As educators enter summer “break” each year, we begin planning for the fall. Never in the history of education in the US has that planning been more critical than it is now. The main concern in every other year has been delivering equitable, high-quality education. For the first time, the main concern for the 2020-21 school year is minimizing the number of students and staff who will die (while delivering equitable, high-quality education).
When we believed that white people and people of color would suffer and die in equal proportions, we shuttered all school buildings and sent everyone home. Now that we know that communities of color have higher rates of infection and death, we’re suddenly fine with reopening schools. It’s suddenly “safe” to reopen. Safe for whom?
THE PUSH FOR IN-PERSON CLASSES
School districts all over the country are deciding what to to about the upcoming school year right now, and there’s been a vocal push to reopen schools for onsite classes. On June 18, Texas announced that its public schools statewide will be returning to onsite classes in the fall. Texas governor Greg Abbott also announced that families with “health concerns” would be allowed to make arrangements for remote education. Texas has furthermore announced that masks will not be required, temperature screenings will not be required, and the details around how any of this will be handled (or funded) will be left up to the individual school districts.
Texas has over 5.4 million students enrolled in its public school system and employs close to 400,000 adults. While Covid-19 appears to be less dangerous for people under 18, it’s still dangerous. Even with schools completely shut down, over 90,000 children have been hospitalized nationwide, and the current surge in cases has seen a marked increase in infections among younger people. In California, for example, 44% of new diagnoses are in people under 35.
We know that indoor, in-person gatherings greatly increase infection rates, as we’re seeing with record spikes in areas that are re-opening. As cases rise, the death toll mounts, with many states posting record Covid deaths. If just .001% of those 5.8 million people in the Texas public school system die from Covid-19 contracted as a result of in-person classes, that’s 5800 people in Texas alone.
CDC has recently, due to expanded testing, discovered that about a third of cases are asymptomatic, which has reduced overall mortality rates to 0.5% of confirmed cases, but reveals how the virus is able to spread so rapidly in even brief gatherings in indoor spaces like churches, choirs, and classes. The only way to keep the death rate down is to slow the rate of infection. Yet here we are, proposing to force children and educators into in-person classes knowing full well that infections will spike as a result.
Infections and deaths won’t stay confined to school sites. Families of schoolchildren will see increased rates of infection and death after their student brings the virus home from school, and parents will spread that infection into other workplaces before they even know they’re infected.
How many deaths are we willing to cause to avoid the inconvenience of online classes? And why is it “managed risk” when the suffering and death will disproportionately impact people of color, but it was an intolerable risk when we believed white people would suffer and die in equal proportions?
Here’s the thing: We have a perfectly good alternative. Unlike a restaurant or a nail salon, education has a functional distance option. Is it perfect? No. Are in-person classes perfect? Also no.
If we decide right now to continue with distance learning in order to save thousands of lives, we can spend the summer preparing and addressing the problems of distance learning. And if we do, we will be beginning the 2020-21 school year far more prepared to address inequities than we ever have been in the history of American education.
INEQUITIES ONLINE AND ONSITE
The primary problem facing American education is inequity, whether classes are held in person or online. We have been, as a culture, singularly uninterested in addressing the inequity issues attached to in-person, traditional K-12 education.
You only get answers to the questions you ask. And the questions we, as a culture, have asked so far are all, in effect: How can we do something to address inequity in education without tackling inequity in society at large?
We’ve been content to pretend that failure to successfully address inequity in education is due to “bad teachers” or the lack of the “right” programming rather than systemic inequity in every aspect of our culture.
We’ve been content to accept that school funding is tied to property taxes, and that one child attends a school with state-of-the-art equipment while another comes from an underfunded and understaffed school with broken windows, no heating or cooling, outdated books & broken equipment (and not enough of either to go around), and daily police violence, both in school and out.
We’ve been content to accept economic inequity as part of a larger good– “American freedom” and “capitalism.” We’ve been content to shrug our shoulders about the fact that economic inequity hurts children. “What can we do about it?” We’ve been content to accept that a wealthy family can purchase higher SAT scores and better grades with expensive test prep classes and tutors while poor students don’t even have a local library, and have to race home after school to take care of younger siblings while mom is at her second job.
