By Susan Stone Kessler, Ed.D., coauthor of The Principal’s Survival Guide.
Like most educators, I am carefully following news about the possibility of school resuming in a few weeks. I have noticed that many of the people making recommendations are health experts, not school experts. While it’s obviously important to have health professionals such as those at the CDC highly involved in the process of returning to school, teachers and administrators should also be at the table sharing their critical, real-world experiences. We are the ones who will be in the schools.
As we get closer to fall, here are a few key questions I have about returning to school. The responses to these questions, if honest and practical, can guide us into best practice for K–12 education during a pandemic.
How Do We Enforce Social Distancing Expectations Among Children?
Young students like to touch each other, and they share community supplies and spaces. We actually emphasize sharing as a principle we value. An elementary classroom is likely the best experience of community many of us get in life. Older kids aren’t keen on social distancing either. Teens share their innermost thoughts and feelings with their closest companions, and those conversations are held in whispers, not shouted from six feet away. How much teaching can a teacher do when they are worried about keeping kids separate from one another?
How Do We Handle Masks?
I can assure you that the number of parents who refuse to mask their children will be rivaled by an equal number of parents who demand that their child not be around unmasked people. How can schools reconcile these groups while following recommended guidelines and ensuring the safety of students and staff?
Where Do You Buy Disinfectant Wipes?
Let’s pretend for a moment that money is no object and that everyone has all the funds to buy what they need to clean schools. Finding antibacterial wipes is nothing short of a search for a unicorn in 2020. Last week I found two cans of disinfectant spray in the grocery store, ending my three-month quest to replenish the supply for my family. While two cans may work well for home use, they won’t go far in a school.
Who Supervises Kids When They Eat in Classrooms?
Some experts recommend that kids do not eat in cafeterias to reduce the spread of the virus. At the same time, in many states, teachers are entitled to a “duty-free” lunch, meaning they do not supervise children during their (unpaid) lunch time. This is their one time of day to eat, make a phone call, use the restroom, or sit down. The majority of school employees (more than 80 percent) are teachers. Who else can supervise kids?
Some may suggest that teachers forgo their duty-free lunch because we are in an unprecedented situation. But that is asking a lot. Using the restroom is a right, not a privilege. Having a meal break is an OSHA-required standard. Teachers have been asked to do more with less for decades; we can’t ask them to give up their only personal time as well.
Where Should Sick Students Wait for Parents?
What happens when a student develops COVID-19 symptoms while at school? Some parents work more than an hour away from their child’s school. Even if your school is fortunate enough to have a nurse, the idea of having sick students waiting in the nurse’s office does not work because school nurses care for some of the most health-compromised children in a school. A child who needs a feeding tube for nutrition, for example, should not be seated next to a child with a highly contagious illness. We will need another location for the symptomatic or feverish while they wait for a parent. Not only that, symptomatic children will also need to be supervised—but by whom?
How Can We Ensure Healthy Handwashing?
Schools will need sufficient sinks with clean, running water and soap to ensure that all students can wash their hands regularly. In addition, we need to make sure students are properly washing their hands—washing for at least 20 seconds, scrubbing all parts of the hands, and thoroughly rinsing and drying. With younger students, it’s likely this will require supervision, which means more staff is required or teachers will be taking time away from teaching.
What Do We Do About Compulsory Attendance?
Attendance is required, and many states count chronic absenteeism rates against schools, which sometimes results in incentives or sanctions being issued to encourage school attendance. While these methods may reduce truancy, they also encourage sick children to attend school because of fear of sanctions or loss of the incentive. If we value the health of those who are in school, then we need to press pause on compulsory attendance.
These questions and others like them will need to be answered before we can decide whether schools can open as normal, operate remotely, or pursue a hybrid approach. In order to make sure that practical issues like these are addressed, people who work in classrooms need to be included in the planning. While educators have often been left out of important discussions, we cannot afford to make that mistake now. The results could have life-or-death consequences for our children in 2020.
Educators: What questions are you concerned about? Please leave a comment.
Dr. Susan Stone Kessler is an award-winning educator who has spent the past twenty-one years working in schools with Middle Tennessee teenagers. She has been a teacher, an assistant principal, and a high school principal in two Tennessee school districts.
Susan is coauthor of The Principal’s Survival Guide: Where Do I Start? How Do I Succeed? When Do I Sleep?
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