To reopen school or not reopen school during a pandemic is the dramatic question educators have been grappling with over the past several weeks.
Part of the grappling is related to the State of New Jersey plans released in June that all New Jersey school districts should be prepared “to open in some capacity for in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year.”
However, according to the New Jersey Governor’s website, the New Jersey Department of Education received feedback from many parents who wanted a greater voice in the decision-making process of whether their child should return to in-person learning. In addition, officials in some school districts called on the Department of Education to release guidance to specifically allow for all-remote learning for some students.
As the news website New Jersey Spotlight put it, “The swirl of developments — all in late July — has left superintendents and others with their heads spinning as they prepare their districts’ reopening plans, which are due in the next two weeks.”
The move to reopen schools has also turned the slow days of August into a season of fear for many instructors.
While health-related fears are obvious, there are others. Instructors who speak out and publicly note their concerns fear the potential retaliation of school administrators.
They also fear parents who “have a negative attitude about what went on this past spring,” says one teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity in response to a social media posting asking for comments.
She was referring to schools needing to respond to Governor Murphy’s March 12 executive order to move to close schools and transition to virtual learning to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The veteran teacher agreed that the abrupt spring shift from classroom to computer was imperfect, but she said many school districts have spent the summer preparing for the potential of teaching remotely in the fall and improved their ability to do so. And Hopewell and West Windsor were cited as two districts which “seemed to be thought out and have plans in place for every possibility.”
Although the Hamilton Post, a sister paper to U.S. 1, recently reported that a sampling of Hamilton parents overwhelmingly supported keeping students safe at home, another teacher who contacted us said other parents were critical of remote learning for several reasons.
Some are angry at educators because it is something to focus on, she said. “It’s a grasp for things to go back to normal.”
She said that sentiment has been fanned in part by President Trump’s inconsistent messages regarding social distancing and calls for schools to reopen – even threatening to withhold funding for those that do not.
Some parents are also upset because they want their children socializing with other children.
“But what they have to realize is that going back to school is not like going back to school before,” said one respondent, who noted the use of plexi-glass desk dividers, masks, social distancing, and hybrid scheduling.
Other parents, however, are frustrated and unsure of how to work and see schools as part of a public infrastructure that provides the equivalent of daycare.
“A lot of parents are stressed about needing to go back to work and what to do with child care,” says another teacher. “But they also are concerned about the health of their children.”
However, the respondents said, in order for some schools to achieve social distancing protocols a hybrid model using in-school and at home instruction will be incorporated and again cause “day care” concerns.
The responding teachers also agreed that once the virus appears in a school it will be closed, and parents will face the same problem they had to face when schools closed in the spring.
“Everyone knew schools were germ factories, but we’re pretending it isn’t,” said one who pointed out problems with school ventilation systems and the difficulties of sanitizing classrooms between sessions.
One teacher on record was Ellen Ogintz, a teacher with more than 30 years of experience and president of the East Windsor Education Association.
In a statement, she said that despite East Windsor’s earnest efforts to address the problem over the past few months, “It is just not safe to go back to live instruction in September.”
Asking her school board to adopt an all-remote learning model, she first quoted Murphy’s statement, “The evidence is overwhelming that the virus is a lot more lethal indoors, particularly when you’re sedentary, lack of ventilation, and you’re taking your mask off to eat and drink. We also saw what was happening in other states when the virus was raging, most of that from indoor activity.”
“It is not feasible for us to all teach outdoors,” Ogintz continued. “It is not feasible for the district to make the upgrades necessary in the ventilation systems in this short amount of time. We cannot put windows in the many windowless spaces across the district.”
Then she questioned the practicality of instructing in the classroom and pressures by parents to have their children return to school. “I do not believe parents realize what in-class instruction will look like: no collaboration, sitting in one spot all day, with a mask on, no sharing of materials, and a teacher whose face you cannot really see.”
Then turning her attention to the faculty she represents, she said, “Staff is afraid to go back. Even if they don’t have underlying health conditions, they have families, and they worry about bringing something home. And sure, they might not die from COVID-19, but there’s the fear of chronic lung disease for the rest of their lives!”
Recently Christine Miles, an English instructor and associate director of professional development and instructional issues with the New Jersey Educational Association, relayed similar observations to the New Jersey Assembly Education Committee: “If we reopen brick-and-mortar school buildings before it is safe to do so, we are not merely placing an unacceptable physical, mental, emotional, and financial burden on our districts, educators, and support staff. We are also putting a significantly traumatic and irreversible burden on our children.
“It is inevitable that adults and children entering school buildings will be asymptomatic; it is inevitable adults and children will become infected; and it is inevitable that people will die.”
While Princeton and Trenton school districts plan to go remote for the fall and hopefully phase in one-to-one on-site instruction in the future, anxious teachers still await their fates.
“Parents are thinking we’re being selfish, but we’re protecting children and family members,” said one.
Another agreed and said parents blame the teachers’ union and say, “That we are lazy and want us to get back to work.” Then summing it up, she said, “This is a giant mess and there is no good solution — but I’m going for the lowest body count.”