Meg Mulcaster virtual learningColumns Education 

Navigating School Contingencies

Schools reopening safely depends on everyone doing the right thing

By Jane Mulcaster

My 12-year-old is bored.

She and her friends were robbed of their 6th-grade graduation, and they’ve been counting the minutes until they can leave “remote learning” behind and start a new year in middle school.

In May and June, when COVID numbers were declining because of two months of shelter-in-place orders, it seemed feasible to envision a fall where case numbers were low enough that students could return safely to campuses with safeguards in place and modified schedules. But as case numbers have soared across the state, and wait-times for COVID test results can stretch more than a week, the thought of returning students to closed-in classrooms by mid-August is a pipedream.

Canary in a Coal Mine

Major-League Baseball and the NFL pre-season are high-visibility test cases that show how fragile a restart plan can be. Despite extraordinary precautions and huge budgets, one infection became many, and sent the whole plan back to square one, and the likelihood of building a meaningful season of wins and losses faded.

Our school has been anticipating an in-person return for months. They’ve been investing in equipment and supplies, planning, hiring, training, scheduling, and moving furniture to accommodate state and federal guidelines on physical distancing, sanitization, and class sizes. Teachers are having to search their souls and assess their personal risk of being in close contact with a dozen or more children with wandering attention spans all day. And by extension, all their siblings and family members and friends, extending in exponential bubbles.

Front Line Kids

Teachers are frontline workers. School contingency plans are only as robust as their staff rosters, which, due to reduced class sizes and increased cleaning protocols, are often stretched incredibly thin, especially if teachers have to accommodate a hybrid in-person/remote-learning model to limit the number of students on campus at a time. If a teacher tests positive for COVID-19 or doesn’t return due to personal risk, many schools will be hard-pressed to replace them, especially if more substitutes are pressed into action.

The Economist reports that although schools across Europe and Asia have had good luck with opening schools so far, an outbreak at a secondary school in Israel infected more than 150 pupils and staff. Studies done in Britain, Sweden, and Germany seem to suggest that children are less likely to contract or die from COVID-19 than adults. However, these countries also have a better rate of compliance with social safety guidelines, like mask wearing and distancing, than Americans, which safeguards the entire community and makes schools safer.

Do the Right Thing

The CDC has issued clear guidelines about how to safeguard children and teachers at school that echo best practices from other countries who have successfully restarted schooling: let vulnerable teachers stay home, reduce class sizes, stagger timetables, require masks, keep desks six feet apart, test and trace. The vice president undermined the guidelines by saying that schools should feel free to ignore them. Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, have threatened to defund schools that refuse to reopen.

As the soaring number of American COVID-19 cases in the runup to the fall attest, the confused, conflicting messages from the nation’s leaders encourage confused, conflicted behavior among the citizens, which makes schools reopening dangerous even as our students crave normalcy and a chance to learn. It’s up to each of us to wear masks and distance from each other, our teachers, and our students.

Jane Mulcaster is the SLV Post Bay Area correspondent and writes remotely from her home office in San Jose. Read her recent articles here.

Featured photo: Meg Mulcaster, 12, takes an online music lesson with classmates.

Related posts

Leave a Comment