12 Winters Blog

An open letter to school board members

Posted in August 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 2, 2020

School boards have been in the process of deciding what to do about school come mid-August, and essentially they’ve weighed three options: full attendance; full remote; or some hybrid combination in between. In my mind — and the minds of thousands of other educators — it should be a simple decision. By far the safest approach — the approach that would prevent students and adults from becoming infected at school — is full-remote learning. Yet many school boards are not opting for remote learning.

Allow me to make my case for remote learning. First, though, let me say that I began teaching in 1984, in East Moline, Illinois. After a few years I moved to Mt. Vernon, Illinois, where I taught for more than a decade before being recruited to come to Williamsville, Illinois, in 1998. So I’m embarking on my 38th year in the classroom, my 23rd here at Williamsville. Earlier this summer I put in my notice to retire in four years, so if I make it I’ll retire in 2024 with 42 years in the classroom.

What is more, while here in Williamsville the school board essentially paid for me to earn a pedagogically based Ph.D. from Illinois State University. Presumably their generosity was based at least in part on the idea it was a sound investment because they could avail themselves of the knowledge and wisdom I accrued in earning that quite rare degree.

Thus, I don’t think of myself as an expert in very many things, but after 38 years and a doctorate I believe I’ve earned the right to call myself an expert when it comes to schools, classrooms and kids. You wouldn’t want me rewiring your house, or grooming your dog, or organizing your stock portfolio — but when it comes to teaching school and working with children, I encourage you to pay attention.

There’s been talk all summer of “returning to school safely” — but the concept is a fairy tale. A lot of people seem to think that if we expand teachers’ roles to include becoming makeshift nurses, custodians and juvie prison guards, we can somehow prevent COVID-19 infection in the school.

We can’t. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Children are going to become infected. Some will have serious medical complications. Some will die. Adults in the building, especially teachers, will become infected. Some will have serious medical complications. Some will die.

Rather than going through all the reasons we won’t be able to keep schools free of Covid, let me, instead, point to the parable of professional sports. Various professional sports leagues have returned to action this summer, or tried to. Perhaps it began with the PGA golf tour in June, but then there were the hockey players of the NHL, and most recently Major League Baseball. Professional sports leagues, individual franchises, and the players themselves have unlimited resources to keep athletes free of COVID-19, and yet they haven’t been able to.

Every league had essentially the same strategy: Get athletes inside a Covid-free “bubble.” Test them for the virus constantly (in some cases twice a day). Isolate them from the general population (train in isolation, eat and sleep in isolation, travel in isolation). Have their environments professionally sanitized every day. And quarantine anyone in the bubble at the first sign of a Covid symptom.

Professional golf went one tournament before players and caddies started testing positive for Covid. Pro hockey players were experiencing an infection rate five times the average population. And we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks what’s been happening in Major League Baseball: multiple outbreaks and canceled games.

Doctors believe the problem is the very first step: Getting athletes inside the bubble free of infection. It appears nearly impossible. With people being asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, even with the most rigorous screening by professional medical personnel, someone with the virus is going to slip through. Then you have the situation of others being, in essence, trapped inside the bubble with a teammate or fellow competitor who is highly contagious.

So professional sports teams, with all their resources, can’t prevent the spread of infection. But somehow masked schoolteachers are going to provide an impenetrable shield against COVID-19 armed with thermometers, spray bottles and paper towels. The assertion would be comical if it weren’t deadly serious.

To repeat: The idea of a “safe” school is a fantasy.

Another important point — and again let me remind you this is coming from somebody who’s spent nearly four decades teaching school — has to do with quality of instruction. A lot of people advocating for in-person instruction are basing their argument on the premise that in-person instruction is superior to remote instruction. Under normal circumstances, I would wholeheartedly agree. But these circumstances are far from normal.

Teaching, in the best of times, is exhausting. We love teaching, but it wears us out physically, mentally and emotionally. Now, many teachers (including me) are being asked to teach both in-person and remotely, plus pitch in to monitor students’ health, and to clean desks, doors, cabinets, keyboards — wherever kids have been. Even still, kids and adults are going to have to eat and drink during the day, removing their masks for several minutes. Schools are considering building “mask breaks” into the schedule because it will be difficult for children and adults to wear masks for several hours without interruption. Moreover, maintaining social distancing at all times will be impossible.

Nurses who have been dealing with the novel coronavirus since March have been reaching out to schoolteachers with advice on how to avoid becoming infected and how to avoid bringing the virus home to their families. Besides masks, of course, teachers should wear face shields, goggles or at least eyeglasses, they recommend. Teachers should have separate work clothes and home clothes, including shoes, and their work clothes and shoes should not be allowed inside their homes. They recommend having a safe space, like the trunk of their car, to store their work clothes and shoes. They say that every day work clothes should go directly into the washing machine, and teachers should go directly into the shower. Directly. Every day.

So here’s the thing: Between the extra duties, the extra precautions, and the extra worries, teachers who are teaching in-person will be burned out by mid-September. Even if they haven’t contracted COVID-19 (and many will), they will be physically, mentally and emotionally wiped out. And the year is only getting started. Then what level of quality instruction will teachers be able to provide their students, in person or remotely? Within a matter of weeks, in-person faculty will more closely resemble the cast of The Walking Dead than enthusiastic and energetic educators.

It’s worth remembering, too, that we are only just beginning this fight. Life, including school life, won’t return to pre-Covid normal until people are vaccinated against the virus. The hope is that there will be a safe and effective vaccine by late 2020 or early 2021. But that’s just the first step (and an enormous one it is). Then the vaccine must be mass produced. Estimates vary between epidemiologists, but somewhere between 150 million to over 200 million Americans will have to be vaccinated in order to establish herd immunity. Meanwhile, a system for distributing and administering the vaccinations will have to be created (none exists presently). (link)

Therefore, even after the vaccine is found, it will take many months to vaccinate the numbers of people needed to establish a threshold of infection that would allow us to return to “normal.” In other words, educators will be dealing with COVID-19 well into the 2021-2022 school year, if not beyond. Decimating your faculty through overwork, over-worry, and infection within the first few weeks of this school year simply isn’t logical.

Defeating Covid is a marathon, and beginning school with a four-minute-mile pace is a flawed strategy. Teachers can make remote instruction effective — if we have the time, the energy and the support.

(Image is from a school in Germany, found here at CNN.com.)

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