An Open Letter To The New CDC Guidelines On Reopening Schools
Dear CDC Guidelines and the population that insists on reopening schools right now,
According to NPR, “Biden wants to reopen schools across the country within his first 100 days of office and has already signed executive orders to free up funding and increase personal protection equipment and testing for school districts” (3 Teachers on the Push To Return To the Classroom; NPR). This week the CDC administered new guidelines in order for schools to reopen safely including: proper hand washing, masking, ventilation, social distancing and excessive cleaning.
Across the country teachers have faced the uncertainty of returning to the classrooms for a while and most expressing anxiety over the new push to reopen schools so late in the year during a pandemic. It is understandable. Teachers miss their classrooms, their students, yet, some are weary of what these guidelines will look like in environments not suited for them. The bottom line is, teachers want to return to schools, we just want to do so safely.
As a 9th grade English teacher, who has been full-time virtual this year, I’ve faced my own set of challenges. Not being able to build the same relationships with students through an online classroom, the shortened instruction time, and the pressures to perform to the standards despite the pandemic sweeping the nation. With the promise to reopen schools in my district, comes with a lot of uncertainty and added stress. Even in high school, students are still children. Even in an effort to remove hats, students still violate the dress codes, the classroom rules, how will the mask mandate and CDC guidelines be any different?
Relearning how to be a teacher this year has been added to the demands that teachers face on a daily basis. I became a teacher because I loved books and creative writing and I wanted to teach students that being able to read and write well is like having magic powers. Yet, the reality to motivate students on the virtual classroom has been a reoccurring challenge for most educators because most of us were not prepared for this.
Schools, especially public schools operate on the assumption that teachers educate students in the classroom. The curriculum and standards lean on in-person instruction and the standardized tests assess students for that expectation.
Since the pandemic began, teachers have had to create everything they’ve ever known entirely from scratch. Some districts, without an online curriculum pushing teachers to spend more hours working than living. A lot of changes effected teachers this year including shorter class periods, revised schedules every few months, large class sizes and of course, the demand to learn online applications in a manner of a month. The point is, teachers have sacrificed a lot of their time, energy and resources this year and a lot of us have nothing left to give.
An example from NPR laments a teacher from Baltimore’s experience, “There are teachers who are meeting with kids in cars with their parents, one parking space away, talking to the kids through car windows to try to help the kids,” the 47-year-old educator says.”(3 Teachers on the Push To Return To the Classroom; NPR).
It would be easy to label teachers this year as “lazy”, and make claims that they don’t want to go back to the classroom. But there are educators everyday going above and beyond for their students, some even meeting parents and families in their cars to deliver a lesson. This year, despite the pandemic and drastic changes in their profession, teachers across the country have shown up smiling.
The push to reopen schools is a topic I’ve felt sick about for a long time. I can’t even differentiate between my anxiety and what’s normal anymore. Between the governor in my state pushing to reopen without teachers being vaccinated and the CDC director stating that the vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for a safe reopening of schools, it is naive to think that any of these measures cast by the CDC will be followed by students and keep teachers safe in the process.
There are no real solutions right now that can support reopening schools safely, “ I mean, I wish the kids would just follow instructions. We have so many, you know, young adults who believe they’re adults. So they’re going to do what they want to do, regardless. But my school has over 1,400 students. So how do we navigate even just transitioning into hallways? Teachers have to stand in hallways to monitor behavior. Well, we can’t be 6 feet apart in the hallways in that manner.”(3 Teachers on the Push To Return To the Classroom; NPR).
My schools has around 2,000 students and 600 students signed up for in-person instruction. However the rose-colored glasses have to come off at some point. Many of these students returning in March will be learning the same way, on a computer, through screen-time, while the teacher sits at a desk on their computer delivering instruction. While it seems that there will be less students in the building, districts in my county do not have enough resources to allocate these class sizes across classrooms at 1 school. My administration saying that we have to buy our own ventilation systems and that English classes may be combined with guitar/music classes. So that, in one classroom students could be learning English and the other half guitar at the same time.
A teacher from the NPR article: 3 Teachers on the Push To Return To Classrooms has had her own reservations about the leadership to reopen schools, “In my state, the governor has even had the audacity to say, well, if teachers don’t want to go back, we’ll figure out a way to penalize them, like take some of their pay or something of that nature. You’re threatening me now. You’re not vaccinating me — because that would help just, you know, ease my mind just a little. But then you threaten my pay or my certification. How do you justify that?.”(3 Teachers on the Push To Return To the Classroom; NPR).).
K-12 students are still children. Hand washing doesn’t happen on a good day, wearing masks all day is unrealistic and ventilation doesn’t exist in most public schools. In fact, my public school has asked teachers to buy their own ventilation systems. I understand the effect that this pandemic has had on students, and that virtual learning isn’t the solution for most, but reopening schools without teachers consent, doing so haphazardly isn’t a sound solution either.