If that student is Black, they have to worry about whether they’ll make it home at all, whether they’ll successfully avoid police or get beaten, shot, or choked out in the street for “looking suspicious.” If that student is Black, they are many times more likely to be living in poverty due to years of aggressive economic disenfranchisement. If that student is Black, they are at higher risk of health complications from all sources due to the stress of racism.
And if that student is Black, they learn at a very young age that white people are more than content to gaslight them about these realities, mock their concerns, viciously condemn their peaceful protests, use state-sanctioned propaganda to dismiss racism and demonize Black people, and use state violence to silence them.
The impact of systemic cultural racism on students and on education is widely known, yet we have always lacked the political will to do anything about it except Make. It. Worse.
That’s our current reality. That’s the “ideal” we’re willing to sacrifice student and staff lives to return to.
Online education is inequitable, but it is not more inequitable than in-person education. And we have the opportunity to address equity in online education as we invent widespread online public schooling.
The inequity issues with online education are immediately apparent, and many of them are the same inequities that onsite education has: lack of equipment, lower rates of reliable internet connectivity, higher rates of reliance on older children at home to watch younger children (due to excessively high-priced childcare). If we start now, we can work to resolve many of those issues before mid-August and start school with less inequity than we would have if we just simply reopened in-person education.
We can (continue to) work with tech companies to supply districts with laptops at cost and wifi hotspots. We can provide federal funding to states to subsidize high-speed internet for families in need. We can require businesses to allow parents to work from home, and we can extend wage subsidies to cover those whose jobs don’t have a remote option, effectively extending paid parental leave to cover the 2020-21 school year. We can increase parent education around learner needs, and create a commonsense truancy oversight system run by trained specialists who can identify the problems and work with the families to correct them, connecting them to needed resources. We can increase funding to SNAP and make qualification faster and easier, ensuring our students are fed.
We could provide teachers professional development around distance learning, and create resources based on what we already know from years of pedagogy around remote education. It’s not like distance learning is an entirely new concept; the clunky rollout last year was due to the lack of preparation and planning. Teachers were given just a few days to turn their in-person classes into distance learning right in the middle of the year. None of our classes were designed to be distance learning from the start. Remote education requires a different pedagogical approach, but now we have the opportunity to prepare classes as effective distance learning from the start.
Yes, this will all require a significant increase in funding. No one ever asks where the funding will come from when we want to give corporations and the wealthiest 1% a massive tax cut; no one ever asks where the funding will come from when we want to increase police or military spending. But when we pit money against children in America, money wins every single time. It’s time to make a different choice.
BUT WHAT ABOUT HYBRID CLASSES?
“Hybrid” classes are perhaps the most popular approach amongst politicians. The type of hybrid education being proposed for social distancing means half of the students are onsite on any given day while the other half are at home in online classes. Students rotate from onsite to online, back and forth, to maintain onsite attendance at half capacity. Hybrid proposals also usually provide an option for parents to choose online education for their child all year if they have concerns about the safety of onsite classes– and they should.
The “hybrid” model is not new. It hasn’t been put into widespread use, in part because it requires a deep restructuring of every aspect of K-12 pedagogy. And while hybrid models are a fantastic idea for high school and college, they rely heavily on deep parent involvement for younger children. We often hear “our economy can’t reopen until our schools reopen” because schools provide the vast majority of the childcare in the US. But there’s no safe way for schools to fully reopen, and the hybrid model still requires an onsite parent/caregiver for most students.
Additionally, hybrid classes will only work with a massive influx of new staff at a time when most states are facing staff layoffs. The pedagogy of distance learning is different than the pedagogy of in-person learning. What this means in practice is that Mr. Nagel would have to create the same lesson on apostrophes twice– once for the in-person students and once for the online students– following different pedagogical approaches. Teacher prep time would double, which is– trust me– physically impossible to execute with the current workload. Most teachers are using the majority of their “off” hours doing prep work already.
