School and Unanswered Questions

School and Unanswered Questions

When school shut down in the spring, I very quickly realized how ill-equipped I am to ensure my children receive an education while at home. I wasn't even doing the educating, I was just making sure my second grader was on her class Zoom call on time and writing real answers on her math homework and not a series of question marks like I caught her doing one time. But doing that minimal amount of supervision was almost too much for my husband and I, who are both working from home and caring for two other children.

We limped to the finish line of that remote-learning semester.

I guess I assumed that by fall we, lawmakers and citizens, would have a better handle on Covid-19 and students would return at the end of August for a normal school year. I assumed wrong. And my last few weeks have been spent answering and sending texts to other parents, asking, "What are we going to do about school?" We're finding ourselves unable to answer this impossible question.  

As a parent I fear if my kids’ learning looked like it did last spring, they will fall behind in their education and their mental health will suffer. As a citizen I worry for the children who are most safe in school and families who rely on a five day school week for childcare and meals. I know kids need to be in school for many crucial reasons.

But I, like many, also worry that a return to in-classroom school will only worsen our state’s COVID-19 outbreak, lead to overwhelmed hospitals and loss of life, and put too much of a burden on our schools.

So I spoke with over twenty five teachers, some of whom wish to remain anonymous, in an attempt to understand how educators are feeling about the push to return to full-time, in-classroom school in just over a month from now, and see if they might have a solution to what feels like an impossible dilemma.

What I learned is teachers are just as conflicted as I am.

Elementary school teacher Dannielle Tibbitts told me, “I teach in one of the hotspots here in Utah. It doesn't make sense to me that we closed schools back in March when we had a lot fewer cases per day than we do now, and now, when cases are higher than ever, people want to start school like normal next month.”

Another teacher added, “I’m frustrated that action wasn’t taken soon enough to help mitigate this disaster and even more frustrated that essential workers (which now include teachers, administrators, lunch staff, paraprofessionals, school counselors, coaches, and millions of children) are paying the price for it.”

An elementary school teacher explained, "At the start of corona, it seemed people were finally beginning to realize that school offers so much more than an education. We were on the verge of teachers being recognized for their patience, diligence, and countless hours of hard work. Now, only two months into summer we are back to being seen as glorified babysitters.”

And now, in addition to educating our children, caring for their well-being, and using their own money to pay for classroom supplies like they do in a normal school year, teachers are being asked to keep our children safe from a deadly virus in classrooms that are overcrowded and underfunded.

One teacher told me, “In our faculty meeting they told us we will be responsible to clean our own areas. Students are expected to wipe down their own desks, which really means I have to wipe down their desks. I imagine we'll go through disinfectant pretty fast and that I'll end up buying my own, just as I have to do for tissues, markers, and pencils every year. We have been told we'll need to sanitize before and after ourselves as we come and go in the office and faculty room/restroom. This may prove hard because we often run out of soap, toilet paper, seat protectors and paper towels just during a normal school year.”  

A third-grade teacher explained, "I’m just appalled that teachers who are already so overworked and do so much unpaid labor (nights, weekends, summers, etc) are being asked to pick up the slack for those who have been so irresponsible and slow to act.”

High school teacher Kaylor Willis said, “My first year teaching I had 35 students in one of my classes but only 34 desks. Normally I had at least one absence per day so it didn't matter. But on the days it did matter, I borrowed a rolling chair from the teacher's lounge so that everyone could have a seat. This was my normal. Crammed into a small room with too many kids.” She said she can’t imagine how she would be able to keep students social-distanced in such circumstances.

Teachers are also being asked to do twice the planning of a normal school year. “I have been told that we are going to allow students to do online work if they choose to, and they want us to do in-person and online teaching. However, THAT IS TWO JOBS that I won't get paid extra for doing, and I don't have the time and energy for both,” Danielle Tibbits said.

“My biggest concern is having to work double. Meaning planning both online and in person lessons. I already work extra hours (unpaid) when I am just teaching in-person classes. Having to prep for both would be a huge task,” another teacher added.