The pressure to reopen schools as soon as possible comes from government officials and parents who demand that teacher unions are standing in the way of student success and well-being. However, I strongly disagree. Teachers have not stated that they don’t want to teach, they’ve just advocated for a safe reopening, and to call attention to their health and safety too. Teachers have shown up in-person, virtually, some classrooms even hybrid. Teachers have changed and adapted everything they’ve known in a matter of months, without any direction or foundation. Some educators have related the experience to learning how to assemble an airplane while already in the air.
The argument to cast teachers as unwilling to change or go back to work is invalid with the presence of teacher testimony. One thing is clear about teachers this year is that they’ve been resilient and adaptable to great change and they’ve shown up, even in the most dyer circumstances.
What the other side argues with reopening schools is the three problems plaguing students during the pandemic such as mental health, obesity and falling behind in school work and grade benchmarks. Let’s dissect this further.
Mental health among teenagers and across the country has been a problem for a long time. It is linked to an increase in screen-time that has a negative impact on social-emotional development and said to cause anxiety and depression, “Many of the concerns around screen use relate to sedentary (or inactive) behaviour. The idea being that time spent in front a screen is time that is not spent exercising or doing other forms of physical activity. Sedentary behaviour may be associated with poorer physical health, wellbeing, and mental health and some research has connected screen use to increased sedentary behaviour in children”(Screen time and children’s mental health: what does the evidence say?; Mentalhealth.org.uk).
While students have increased their screen time through virtual learning, plenty of my students have told me that after school they play video games until the wee hours of the night, some on their phone for more than 9 hours a day, others continuing to be on their computer screens playing games. Virtual school may take up seven hours of their day, but you have to wonder what middle and high school aged children do to fill their time after the school day is over. A quick poll from my classes will show most turn to more screen-time.
Isolation doesn’t help these factors and add in virtual learning through added screen-time and you put these statistics over the edge. While some students who are learning at home, may thrive from an in-person learning environment, mental health is an issue that cannot be ignored or pinned on the current problem in education. Mental health has continued to be a problem across the country, and has been stressed by educators well before the pandemic. The pandemic has only put a spotlight on this problem and unfortunately the solution in reopening schools to mimic in-home learning will be no different.
I wonder even with plans to reopen school how many students will suddenly “cure” their mental illness. It is highly unlikely that even a change of environment that requires face coverings, social distancing and strict parameters can be the cure all for this increasing illness across the country. I recognize that learning from home can be difficult if students are in an isolated or unsafe home environment, but I also believe we’re putting a lot of pressure on teachers and educational staff to fix these problems that cannot be fixed with the reopening schools.
Secondly, the rising obesity rate is a hot topic right now, especially in the news for argument to reopen schools. First of all, teachers are not responsible for the obesity rates in America. This isn’t a new concern either, but has been heightened by the pandemic. While high school students in my district may walk from class-to-class, in our reopening plan students are confined to a small room, forced to continue sitting in one place for long periods of time for classes 50–80 minutes long. No different than at-home conditions, students have been sitting in desks for 80 minutes even pre-pandemic, and the argument to add recess to high school classrooms has circulated to improve learning in past research. These problems aren’t new, they are amplified due to a pandemic that has forced an entire country into isolation.
If we reopen schools without the proper safety precautions in place, we are not magically getting rid of these problems, we are just moving all of these problems to another place, instead.
The last argument to reopen schools states that students are falling behind in their learning that the gap continues to widen the more students are taught virtually. I want to preface that I’ve been a teacher for 4 years. The learning gaps have existed well before the pandemic, the school system has been breaking before our very eyes, and as teachers we have recognized the challenges and show up anyway. The learning gaps continue to infest a broken system, and we’re left with the same problems we’ve always faced as educators.
The difference now is that the learning gap is a concern before safety, and like an educator said in the NPR article, “We won’t be able to make up those learning gaps if people don’t come out of this pandemic.”
There is a place to applaud solutions to nation-wide problems and concerns in times of crisis. However, reopening schools cannot be the excuse we use to show the world we are back to normal when students, teachers and education workers safety has not been fully addressed. While some schools have the resources to go back safely, a lot of public schools have lacked the resources to thrive in a pre-pandemic environment, let alone a pandemic that threatens the safety of large populations.
If my district had planned and reopened in the fall, we may have figured out the conditions in which reopening schools during a pandemic could be successful. This late in the year, with my district planning on reopening elementary students in March, and high school students at the end of March, it sounds counterintuitive to the argument to reopen schools safely.
For the time being, educators will continue to show up because we continue to care about our kids,more than ourselves. We will continue to jump into uncertainty head first because we’ve been deemed resilient in a system falling a part, we will continue to smile and make students feel like their best version of themselves amidst the sources telling them they’re failing, and we will continue to show up like we always have, pandemic or not, because we’re forced to face these challenges headfirst. We just ask that we do when it is safe to do so.
Article from NPR that I sprinkled in here:
3 Teachers On The Push To Return To The Classroom
President Biden wants to reopen schools across the country within his first 100 days in office and has already signed…
Increased Screen Time Has Been Linked to Mental Illness From Mentalhealth.org.uk linked below: