Teachers and students aren’t cannon fodder *

“To be very clear, we don’t want CDC guidance to be a reason why people don’t reopen their schools”

VP Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, July 14, 2020

In fewer than 20 words, Pence has perfectly described the anti-science, dangerous stance of the federal government regarding the reopening of public schools.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, since I’m married to a wonderful woman who devoted 17 years of her life teaching in an elementary school in one of the lowest income neighborhoods in Oceanside CA. Through her, I’ve learned first hand about the challenges faced by teachers, parents and school staff in normal times, let alone during a crisis like this.

Over the past few days, I’ve received dozens of notes from teachers, administrators, parents, and staff members who will all be affected by back-to-school policies. Some might think we’re just talking about a small section of society here, but because this is a virus that spreads opportunistically, let’s be clear on how many people are directly involved with this:

  • 3.2 million teachers in the public schools
  • 91,000 principals
  • thousands of custodians, IT workers, cooks, etc.
  • 50.8 million children who attend public schools
  • >100 million parents, guardians, etc. in direct contact with school children

In other words, about half of America. The concerns of teachers are the concerns of all of us.

They are scared. I didn’t receive a single message that expressed confidence in reopening. These aren’t just anecdotes, however. They reflect what teachers and staff feel nationally. The NEA pulled together six groups of parents, educators, and administrators to address this problem. Their conclusion didn’t mince words:

Throughout this pandemic, the administration has failed to address the needs of students, especially those students who need the most support. They have failed to listen to families and public school educators who have been on the frontlines serving their communities. This vacuum of leadership leaves this administration with zero credibility in the minds of educators and parents when it comes to this major decision. 

National Educational Association Joint Statement, July 7, 2020

Last month, the AFT conducted a survey of its 1.6 million members. Almost a third of them wanted online only schooling. 42% wanted hybrid learning. About four out of five felt we could not resume school on a traditional schedule. Two thirds of the respondents were concerned about safety.

Here’s a sampling of some of the messages I received from teachers and staff on the front lines.

I am very uncomfortable about the prospect of returning to the classroom in August (if the district decides to do that) because parents and students will not be honest about symptoms. Students are already sent to school with fevers, vomiting, etc. during a normal school year. Also, temperature checks won’t really help much since this virus can be spread by presymptomatic people. As much as we can try to enforce masks, washing hands, etc., kids are kids. They’re social, they haven’t seen their friends in ages. I don’t see them sitting still in one spot the entire day. I constantly had students getting up to sharpen pencils, drink water, get supplies, etc. In person instruction, if I’m honest, will not be fantastic either. I love to use small group collaborative activities, discussions, and the like but now I can’t let them within 6 ft., they can’t share supplies so labs are out.

Teacher from South Bay, San Diego County

Biggest concerns are that we have been told that class sizes will most likely be the same as previous years (30-35), students are not required to wear masks, social distancing is almost impossible. For example, in most rooms on my campus and in most schools there are not individual desks there are tables that seat two students. My room has 18 tables with 30-35 students. Students are in rooms for 100 minute periods. District has said in emails that they are neither pro mask or anti mask.

Teacher from East County, San Diego

Many of those who are advocating for being in-person are composed of anti-maskers, admin and teachers who feel incompetent using technology (I know of many older teachers who retired after this last year purely out of not wanting to teach online again). School boards are not a representation of the essential workers of schools (teachers & classified staff). I can personally say that I have only seen one “attempt” by my district for teacher Input, and that was in May. How can districts expect compliance from their workers when our voices are not considered?

San Diego teacher

IT staff is currently working out of a poorly ventilated room. Social distancing is mostly maintained, though compliance with mask use hovers around 80% based on my own observation. We cannot order extra PPE based on what we think we’ll need, purchasing orders a set amount based on the number of workers we have. This continually turns out to be insufficient and most of us bring and wear our own masks and gloves.

Public school staff member from Los Angeles County

Teachers, parents, staff, administrators — everyone wants kids back in the schools, but not without answering some questions first.

