By this blog posting date, schools in Indiana, Georgia, and Tennessee have had COVID-19 cases in their schools, forcing them to go into emergency protocols. Only a few days into the school year, and districts have traded shooter drills for contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine. By the way, all these safety measures can adversely affect students’ state of mind and raise anxiety levels, thus hurting their ability to learn.
“I’m really worried about kids’ and families’ mental health and stress,” says a school psychologist. “There’s not enough emphasis on this…it’s so demoralizing.”
The health of staff has been an afterthought. Across the nation, teachers are grappling with the decision of whether or not to report to school. Some educators have underlying health conditions, making them more likely to get sick and die from COVID-19. Others may be caring for compromised family members, to whom they may carry the virus back with fatal consequences.
Several teachers have told me they will either retire early or utilize the Family and Medical Leave Act in order to stay healthy for themselves and their family. In one case, a 60-year-old teacher was forced by the superintendent’s office to choose retirement two weeks before the school board would even vote on face-to-face learning. Consider that for a moment: A school district that does not even know if it will be conducting in-person learning asks a staff member to retire, just in case. Who does this most benefit—the teacher, students, or the district, and to what end?
On the flip side, new teachers’ passion and enthusiasm may help them set aside their own personal health fears, as they prepare for their first or second years in or out of the classroom. As always, these neophytes need to be nurtured, not disregarded. They must be tapped for their passions and innovations, and for their familiarity with current research, having just come out of a competitive teacher preparation program. New teachers will also need their colleagues, mentors, and leaders in order to develop and grow—wherever they teach from. If there was ever a year when schools must adopt an “all for one, one for all” mindset, this year is it, as all educators are sharing in the uncertainty usually felt only by their newest members.
Leadership at all levels has spent necessary but inordinate time creating protocols, policies, and procedures that have nothing to do with their main mission of teaching children. In many cases, professional development has been canceled because of rising infection rates. This raises teachers’ unease. It is hard to learn when you’re worried your job may kill you.
One assistant superintendent vented his frustration at trying to acquire personal protection equipment for staff. The vendors the state provided were either sold out or couldn’t deliver before the school start date. Even if he could find PPE, the cost has become prohibitive for his district, which has a poverty rate over 50%. Instead of planning professional development, he was counting masks in an auditorium when we talked.
The Case for Remote Learning
The most cautious school districts and states are buying time before the start of the school year by either delaying start dates or going fully remote with a plan to reconsider face-to-face learning at natural transition points like a term’s beginning or following school vacations. Learning exclusively through a device or even learning packets for those students without technology or connectivity is less than ideal, but it is the best approach when COVID-19 cases are now at much higher levels than when schools closed in March.
Districts that are responsive to their stakeholders are offering remote learning as a choice for the entire school year. If districts can keep a percentage of students learning at home, namely those who have the technology and family support to do so, this can leave space and time for some students to come to school. These include children of essential workers of all varieties, those with specialized instruction needs, and those who might come to school to access technology if need be.
Remote learning also provides teachers with a safer way to teach without exposing them to health risks for the most vulnerable. Schools that provide remote learning resources and opportunities could easily become exemplars of best practices to be shared across the district as well as centers of collaboration that can be transferred to in-person experiences.