By Ellison Mitchell
For those of you saying "If essential workers can work, teachers can work, and our kids need to be in school!" I get where you're coming from. I want you to imagine the first day of school.
• Kids will get on the bus. They will be packed together, because my district (like many) has ruled that it is too expensive and time-consuming to do staggered bussing. They will be excited to see their friends, and they will talk, share items, and do all the things they missed doing on the bus, and this will be great for their emotional health. Eventually some of them will take off their masks, because one or two kids didn't come with one to begin with, and who's scared of this thing anyway?
• And so, before 10am, you have had your first super-spreader event in the district. No, the kids may not all get sick, but a few of them will. A few of those will die, as we've seen in news reports. They probably won't be your child, so this does not matter to you. It is a sacrifice you were prepared to make.
• Kids will enter school. If this is done in a staggered manner, we will lose significant instructional time. Kids will sit at their desks, and if they are in a Title I school like mine where most parents can not afford to stay home and support kids during Digital Learning, we will have at least 80% of the population in the classroom. A classroom with truly socially distanced desks can seat about 8 people. Realistically, we will have 25-30 children packed together. Some of them will play with their masks or, if their parents are anti-mask, they will refuse to have those masks on.
• A teacher will now have to teach in a classroom where they are no longer allowed to have group activities, so vital for young learners, unless they are in a contactless digital format. Hopefully the school will have enough computers for those students without their own devices. Hopefully the teacher will be able to maneuver quickly enough to stop students from Snapchatting their friends, or logging on to any number of non-educational websites, so that they can do their lesson.
• A teacher will also have to choose between instructing effectively and protecting themselves and the people they may care for at home. Proximity is key to classroom management. Social distancing is not compatible with it. Students who do not wear masks may see reduced teacher attention, because again, teachers are being asked to choose between their health and their effectiveness.
• Lunchtime arrives. Students have to take their masks off to eat. In my district, we will be eating in classrooms, and my school's windows do not open. Staggered lunches do not help once the masks are off and students are eating and talking and, because they miss their friends, clustering together. A teacher will have to choose between eating, separating students, and their health.
• Time to change classes. If students are the ones transitioning, instead of a teacher rotating between classrooms, we lose valuable instructional time to sanitizing. Do we have enough wipes and sprays to sanitize four or more times a day? Hopefully you donated some, because now a teacher may have to choose between their finances and *everyone's* health.
• Novel study time. Do we have enough books for 100+ middle schoolers? Don't make me laugh. Every student will need to sanitize before and after touching a book. You won't pay for ebooks and you won't pay for physical books, but we hope you will donate hand sanitizer.
• Chorus. Orchestra. Band. These teachers are talking about reducing class sizes to 80+. *Reducing* them. For their safety.
• Time to go home. Students get on the bus again. A second super-spreader event occurs across the district.
• Now, let's talk about how things go after Day 1:
• A child tests positive for COVID-19. The parents fear retaliation from peers and do not report it to the school; they just keep their child at home and hope it blows over.
• A child is sick with fever. A parent gives them Tylenol and sends them to school.
• A child who interacted with the child whose parents did not report tests positive and parents report this. Students and teachers that interacted with the child have to quarantine for 14 days. That's 14 days of the Digital Learning we were trying to avoid in the first place. In middle school, if a teacher tests positive, that will mean 100+ kids are staying home with parents, and all of their teachers, too. This will happen again and again. All of the promised consistency, routine, structure, everything you wanted for your children, is gone, and you are not prepared to help them with DL.
• A child in a community with high COVID-19 exposure becomes sick with MIS-C. More children contract MIS-C. This was a sacrifice you did not realize you were making, but it does not affect your child, so it does not concern you.
• Now for the community spread.
• The virus will find many opportunities to flourish in a school, no matter how carefully the teachers and staff strive to curb it. The resources simply are not being given to them. Children will spread the virus to parents, siblings, grandparents (especially in multigenerational homes), and inevitably, people who shop and work outside of their homes. The spike we see now, that began in June, will pale in comparison to what follows.
• And some teachers, nurses, custodians, and principals will die. But that's a footnote to you; what about the learning outcomes? The academic gains?
Well? What will those be?
Ellison Mitchell is a middle school teacher in Georgia with a Master degree from Mercer University.