Every teacher I spoke with expressed their desire to be back in the classroom with their students. One teacher said, “It’s incredibly hard to be a teacher and not actually be with the children. I worry that kids are not getting what they need educationally, emotionally, socially and making sure they have a meal each day.”

But many teachers, like many parents, worry about the risks of returning to the classroom during a pandemic with viral transmission no one fully understands.

A teacher named Alison (last name withheld) told me, “I want to be back at school with my kids more than anything, but I also want my students, colleagues, and myself to be safe.”

Alison asked, “What happens if someone becomes part of a vulnerable population during the school year? If I were to become pregnant, would there be someone to take over my class? Or would I have to continue to put my health at risk because there is a shortage of teachers and substitutes?”

High school teacher Chase Nye added, “I worry that the science is so unclear on transmission among students and we may be exacerbating the problem.”

Paige Wightman explained the unique set of challenges she, her students, and her students’ families would face in a coronavirus outbreak. “Most of my students and their families don’t have access to proper healthcare and the population I serve is extremely unlikely to be tested for covid because that means their name is on a list somewhere and nothing scares them more than that,” she explained. “A few years ago, the fear of being shot was my biggest concern, now it is unknowingly infecting my student’s diabetic grandmother with covid.”

Another teacher told me she worries about bringing the virus home to her newborn baby and asthmatic husband.

One teacher said, “I usually have 40 students in my classes. There is no room for distance. There are a lot of teachers that are at risk and [our district] has offered no options for them other than to use sick days if they need to quarantine, or get sick.”

Elementary special education teacher Kristi Bower told me, “I know a kindergarten teacher who has severe diabetes and had a brain bleed in April. She’s just now to the point where she can get out of bed. Students in kindergarten need a lot of hands-on help and can’t maintain 6 feet distance. How is she going to survive this year – as in, literally survive?”

One teacher with cystic fibrosis explained the small district where they teach is unable to reassign vulnerable teachers or allow them to work from home, and have instead offered protective gear. “For many of us, that isn’t enough. There are so many ways [the coronavirus] can spread, and I don’t think we can really stop it if it’s surging when we return.”

Other teachers worry about bringing the coronavirus home to their families. Elementary school teacher Krista Burnett explained, “I live with my high risk parents and my EXTREMELY high risk brother. I wouldn’t be worried about going and teaching if I lived alone and had nobody in my life I cared about. But the idea of spending my day in a room with 30 kids then coming home to my high risk family gives me serious anxiety,."

Junior high school teacher Scotty Taysom said, “I will be with almost 200 different students each day. I have an asthmatic kid at home who is likely doing online work but is at risk each time I come home.”

Much of the frustration among these teachers, and shared by me as a parent, is the lack of a plan in the event of an outbreak.

Alison asked, “What happens when a student tests positive? When a teacher tests positive? Why are we going back to school now when things are worse than they were when we closed in the first place?”

High school teacher Randall Kammerman added, “The people making decisions aren’t the ones with 36 little petri dishes all day long. It’s a fantasy world that it’s gonna work. There is no plan for when a teacher gets you call a sub? Most subs are in an at risk population. If I get corona do I use sick days? Worker’s compensation? So many unanswered questions.”  

I worry some district plans here in Utah were created–and failed to allow for proper safety measures such as social distancing and mandatory masks–to appease the demands of some parents and prevent an uproar.  

But as high school teacher Mike Henriksen put it, “A good idea is a good idea no matter how popular it is; a bad idea is a bad idea no matter how popular it is. It would be irresponsible to make a decision based on what is popular when experts and common sense seem to indicate that a less popular option would be more effective.”

Salt Lake School District in Salt Lake County, which has had more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths than any other county in the state, released their school restart plan on July 9th, stating that if Salt Lake remains in the orange (moderate risk) phase or moves to red (high risk) phase, all instruction will be conducted remotely.

“I am happy with our leadership and the right conversations are being had,” Salt Lake City teacher Chase Nye told me shortly after the plan was announced. “It's the state level that I fear will make unsound decisions. I've lost a lot of faith in their priorities and worry that our district's hand may be forced.”