The first questions on everyone’s minds are these: are children at risk, and if so, how much? Can children spread it to adults?

The answers to both appears to be this: we don’t know for sure, but the initial studies seem to indicate that the younger the child, the less risk there is. Studies from New Zealand, China, and France indicate that especially young children are at little risk of getting seriously ill themselves or transmitting coronavirus to adults.

But here’s a cautionary note from the Washington Post. In Florida, over 17,000 children have tested positive, and over 200 have been hospitalized. Four have died. A very small but growing number of children are showing damage to the lungs, even though they were asymptomatic.

With age the risk appears to increase. At Lake Zurich High School in Illinois, 36 students tested positive after summer camps and parties. All over the country, and indeed the world, this sort of thing is happening.

In other words, there is no definitive answer at this time. In Israel, they assumed there was, that it was OK to open up all the schools. Two weeks later, 42 schools were closed indefinitely and 6,800 students and teachers were in home quarantine. The country started off with small groups of students in early May, but two weeks later, removed all restrictions. Since they had only had 300 deaths in the whole country (we’ve had 463 times that many) they figured they could just open everything at once. Now the government has ordered the shutdown of every school where a single case is discovered.

Some countries have reopened schools successfully, e.g., Denmark and Finland. They started off slowly, with children from 2 to 12. After 5 weeks, they saw no increase in cases, so now all the schools are open, still with no increase.

Schools in “Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, along with many other countries were open with no problems,” Trump said. Here’s a perfect example of dangerous, anti-science thinking. Denmark has been averaging about 30 cases a day and 1 death per week, compared to our 60,000 cases a day and 4,000 deaths a week. We’re not even in the same sport, let alone the same ballpark.

So why do Trump and his acolytes insist on full reopening?

Occam’s razor: he views everything in the world through the prism of reelection. Employment good. Unemployment bad. Kids at school = parents who can work = employment.

It’s a simple three piece equation. Noticeably absent are concerns about health and safety, instructional quality, empathy, or even a primitive understanding of the problems affecting schools. Add to that the absurdity of a Secretary of Education who has probably set foot in a public school twice in her life.

School districts, however, can’t ignore these problems, or at least they do so with some risk. In Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Houson, schools will reopen online only in the fall. This is not just due to the concern of school board members. Organizations like the UTLA had a lot to do with it.

“It is time to take a stand against Trump’s dangerous, anti-science agenda that puts the lives of our members, our students, and our families at risk,” said UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz. “We all want to physically open schools and be back with our students, but lives hang in the balance. Safety has to be the priority. We need to get this right for our communities.”

UTLA press release, July 10, 2020

Elsewhere in the country, where there are weak or nonexistent teacher unions along with trumpist governors and hordes of anti-maskers, school stakeholders face a much more precarious future. Even in San Diego county there are school districts that are considering full reopenings. “Mo” Muir, a Republican San Dieguito Union HS District VP is one such advocate. This despite the fact that cases in that zip code, 92024, have increased by 157% in the past month; daily cases have increased by 150%; and doubling days have gone from 35 to 18 days. In short, 92024 is one of the hot spots in the county.

Forcing teachers to go back to work in an unsafe, life-threatening environment is just plain sadistic.

We are being asked to do sacrificial babysitting. School isn’t going to look like school anyway – they just want to be able to send kids somewhere so adults can go to work. Honestly it’s a real similar feeling to the fear we dealt with at the height of active shooter lockdown drills: an invisible threat that you know your building/staff is not equipped to deal with.

Public school science teacher from San Diego

In Finland, teachers are regarded higher than lawyers. In America they are “sacrificial babysitters.”

Even where conditions are better than in most school districts, e.g., San Diego and Los Angeles, there are still a host of problems to contend with, as you can see from the quotes above.

For the sake of our children, we can’t wait a year for the pandemic to be over. We need the federal government to commit to drastic increases in funding, instead of issuing silly threats to defund states that refuse to reopen fully. The threats are silly because the federal government only provides 8% of funding. They are sadistic because that funding supports Head Start and School Lunch programs.

We need the federal government to ensure that all people in public education have access to testing with results in 24 hours or less. It is insane that we can go to Mars but we can’t do this.

We need the federal government to guarantee that all people in public education have access to PPE — masks, gloves, face shields, whatever it takes.

At the state and local level, at a bare minimum the following points need to be addressed:

  • Reopening plans must fully incorporate representatives of teachers, staff, and parents. They must be guided by science and public health policy from recognized experts, not opinions from talk radio.
  • Funds must be reallocated to help schools adjust to the pandemic. This means kids further apart, free wi-fi for all students, notebooks or tablets for low income students, etc. Reopening safely is not a budget-neutral proposition.
  • Testing and case tracking must be specifically assigned to school districts to contain outbreaks as soon as they pop up.
  • HVAC system must be overhauled if they don’t provide adequate filtration.
  • Special training must be given to all teachers required to provide online learning. We need to stop pretending this is an easy transition for any teacher.
  • Low income parents of school age children who are attending online classes must be given child care aid.
  • Reporting on outbreaks, new cases, testing, etc. must be transparent and available to everyone.
  • If in-person education is deemed to be unsafe, then special facilities need to be provided for homeless or housing insecure students.
  • Psychological counseling needs to be beefed up to deal with the stress on teachers, students, and staff caused by the pandemic.

This is a wish list, I know. As long as we have a president who couldn’t care less about the fate of our children, and governors, state and local officials who toady to him, these efforts will be sabotaged.

On a personal level, here are the things that you should consider addressing:

  • Be a personal example of concern of the safety of others. Wear your mask. Practice social distancing.
  • Fill out the census forms. Make sure all your friends and family have done it.
  • Send letters to your Governor, your state officials, your school officials, etc., telling them to open up safely, based on public health guidelines.
  • Write letters to the editor, speak at local school board meetings, etc. Don’t let the anti-maskers and people who want to open up no matter what have the final word.
  • Most of all, organize everyone you know to vote the people who are endangering the health of our children, our teachers, and our families out of office.

No matter what we do, we can look forward to a serious teacher shortage in the coming period. The median age of all teachers is almost 45. About a quarter of them are over 55, and 365 of them are over 50. Thousands of them, having completely lost trust in the government’s concern over their welfare, are opting to retire early, taking with them their years of experience. They would not be easily replaced in the best of times.

No data analysis today. Just the Zorgi Scores for state, county, city, and zip codes.

Stay safe, healthy, and safe everyone!

Some helpful links:

The rest of the images for today

Comments from Readers & My Responses

The following are some of the comments from readers on Reddit and other social media platforms where I regularly post. Reader comments are in italics and color. My responses are in plain text. If there is more than one commenter without a response, they are separated by different colors.

This post is better than anything in my mainstream media feed. Thanks Zorgi.

It’s really hard to tell if the administration lives in a bubble so different than us or if they have truly evil thinking. Like how do they keep priding themselves on an uptick in jobs last month after the worst move to unemployment ever. Don’t they realize they bought that employment uptick with a trillion dollars of payroll loans? What about the huge number still unemployed. It does seem like they are somehow moving farther from any truths when that they already seemed to dance around it to begin with. Pence was talking today about the height of the crisis being months ago. Does he really think that? I somehow think in his world he actually does.

The news about the vaccine from moderna and a timeline of possibly 6months from now is encouraging. Im trying to see some positives. As a county we are looking bad for now. I just don’t see how that will change with people coming and going.

It’s depressing. I think for the past months I thought we would see some way to handle this thing and while a complete solution wouldn’t be until a vaccine we would learn to live with it better than we were. Instead it feels scarier than before and now the timeline of this level of threat looks to extend until the vaccine with little chance of much changing.

In some perspective it can all get worse. And I suspect it will. This election will have a tenser run-up than we have already seen and likely a fallout to some extent from either result. So for now I guess Ill enjoy my access to food and shelter and health because that’s a lot more than a lot of the world lives with.

Thanks, I appreciate your comment and totally relate to it. I had some hope too, after NY and the lockdown. But it was misplaced. The incompetence is so overwhelming, sometimes I think Trump just called up Putin one day and told him, “Vlad, this covid stuff is wrecking my golf game. Why don’t you see what you can do with it?”

Honestly, we’d be a lot better off with no president at all than one who so actively screws everything up.

It’s hard for me to be generous now to anyone who voted for Trump, even though I’ve got some like that in my extended family. I just feel like shaking them (from 8 feet away) and saying to them, “See what you did? Are you proud of yourself now?”

The one silver lining is that I think this has thoroughly discredited the idea that government has no role to play in a civil society.

Thank you for posting this. I am a teacher here and I don’t think it’s safe to go back and neither do my own children. We are being thrown under the bus by the federal government for sure and I have nightmares about going back to school and kids ganging up and sneezing on me. I teach 8th graders and when the virus first emerged, many would cough and act silly to their friends. My own kids were telling me stuff kids do at their high school and putting a bunch of teenagers back in a crowded school is crazy. A teacher at my school had a kid eat a dissected frog leg one year – he was dared. He was also vegan and got sick as well. He was dared. Kids are not disciplined enough to be thrown back in school expecting them to wear masks – they can’t even follow simple dress code rules which are broken all of the time anyway. What about PE? Locker rooms are nasty. How will that even work? Kids share lockers???? I’m a science teacher and my students work closely in groups of 4 at least 3 days a week. They share lab materials. I have been told to suck it up and just do my job. It’s like parents and students think we can just go back to normal school – it will never be normal after this. We have to adapt and adjust. Going back hybrid is probably the best way to do all of this – put 10 kids in a class and provide us with what we need.

Thank you. You sound like you have nerves of steel, but this callous disregard for your health and safety would make anyone wonder what was really going on. What Trump and co. doesn’t realize is that most teachers feel the way you do. It’s one thing to abuse and malign your profession, as has been happening for the past 30 years, but it’s a different ballgame when you tell teachers to abandon concerns about their own health and safety.

It’s outrageous, and only if we all speak out and defend people like you can we prevent an utter disaster from happening.

Let us also not forget that kids, ESPECIALLY middle and high schoolers, do INCREDIBLY dumb and risky things! Think back to all the recent “challenges” that were seriously harming kids, like the tide pod challenge. Kids are still developing their reasoning and thinking skills…putting them in close proximity of one another and expecting them to follow rules during a pandemic isn’t going to happen. Plus, there will be a flood of parents “opting” their kids out of masks, claiming ADA, getting doctors notes, or flat out telling their kids to disobey teachers.

I swear to god conservatives have completely lost their minds. They are literally the only people in the entire WORLD who throw a fit about having to wear masks, and they openly distrust science

Where did we go wrong? How did America get to be full of so many of these backwards, ignorant fucks? All because of “muh freedoms”. Fuck, even as someone who served 4 years in the military in the past, i’m really starting to get sick of this country and its people. It’s honestly a massive goddamn disgrace how our administration, the rest of the GOP, and red areas in America are reacting to this pandemic. Jesus fucking christ.

It’s pretty disheartening sometimes, but I think this pandemic is actually teaching a lot of people about the value of science. We’re living through a real life example of what happens when anti-science controls your country.

I work (as staff) a community college in a science discipline so my view might be a little bit different, but I’m completely uncomfortable with students coming back on campus. Many community colleges in the area are planning to offer hybrid science classes where students take their lecture online but still come in for the lab. Many of the full time faculty are fighting for the labs to be in person because they believe that the curriculum requires hands on learning experience. And while I agree with that viewpoint, I don’t believe we’re at the point of the coronavirus battle where best practices of academic curriculum should exceed the health and safety of our students/faculty/staff.