And what, specifically, will the students at home be doing? Teachers who teach an online class are available to teach lessons in real time via Zoom, answer questions, and work with students online during class. Teachers who teach an in-person class are available to give the lesson, answer questions, and work with the students in their classrooms during class. But a “hybrid” teacher is supervising a class of in-person students who are working on the necessarily different in-person lesson, and no one is there to support the online students doing a different online lesson unless you hire twice as many teachers. No one can supervise 16 students in a classroom and 16 students online simultaneously.
There are proposals wherein online students are meant to work independently, with no teacher-led instruction, supervision, or assistance. That’s not even worth considering as a national K-12 model. That model will work very well for some students in some classes– heavily weighted to older students– but for every student? Of every age? In every subject?
There are proposals wherein all students meet onsite for four days and then everyone is home for ten. The thinking goes that the ten days at home will be enough time for those who were infected to show symptoms and isolate. Given that families of color will be disproportionately impacted by the ensuing suffering and death, this “solution” is also not worth considering. It’s especially trying my patience that people are not considering how many of those infected people will be teaching staff and how difficult it will be to replace 10 STEM teachers in a single district during an era wherein it’s difficult to find even one. Unsurprisingly, the national shortage in STEM teachers also has a disproportionate impact on communities of color— the exact demographic that will see the most teacher infections and deaths if we hold in-person classes.
The hybrid model posits that the online portion is made up of “online activities”– recorded lectures, educational games and videos, online worksheets. Who will create these? How will we fund their creation or pay for existing EdTech products? Educators need to be creating these materials and creating hybrid structures for them right now. We need access to professional development right now. Instead, funding is being cut, and– you guessed it– communities of color are always disproportionately impacted by budget cuts.
BUT AT LEAST THE HYBRID MODEL IS SAFER, RIGHT?
LO– and let me be perfectly clear about this– L. The cornerstones of the hybrid model for 2020-21 are maintaining social distancing and sterilizing classrooms between classes. Both are completely, laughably impossible.
Even if students could be convinced to maintain social distancing– and they will not reliably follow the rules because they are children— there’s just not enough square footage in most classrooms to allow for it unless we break classes up into thirds or even, in higher populated districts, fourths. It’s not physically possible in most schools.
And remember that students spend a great deal of time outside the classroom in passing periods, at lunch, on their way to and from school, in the bathroom. Social distancing for the 50 minutes they’re in my classroom does not matter if they’re on top of each other everywhere else. If you think students won’t sit in each other’s laps, draw on each other, share food, or kiss each other, you have never met a teenager.
In addition to the impossibility of enforcing social distancing, there’s not enough time between classes to sterilize the desks, equipment, door knobs, window ledges, and other surfaces, and even if there were– even if we shortened every class by 15 minutes to make that time– schools have been so inadequately funded prior to the proposed 2020-21 budget cuts that teachers have been forced to purchase basic equipment like pencils and paper out of pocket. So who will be paying for all this disinfectant? Have masks and gloves been purchased? Hand sanitizer? What happens when a classroom supply runs out? Where is this funding coming from when schools are so strapped for cash they’re sending out pink slips?
There will be no social distancing and the classrooms will not be sterilized, period. Oh, the states will protect against liability by wringing their hands and saying, “But we told you that you had to have social distancing and sterilize classrooms!” But they have no current plans to provide enough equipment or funding to do so. Instead, they’re telling us, “Do more with less.”
Students will get sick. Teachers will get sick. And some will die. The families who will be protected from this are the ones who choose to keep their students home full time, and without state and federal subsidies, that will become more and more weighted to the wealthy.
When those students and teachers get sick, when death begins to stalk our schools, will we shutter them all and send everyone home, moving to online education anyway, but without preparation? Or will we see that the burden falls much more heavily on people of color, and continue to see that as a “manageable risk”?
That brings me to the bottom line.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Do you think the people in power don’t already know everything I’ve said here? If white people died in equal numbers, the risk presented by returning to in-person classes, either full time or in a hybrid model, would be considered intolerable. We’re considering in-person classes to be a “manageable risk” because the bulk of the suffering and dying will be done by BIPOC children, families, and educators.
Does your school district claim that “Black lives matter”? Here’s your chance to prove it.
Keep the school sites closed. Flood schools with increased federal and state funding for everything I’ve discussed above, plus partnering with special education teachers to create safe solutions for students with disabilities. It can be done. But we have to start now.