Then on July 16, Governor Herbert released an executive order modifying the orange phase to allow all Salt Lake City schools to reopen. “I’m super frustrated that policies are meaningless,” Nye told me as the press conference aired.

As a Salt Lake City parent I share that frustration, and wonder why leadership enacts rules only to then break them.

Some educators take comfort in Governor Herbert’s requirement that all students and faculty wear a mask, while recognizing it will be an adjustment for both teachers and students. But many fear their communities will reject the mandate.

High school teacher Faith Woodard said, “The general consensus in my community seems to be that masks are a hoax and I know many parents who will fight making their kids mask all day. And the school, in an effort to accommodate, will find ways to make it so they don’t have to.”

Concerns that the school mask mandate will be ignored or rejected were compounded for Utah County teachers when Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee announced his intention to ask Governor Herbert for a “compassionate exemption” which would make masks no longer required for Utah County students.

Bayley Goldsberry, a teacher about to start her first year in the classroom, showed up to the commission meeting on July 15th with a prepared statement for the commissioners and meeting attendees.

Goldsberry described to me entering a room that “definitely wasn’t fitting everybody,” and seeing only a few people wearing masks. Bayley waited as a dozen commenters before her spoke of the dangers and unconstitutionality of masks, then stood at the lectern and read her statement which encouraged students and teachers to wear masks.

"Now is the time to de-center ourselves and not ask to be the exception to the rule," she said, and as she did, the crowd booed and yelled insults at her, calling her ignorant and a brainwashed moron. “It was just appalling to me how hostile people were being and vicious with their words. It was a room full of adults acting like that without apology,” she told me. She explained that at times she was scared, like when a man took off his mask and began screaming at her while she was speaking.

Many of the teachers I spoke with predict in-classroom instruction will only last a few weeks before a student or teacher tests positive and entire schools shut down and we’re right back where we were this spring, with teachers only slightly better prepared this time. "They aren't equipping teachers to be effective with online learning. We are doing this on our own," explained elementary school teacher Julia Tibbitts.

One teacher told me.“I wish there were more plans of preventing this for children and the educators.”  

I do, too.

And I wish those plans had been implemented months ago. Parents, students, and teachers all made enormous sacrifices by quickly shifting to remote learning in the spring to give leadership and lawmakers time to prepare, plan, and prevent an outbreak that would keep students from returning to school in the fall.

And now here we are, a month out from the beginning of the school year, worse off than we were in March by an exponential increase. Our months inside, learning through Zoom, not seeing our friends and family, and pretending to understand second-grade math were squandered. Leadership and lawmakers failed to enact policies that would prevent an outbreak, some citizens are refusing to do the bare minimum to keep themselves and others safe thereby worsening our infection spike, and society is relying on underfunded schools to solve the childcare shortage. Teachers are once again being treated as glorified babysitters.  

I’m afraid now we are asking our educators to do the impossible because no one else could be bothered to tamp down our rise in COVID-19 cases, or spend more on education to decrease class size and help teachers get the supplies they need to keep their students safe, or ensure that children can be safe, well-fed, and emotionally stable outside of school.

I'm grateful that I have a choice in whether or not my third grader and kindergartner will go to school. I can watch the data and make that decision, as difficult as it may be, when necessary. I can suck it up and homeschool them if I have to.

But other families don't have that flexibility. And we haven't given those families any other options but to send their kids to school, and consequentially, we haven't given teachers any other options but to go back to school. They will either risk their lives or their livelihood.

As one teacher told me, “Teachers will do what we have always been called upon to do, adapt and go above and beyond with little to no resources and less than ideal circumstances.”

I don’t know how this school year will play out. I suspect many of the teachers are correct in predicting a shutdown soon after reopening. And I suspect that in our scramble to keep our kids educated at home and meet the social, emotional, and physical needs of children across the state, we will once again be forced to appreciate teachers for doing so much more than just educating our children.

But I hope the appreciation will last this time, and when we say teachers deserve more respect and much larger paychecks, we will say it on our way to the voting booth and do better by our educators.

(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)