the time.  Families can also opt for remote-only learning at any time—something that at least 42% of students have already chosen.  A hybrid approach is inherently complicated, creating different groups of students who need to be taught at the same time: some in the classroom, some online part-time, and others learning virtually all the time. That is layered on top of social distancing rules, which means teachers who might have been assigned a class of 25 children can now teach only a fraction of students inside the building. There could be as few as nine children in a room, depending on the size of the space. Additionally, the city has granted medical accommodations for 21% of teachers—so far—to work from home because they’re at risk for complications from COVID-19… Districts across the country have run into this very staffing problem.  Schools need at least the same number of teachers in their buildings, but they have fewer teachers on hand because of health accommodations.  On top of that, they’re teaching only a fraction of their normal students at a time because of social distancing rules.  It adds up to a thorny math problem about how teachers can cover remote and in-person students simultaneously… In New York City, the staffing challenge is compounded by a deal struck between city officials and the teachers union discouraging teachers with in-person classes from also being assigned virtual classes.”  The challenge right now is the district’s shortage of thousands of teachers, which the district will try to address by deploying all certified central office staff into classrooms and hiring substitute teachers.

If, as you read this, you find yourself frustrated by what seem like unreasonable demands by the New York City United Federation of Teachers, consider this story that is part of the NY Times‘ broad survey of school reopenings.  In the Alcoa City Schools, a small school district south of Knoxville, Tennessee, the superintendent, Rebecca Stone found herself worried as schools reopened about unreasonable demands on her teachers: “Mrs. Stone said it had been hard to operate a hybrid system, especially with no money to hire extra staff.  She said many teachers were working with three different groups of students daily—those who were in school, those who were at home for the day, and the roughly 10 percent of students in the district who opted for full-time remote learning.  ‘Our teachers are doing an amazing job, but they’re drowning.’ she said.”

Or consider this story from Patrick O’Donnell at The 74, about a Cleveland, Ohio parochial school teacher working in-person with students seated in her classroom at the same time she tries to keep in touch with students connecting to the class from home via computer: “‘Take out your math books,’ teacher Jessica Montanez tells her first-graders at Cleveland’s St. Stanislaus Elementary School, looking at her students through her plastic face shield. ‘Take out your pencils.’  As students in the classroom, all wearing masks, start going through their desks, Montanez turns away and looks at the webcam on her own desk at another group of students who need her attention—the students in her class whose parents chose to start this school year online. ‘Good morning, friends at home,’ she says, as more first-grade faces look back at her from her computer screen. ‘Everyone at home, you should be taking out your math book and your pencils. We’re going to get started.'”  When I read this, I tried to imagine the experience of the first-graders at home. Would the teacher, concentrating on the kids in her classroom, be able to reach out in any personal way to the students who appear on the computer screen?

Long before NYC schools were scheduled to reopen, there were months of mile-high, district-wide planning, much of it focused on the mechanics of social distancing and the necessary updating of building ventilation. Staffing plans that respect the human capacity of teachers who cannot work around the clock became apparent as the opening date loomed nearer, and as New York City’s  United Federation of Teachers negotiated some limits.

For a window into the human demands being made as schools open this fall, we can turn to a profile of Latasha Geverola, the principal of Oscar DePriest Elementary School, a pre-K–Grade 8 public school in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.  Writing for The New Yorker, Peter Slevin describes Geverola’s challenges through last spring’s shut down and experiment with virtual learning, through a summer school session for children with special needs, and now her efforts to open her school virtually. While you might imagine that opening online would be easier—without social distancing and ventilation concerns—you would be underestimating Geverola’s challenges. One week in late August, “Geverola had spent Monday and Tuesday calling and e-mailing hundreds of families, alerting them to plans for a hybrid-learning schedule that would place students in school for part of each week. Then, that Wednesday, Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, reversed course and announced that there would be no in-person teaching before November 9th, owing to upticks of COVID-19 cases… In normal times, DePriest serves as an oasis for about five hundred students from pre-Kindergarten to eighth grade, the vast majority.of whom come from low-income households in Austin, a neighborhood hit hard by COVID-19 and the economic downturn.  Now Geverola and her forty-five teachers are laboring to construct a virtual world that not only instructs students but supports and embraces them during the most difficult year that many of them have ever faced… It is not just COVID-19 that afflicts the DePriest community.  This year is on pace to have the most murders in Chicago since the nineteen nineties… On August 19th, a nine-year-old boy and his mother were shot and seriously injured on a street eight blocks from the school….”

One of Geverola’s worries has been about how to be fair to her staff who will likely be on-call throughout many of their entire waking hours: “Geverola solved one problem by moving money from her transportation budget—no field trips this fall—into an account that will pay teachers forty-nine dollars an hour to hold virtual office hours in the evening, when working parents are more likely to be available to help their children.”

Geverola has also undertaken the challenge of helping families get access to the Internet, including working with many grandparents who are primary caregivers while parents are at work and who are at the same time unfamiliar with computers and laptops: “I sat in her office one morning in August as she started dialing a hundred and twenty-four families to alert them about a program that offered free Internet service… In the waning days of August, families began dropping by DePriest to learn how remote teaching would work, and what help the school would provide. Then, on the day after Labor Day, DePriest’s virtual classroom doors opened.  Geverola said, ‘We thought that we jumped ahead of things by personally calling and walking families through the process of logging in.  We thought we had enough devices out there and that everyone in need of Internet was in the process of getting it installed. Day One knocked us down’…. The DePriest phones rang all day long, with families asking for equipment or log-in instructions or new passwords. But by the next day, she said, ninety percent of students had logged in, and by Monday, she described things as ‘quiet.’  That day, she visited the homes of five students who had been late to log in, to see what they needed… At last, she had time to log into classes, where she saw ‘teachers teaching and students learning’… ‘It means we can do it when we work together,’ she said. ‘Now time to plan meetings with teachers. We do not want to let the energy drop.'”

These stories have helped me grasp the complexities of opening 98,000 public schools that serve over 50 million children in the midst of a pandemic.  It is easier to conceptualize the mechanical arrangements—the ventilation, the social distancing in the buses and in classrooms, the distribution of laptops and Internet hot spots—than to grasp the demands being made on the people who have to make it all work.  I suspect part of our problem is our admiration of people—especially women—who can make complicated jobs like managing school classrooms and even giving dinner parties look easy.  We imagine that such “easy tasks” can be accomplished without exhaustion.

In the case of reopening 98,000 public schools this fall in the middle of the coronavrus pandemic, there is no easy way to do it. Maybe there is no good way to do it—especially in a society which failed to manage COVID-19 and contact tracing, and in a society where the federal government made no attempt to convene all the stakeholders for long range planning and coordination. I think what’s necessary then is to respect the hard work of mayors like New York’s Bill DeBlasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza, school superintendents and principals and schoolteachers and to remember that weird and unmanageable hybrid schedules and full time virtual schooling are temporary.  When things don’t go as expected, we need to give people at least some credit for doing the best they can.

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