And frankly many of the full time faculty that are fighting for these in person labs are standing at a point of privilege planning out the fates of the disadvantaged. For example, many students taking microbiology are on a nursing track and work as CNAs or in assisted living facilities where they’re in constant contact with our most vulnerable population. Are they okay to sacrifice? My school might be more “urban” population but what about those that are the sole bread winner of their multi generational home; or the sole care taker of their dying grandparents with siblings all under 18? One more exposure at school probably won’t kill their grandmother right? These aren’t stories or exaggerations of our students, these are their lives. They shouldn’t be subjected to more unnecessary exposure just because their life sucks (sorry for a lack of better wording); they, their grandmas, their patients, their coworkers, their classmates, their instructors, and their siblings don’t deserve to be unnecessarily exposed.

And the adjunct faculty, they’re running between 3 or 4 different schools trying to making a living. They’re getting exposed to 2 or 3 more the amount of people because of that. In many departments the number of adjuncts make up more than full time faculty, do we want to risk exposure to a majority of the department or are they okay to be exposed because they’re dispensable to the school? Do they and their family deserve that exposure because they didn’t land a full time position? No ones safety should be more valued than others’ but it sure seems that way with a lot of the decisions we’re pushing through. Community college is supposed to serve the community, but we sure are making a lot of decisions about the community without community input. Sorry for the long rant but I’m frustrated because I’m seeing a lot of these top down decisions being made by people with privilege who never have or will go through these experiences. And even worse are those who have made it after experiencing being disadvantaged and are now turning their backs and telling those going through the struggles “sucks to suck.” There’s a time and place to talk about academic rigor, curriculum, student learning outcomes, course objectives, best practices, and whatever bullshit they can call a 2 hour meeting on; students, faculty, staff, and admin we all want that, that’s why we work in education (well at least hopefully most of us). We don’t have things under control, we don’t have a solid plan for anything, every day we are playing it by ear; now is not the time to be playing with lives.

You point out an aspect of this that I didn’t touch on at all, but is crucial. Here we’re dealing with young people who are far more contagious, and, as you point out, adjuncts who have to spend half their lives driving from place to place. I’ve known several adjuncts, and they had it really, really tough.

You’re absolutely right in your observations. Thank you for a valuable contribution to the discussion.

I work in this school district. I work in the special education department and I am terrified to return to work. Many students I work with need hand over hand help completing daily tasks; it is not possible to maintain physical distance in the mod/severe special ed classes. Any illness spreads rapidly through the classroom, I don’t see how we can be safe during this time. I am currently looking for work in another district because I do not have confidence in Santee’s ability to safely reopen right now.

Back in June, we had a drive thru day to say goodbye to students and parents. Many of my fellow employees (including the principal) were not wearing masks and there was no distancing. Many were complaining that they were just “over” masks. So much for keeping those families safe! I have no confidence that masks will be worn by students or staff in the fall. It is all so frustrating.

The challenge for me as a teacher with hybrid models is that it assumes a “sage on the stage” lecture model. I almost never use direct instruction with my 9th graders. They are up and moving, doing hands on activities, working in groups etc… Safety regulations would have students spread out and staying in their seats, forcing essentially the exact same kind of education they will participate in online. If we are pushed to a direct instruction model in in-person settings, they aren’t getting the benefits of contemporary pedagogy. This is obviously different at a k-5 level than a high school level, but with my experience in 9-12, there is no reason high schoolers can’t easily adapt to and flourish in an online model while the pandemic is out of control, because the model of instruction will be essentially the same in hybrid and online.

I also would move my classes outside when we needed a change of pace and it is really hard to speak loudly enough to direct the class with wind and other outside noises, even with a teacher voice! 🙂

This is the best article I’ve read about the question of whether to fully open schools in the fall. I’m a former teacher and a former substitute teacher. I’m also the oldest daughter of a career public-school superintendent from Iowa. I agree with everything you’ve written here. You’ve outlined many of the very real concerns. You’ve outlined well good suggestions, arguments, and what we should all be doing. I’m definitely going to want to reread this.

2 comments on “Teachers and students aren’t cannon fodder *

  1. You are doing a great job. Keep it up. You have become my most reliable source of covid information

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