12 Winters Blog

Why e-learning should continue this fall

Posted in July 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 7, 2020

I understand why so many people want students to return to their classrooms this fall, along with their teachers and coaches and all the other school personnel who make education possible. I understand because I’m one of those people. I’m entering my 37th year teaching high school English, and nothing would make me happier than to sit down with a group of enthusiastic students and have a boisterous discussion about Macbeth or Beowulf, or to hear my speech students inform their classmates and me about their most beloved topics.

I miss the students. I miss talking to them, and teaching them, and making them laugh every so often. I miss it all.

Nevertheless, after staying abreast of the latest developments regarding COVID-19, and thinking through myriad scenarios, I’ve come to the conclusion that having in-school attendance in August would be foolhardy. The risks are too great, and the logistical challenges are too overwhelming.

Even though here in Illinois we were largely successful in flattening the curve — the mantra in the early days of Covid — we certainly didn’t vanquish the virus. Some of our neighboring states, like Iowa and Missouri, did very little to contain the spread. Locally there are people testing positive for the virus, and we’ve had several deaths in our community. Because of our early success in dealing with Covid, we’ve been moving from one reopening phase to the next like clockwork — but the reopening itself is due to economic and political pressure. It’s not based on the best advice of medical science.

As a country, we are losing our battle with the virus. Nationwide there are nearly 3 million confirmed cases, and we’ve recorded over 130,000 deaths (many epidemiologists believe our numbers are under-reported because in late 2019 and early 2020 we were not identifying people with COVID-19, and attributing their illnesses and deaths to other causes). I believe I had the virus in mid-March, just as our state was shutting down, but I was neither a movie star nor a professional athlete so I couldn’t get a confirming test. Luckily, I recovered fairly quickly without medical assistance. Weeks later an antibody test came back negative, but the antibody tests are unreliable for several reasons.

Having in-person school this fall would be a logistical nightmare. The one-two punch that the CDC has been recommending from the beginning — wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart — would be all but impossible to maintain in schools. Besides, recent studies have suggested social distancing isn’t very effective indoors since COVID-19 stays in the air longer and is more contagious when airborne than first believed.

To quote a recently published article, “Global experts: Ignoring airborne COVID spread risky” (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, 6 July 2020): “The authors [of a recent study] said that handwashing and physical distancing are appropriate—but not sufficient—to provide protection against respiratory microdroplets, particularly in poorly ventilated indoor environments such as those that have been at the center of several ‘superspreading’ events.”

I’m familiar with “poorly ventilated indoor environments,” more affectionately known as classrooms in my world.

The researchers concluded: “In order to control the pandemic, pending the availability of a vaccine, all routes of transmission must be interrupted.”

All routes of transmission must be interrupted. If we open schools this August, even in some modified way (with alternating days of attendance, for example), we will be providing countless routes of transmission. Even with our best efforts to enforce the wearing of masks and keep students as far apart as possible, there are going to be routes of transmission. In classrooms certainly. There are also buses, cafeterias, locker rooms, restrooms, hallways.

If a student tests positive for Covid, or if they find out they’ve been exposed, what then? What if that exposure was, say, on a Sunday and it’s now Wednesday when they find out their situation? Every student, teacher, custodian, cook that they’ve been around — should they be quarantined? Tested? What will that quarantining mean for their families?

Throughout my career, teaching at various schools, we’ve been figuring out ways to encourage students to come to school no matter what, with rewards and punishments. The goal has always been perfect attendance. Now we must reverse course and tell students to stay away if they have even the hint of a Covid symptom. Fall allergy season is fast approaching. Farmers are about to harvest their fields. Many, many students suffer from seasonal allergies and many suffer from asthma. From August to December every year they have coughs and runny noses and dripping sinuses.

How will we know if their Kleenex addiction is an allergy or COVID-19? How will they?

Ask any teacher. Ask how many boxes of tissue they go through in a normal year.

And what about teachers? Nationally one-third of schoolteachers are 50 or older. I’ll be 58 in September. According to the CDC, by the end of April more than 90% of the Covid deaths in the U.S. were people 55 or older. (link) Many older teachers have chronic health issues that put them further at risk. But even younger teachers can have health issues that place them in greater jeopardy in spite of their age.

If a teacher is exposed to Covid, or tests positive, they’ll have to be out of the classroom for at least two weeks (even with no serious medical consequences). In every school I’ve taught in, most of the substitute teachers were retired teachers in their fifties, sixties and even seventies. Even if they’d be willing to step in for a few weeks, should they? Should we ask them to? Is it even ethical? (After reading my post, a colleague pointed out that if substitute teachers step forward, they generally work in different buildings and for more than one district, which means subs could easily facilitate an outbreak themselves.)

I know that keeping children from going to school in person has significant drawbacks. I know it creates all kinds of obstacles for parents. Students suffer in many ways, especially perhaps special-needs students. I get it, I sympathize, and if I could I’d wave a Harry Potter-like wand and make it not so. I’d do it in a heartbeat.

In addition to nearly four decades of classroom teaching (seniors in high school predominantly), since 2016 I’ve also taught online graduate courses in a university’s MFA program. I learned that online teaching and in-person teaching are inherently different. A teacher must approach them differently, with different methods and different expectations. There’s a learning curve. It’s instinct to try to recreate your classroom curriculum in the virtual environment — to just shift everything from one to the other lock, stock and barrel.

Unfortunately, for the most part, that approach doesn’t work very well. Even for classroom veterans, online teaching requires rethinking and retooling. In order for it to be effective — to be meaningful and hopefully even enjoyable for students — requires considerable thought, investigation of online tools and platforms, development of methodology that is unique to web-based environments, and so forth.

For that matter, students have to learn to be online students, too. How they learn, how they keep track of their assignments, how they submit them, how they respond to feedback — everything is different online, and students, like teachers, will have a learning curve also.

This past March teachers in Illinois and many other states suddenly found themselves teaching online — literally with no preparation whatsoever. Teachers are professionals, and we adjusted as quickly and as best as we could — but it was far from ideal. The online teaching that students and parents experienced in March, April and May was not representative of what online teaching can be, with the requisite time to prepare.

The people who are in charge of deciding whether or not we return to the classroom in August, and, if so, under what circumstances and conditions, are under a great deal of pressure. I don’t envy them that. Various surveys and news stories have suggested that the majority of parents want their children to go back to their physical school this fall. I understand it. Like I said earlier, I want that too.

Also like I said earlier, in spite of the majority’s desire, the reality of the pandemic makes it ill-advised, even dangerous — for students, teachers, other educational personnel, students’ families, teachers’ families, the school’s community, and even the state and the country . . . even the world.

Here’s what I recommend: School this fall should be exclusively online (for all the reasons I’ve cited in this post, plus a lot more that I didn’t but could). Teachers should begin their professional duties in mid-August (or whatever their contracts dictate), and they should start the challenging and time-consuming process (if done well) of preparing for online teaching. Then have students join their online courses about mid-September. Hopefully by the end of 2020, the virus will be better contained (right now it’s skyrocketing out of control), and there will be a legitimate expectation for a vaccine or at least an effective treatment for COVID-19. Perhaps, with luck, we could resume in-class teaching in January 2021.

It may seem like a slow start to the year — having teachers begin serious preparation mid-August and bringing students into the mix mid-September — but even with an online approach there are innumerable details that must be attended to. Families, for instance, are going to need time to figure out how to make their life work if their children are not returning to the classroom in August (remember that teachers have families too). Schools must make sure they have everything they need to make online learning effective (which may require purchasing hardware, buying subscriptions, setting up platforms); and school districts need to help students have what they need at home to be successful (adequate computers, reliable web connection, etc.).

At present, the laws regarding school calendars would be problematic under the recommendation I’m making — but to my way of thinking those nuts and bolts shouldn’t supersede an approach that is best for students and all those concerned. The pandemic presents the most challenging educational situation in at least a century. Lawmakers should consider revising the rule book given these extraordinary circumstances.

I’ll reiterate that I don’t envy the people who have to make the tough decisions. I’m glad that many years ago I decided to spend my career hanging out with kids in the classroom, and leaving the big knuckle-biting decisions to others. Whatever they decide, I and every teacher will do our best to make schools safe and effective learning environments, as we always do.

We love and respect kids, and we’ll get them through this pandemic one way or another. Hopefully we’ll survive it too.

2 Responses

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  1. Jerry L Lopian said, on July 8, 2020 at 5:07 pm

    Our family agrees with you 100%. The classroom environment can not keep exposure to a minimum, especially with those students and families who refuse to follow sound medical advice and practice proper procedures now. It will be the teachers and staff who pay the price for in-school learning.

    • Ted Morrissey said, on July 9, 2020 at 6:21 pm

      Thanks, Jerry. Indeed … I keep hearing and seeing the phrase “return to school safely,” and it’s a pipe dream. I wish it weren’t so, but there’s not way for that to happen until the virus is under control. As a country we’ve wasted a lot of time trying to prepare for something that’s impossible. We should have been devoting our time and energy to developing effective e-learning and figuring out how to help parents and students adapt to the stay-at-home situation. We still can do that, but the sooner we start, the better.


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