Mentally ready to go back to school

Back to School

First off, I want to make clear that I am only talking about my 2 high school students right now. My oldest child is in college and that situation is a different enough to require a separate post.

My high school kids are getting ready to go back to school after 6 months at home. Yes, a few of those months were spent doing distance learning. But they were allowed to wear sweatpants and be barefoot, do schoolwork sitting on the bed or in the yard, have a dog on their laps while taking a test. In other words, it was an odd conglomeration of school and chilling out.

This week was a YouTube live broadcast from their high school, detailing the new protocols and procedures, requirements and routines that will take effect when classes start in just a couple of weeks. The high school they attend has clearly put a lot of time, money, and effort into meeting state guidelines.

Different schools, different plans

It was shared with us that 20% of the students are going to be doing distance learning when school begins for the fall semester: the school has made distance learning more structured now, and students at home will have to wear their uniforms. I personally visions of students at home in button down shirts, Navy blue suit jacket, and Bermuda shorts. Whether schooled on campus or by distance learning, their high school will be in session full day, 5 days a week.

All across New York state, every school district is responsible for implementing its own precautions and procedures to safeguard against coronavirus when doors open to the students and faculty. I know people whose high school students will be attending classes in school every other day, and distance learning in between. So, one week the child is in physical class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then on Tuesday and Thursday the following week. In other local schools, the student body is divided into 2 or 3 sections, with each section alternating each week at school. In other words, students attend every other week or every third week, depending upon what section they are in. When not on an in-school week, students attend classes remotely.

It makes sense that every school has a different situation. After all, the physical facilities varies wildly, and the number of students also varies wildly. It is far from being a one size fits all situation.

Are we asking too much of teachers?

For years, we have been depending on teachers and school administrators to protect our children from intruders and active shooters at school. Now we are putting them on the front lines of keeping our children safe from the spread of coronavirus.

According to a teacher poll conducted between July 21 – July 24, teachers themselves are very concerned about the risks they are facing when physically back in the classroom.  The study indicated that 82% of K-12 teachers say they are concerned about returning to in-person teaching this fall. 66% prefer to teach primarily by utilizing distance learning methods. Caught between anxieties about returning to school and about teaching remotely, U.S. teachers have been feeling a lot of uncertainty. In the third week of July, many teachers would be working on lesson plans and creative ideas for setting up their classrooms. Instead, only 11% described their school district’s plan for starting the academic year as finalized and clear.

Everyone is worried

Parents and the general public largely share those concerns. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found 2 out of 3 respondents thought schools in their area should be primarily remote, including 62% of parents of children under the age of 18.  77% of teachers are worried about risking their own health teaching in a classroom environment in school. Nearly 1.5 million teachers are at higher risk of serious illness if they contract coronavirus, because they suffer from serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or obesity, or are older than 65.

Teachers report being particularly worried about being able to get enough personal protective equipment supplies. They worry about getting enough cleaning supplies to use in the classroom.  I know that around here we always have to send in things like Clorox wipes and facial tissues for use in the classroom. Teachers depend on it because they have to come up with those things. Disinfectants are still challenging to find for use at home; will parents and teachers be tasked with supplying them for classrooms as well?

Health concerns about a return to classroom teaching are not the only issue.  Teachers report worries that the necessary coronavirus safety measures will really complicate teaching and learning. As per the study already mentioned, 73% of teachers say they are concerned about connecting with students effectively while wearing a mask. 84% of teachers say they are likely to have difficulty enforcing social distancing among their students. Facial expression is such a huge part of communication that the need to cut it in half is definitely going to have a complicated, negative effect.

Nationwide response

The federal government is pushing to reopen schools, though Covid-19 is still widespread.  Reputable groups and agencies fall in on both sides of the argument about whether or not it is the right thing to reopen schools.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is considered to be the authority on all things illness related. It issued guidelines in a white paper report explaining how schools can return to in-person classes this fall if coronavirus case counts are low enough. All states where school is returning meet those technical guidelines.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is an American professional association of pediatricians, headquartered. It maintains its Department of Federal Affairs office in Washington, D.C.  The academy has published hundreds of policy statements ranging from advocacy issues to practice recommendations. The academy’s policy website contains all current academy policies and clinical reports.  The AAP has officially urged school districts to return to in-person classes, citing potentially devastating social and emotional losses to children if schools don’t reopen.

Teachers across the country are now being forced to make tough choices between career and paycheck, or risk of virus exposure. All across the country, teachers have united to express concerns with plans for reopening schools.  In some cases, teachers have filed lawsuits or taken the necessary legal steps to go on strike.

In Los Angeles, Chicago and NYC, the nation’s three largest school districts, the teachers’ influence has been clearly seen and heard. (Please note that the following information is as of the writing of this post.)

United Teachers Los Angeles represents teachers in the the Los Angeles Unified School District.  In July, do you organization released an official statement of its opinion that schools should remain closed for the Fall 2020 semester.  Not long after that statement was issued, the LAUSD Superintendent announced that schools would not open for in-person instruction when the school year begins.

Chicago Public Schools had announced a plan to open the school year with a hybrid learning model with both in-person classes and remote instruction. CNN reported that a source close to the Chicago Teachers Union told CNN that the union planned to convene to discuss taking a strike vote to demand remote learning for Chicago Public Schools. Soon after that, it was announced that Chicago schools will be fully remote for the Fall 2020 semester.

New York City schools, the nation’s largest school district, are preparing to teach more than 1.1 million students with a hybrid model in which students can attend in-person classes a few days a week. It’s the only major school district in the country to opt to start the year with a combined approach of partially in-person attendance and partially online learning. A NYC teachers’ union leader stated no one should be allowed in school without proof of a negative Covid-19 test, or a positive antibody test.

The exact reopening details are still unclear mere weeks away from the scheduled September 10 start of the Fall 2020 semester. The actual plan for how it’s going to happen is still a work in progress.

The only certain thing is that nothing is certain

I think the one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has definitely taught us all is that nothing is certain. It has been a situation of learning as we go along, and learning from our mistakes. When mistakes can lead to illness and even possibly to death, it is hard to overstate the gravity of the situation.

Yet, it is a situation where statistics and objectivity must rule the day. I do not think I’m overstating when I say that it will be years before we get back to a pre-coronavirus type of “normal.”  We have to figure out ways to live around the situation in which we find ourselves. Doing so requires that we understand and accept that we cannot plan for things the way we used to; even our most carefully laid plans will be more fluid than they ever were before.

Plans for reopening schools are subject to change at the last minute. My kids are scheduled to have a half day at high school on September 8, and then start 5 days a week full time on September 14th. I asked them both how confident they are that the school year will continue uninterrupted from that point. One predicted a switch over to fully remote learning by the very beginning of October. The other made the same prediction, but by the end of October. Both fully expect plans will change.

I believe school administrators are doing their best, trying to plot and steer a steady course in an uncharted ocean filled with unfamiliar dangers. When it comes right down to it, parents bear the burden of making the right decision. My kids high school gave parents an option of choosing to have our own children continue distance learning, as I mentioned at the start of this post. After much consideration, I agreed with the position of the AAP that it was better for my own children to be back in school with their peers. The well thought out and well-organized plan that the school presented help me be confident that everything possible is being done to protect the safety and wellness of the students, faculty and staff.

But I am aware of the wisdom and necessity of having a fluid mindset – and I do. If the school decides to switch over to distance learning for everybody, or circumstances change and I decide that the risks of in-person classes are no longer outweighed by the benefits, then my kids are prepared for their situation to change.

What does Fall 2020 have in store for us all?

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