If this were an academic test we were taking we would be on the verge of failing miserably, with the clock on the wall showing we are running out of time.
The hardest dilemma to resolve as we collectively live with and work through the pandemic is the question of how best to get schools reopened for the country’s 56.6 million students. This post offers no magic solutions, just an attempt to focus on what needs to be put together to get the education system up and running again over the next six to twelve months.
We all collectively start with the propositions that it is essential for the educational, mental health and social benefit of students that schools get re-opened as soon as possible; and that the safety of students, faculty, staff and parents is vital. That will be much easier said than done.
Donald Trump and his supporters say just do it. In a CNN interview this past Sunday Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered incredible gibberish, endlessly repeating her prepared talking points while demonstrating that she has no plans, guidelines or suggestions for how to navigate the this critical matter. Trump wannabee/Florida Governor Ron DeSantis meanwhile suggests that there is no more a problem with getting schools re-opened than it is to go shopping at Home Depot.
Think about that for moment. The person with the highest ranking position in education in this country is basically saying “take a risk, good luck, and don’t blame me if your efforts fail.” She is comfortable with risking the health and well-being of students and the adults involved in the educational system. The go-along Florida Governor’s whole approach to the pandemic has been totally clueless.
Overshadowing all this are guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control which the Trump administration says they will dummy down. That does not really matter, because the CDC in this whole pandemic crisis has become effectively ineffective. At the end of the day whatever Trump and DeVos say is irrelevant. All important decisions about reopening schools will be made at the local level, right down to the kitchen tables of families who have school-age children.
There is a wide range of options for re-opening schools, each with multiple variations, including:
• The idea of dividing a school’s population in half in some manner and then splitting the instruction week of the two groups is a common suggestion. This could be achieved by doing half day sessions or by alternating days in school. That could mean that teachers would be teaching the same material twice in a week, which would then considerably impact and diminish the work that can be covered.
• Offering a hybrid approach of having students attend in person for half a week and then getting online instruction for the remainder of the week, with one half of the students present at school on any given day. That could avoid the teaching-twice problem.
• Totally online instructions through at least the end of the year. That would mean school districts would need to guarantee that all students had computer and internet access, an issue that was not satisfactorily resolved in the recent March through June period.
Then there is the question of child care, as parents of school age children return to their jobs, perhaps with some staggered arrangements for them as well.
There are a lot of numbers thrown around these days speculating on all sorts of things that are complicating our lives. That being said I will with proper skepticism pass on some numbers that I recently came across about the costs that a moderately sized school system might need to spend to put proper precautions in place to re-open school.
The numbers, taken from the Association of School Building Officials, suggest the following additional cost considerations for a school district with approximately 3,600 students and eight separate facilities, so scale these numbers up or down depending on the size of a school district you are focusing on.
The financial issues, which are also operational issues, include:
• $116,950 for various sanitizers and disinfection of classrooms other facilities
• $66,394 for sanitizing buses
• $194,045 for various PPE supplies
• $448,000 for additional custodial staff for the buildings and buses
• $400,000 to provide at least one nurse in every public school
• $384,000 to provide one aide per school bus to screen students before boarding
• $168,750 for before and after-school programs with social distancing
The total for all these activities is $1,778,139. I’ve had some direct experience in operational management of a school. The above numbers would probably be higher.
All this begs the question of school system funding. Will there be more federal aid? How big a cut in aid will be passed down from the state? What about raising property taxes? All important questions, all without answers at this time.
There are a multitude of operational questions that must be resolved on a state, or district, or building basis about things like how far should you or can you separate children in their classrooms? What about on buses? What about barriers for teachers and staff? Mandatory masks for everyone? Can the schools even acquire sufficient PPE? When/where will children get their meals and snacks? How will children who depend on schools for their daily sustenance get fed on days when they are not in attendance? How are bathroom use issues going to be resolved? What do you do with social activities and athletic programs?
Will you be able to recruit additional personnel for the cleaning and separation issues and bus driving? What if current teachers who are over 60 or have underlying medical issues decline to come in for face-to-face teaching?
Then there is the issue no one has an answer for at the moment: what happens if one or more students, teachers, staff or parents contract the virus? What process will the school use for tracing if someone tests positive for COVID-19? Does the infected person quarantine for two weeks? Does the affected classroom quarantine for two weeks? Or might a whole school need to be quarantined for two weeks?
All of these things also apply to re-opening colleges and universities. It has been suggested that college campuses, which thrive on social interaction, are the on-shore younger-set version of a cruise ship, a veritable petri dish for the virus.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), American Association of School Administrators (AASA), and the School Superintendents Association have weighed in on the issue at hand. “Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”
At the end of the day, it does not matter what Donald Trump pontificates about or what Andrew Cuomo decrees. The answers to all these questions will evolve through trial and error in the thousands of schools districts and institutions of higher education throughout the country. As Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, “it’s not going to be easy because we’ve never done it before.” Yes, indeed.