Starting with the socially distanced school bus where all the students are wearing masks…
First to parents and teachers, as a fellow parent and former educator I understand completely how many of you parents are looking forward to having your kids out of the house and how many of you teachers are looking forward renewing a sense of purpose with your students. At the same time, there are some assumptions being made that may be completely unreasonable and in other cases there is little information to help guide decisions.
Let’s start with the school bus. 55% of K-12 students ride the bus to school. As the American Academy of Pediatrics(APA) notes “Having bus drivers or [bus] monitors perform [COVID symptom] screening is problematic, as they may face a situation in which a student screens positive yet the parent has left, and the driver would be faced with leaving the student alone or allowing the student on the bus”. In other words, if a parent sends a sick child to school on the bus, all the other children run the risk of infection because the bus driver cannot take the risk of leaving the student alone. The average age of a school bus driver is 54.4 for a male and 49.8 for a female. Approximately a third of bus drivers are over 60 and potentially at risk for more severe disease. These are the same drivers who would be expected to enforce mask compliance on a bus. The alternatives to the bus are to drive your child to school or plan that they walk or ride a bicycle in all weather. For city kids there is the always the packed subway.
Will students be safer at school than at home? To quote the APA again “Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation.” It is important to note that only one of these concerns is related to education. The rest are about the ability for schools to identify or diagnose problems occurring in the home — tasks usually associated with social workers rather than educators.
There is no disagreement that families rely on schools to feed their children. 22 million children rely on free or reduced lunch. In the summer these same children cannot access similar community programs at school locations without bus service. It does beg the question, are schools the best way to get food to hungry children?
Are all students better off in physical classrooms for a full school day? Students with disabilities which require additional support outside traditional classroom settings likely are. However, some students, like those recovering from Lyme disease or those with Sickle cell anemia may actually do better with a larger percentage of their education occurring in a less exhausting setting than many schools.
Other recommendations are to keep students in the same groupings and in the same classrooms for all learning and meals whenever possible. This was often the normal recommendation for kindergartners pre-COVID. In many elementary schools, students spend most of the time with their classroom teacher with trips to other rooms only for art or music. In fact, most of the recommendations for pre-school and elementary instruction would require reasonable adjustments and align well with the short attention spans of children K-3. In addition, pediatricians welcome the chance to ensure children are vaccinated as required in many states (allowing for religious or non-medical exemptions which would also presumably apply to a COVID-19 vaccine).
Once at school how would students be screened or tested? Will school nursing offices become COVID testing sites? Will teachers be provided free testing even if asymptomatic? Will privacy regulations or parent objections prevent testing regimes?
What about other age groups? As a former science instructor, it has been hard to see the loss of hands-on labs. Art and music teachers also have school-based equipment. Hands-on teachers are trained and used to enforcing safety and equipment use rules which could be extended to gloves, masks and social distancing.
What about preparing students for college? About 17% of college students took all distance (online) classes and 35% of college students take some courses online in 2018. This percentage is increasing. Given a college future of at least a percentage of online learning, a mix of some online and some in person classes may also be a good model for the higher grade levels.
Teachers in Massachusetts (currently at an infection rate of .83 and a positivity rate of 2.5) are being asked to prepare to teach in person or online. This is a prescription for mediocrity. Given time to prepare for one or the other could allow for great learning, but preparing for both online and in person means compromises which will likely lead to bored students asleep on Zoom or with their heads on desks in the classroom.
A better approach would be to prioritize the students who really need a physical presence in school for food, for social workers or for specialized instructors given their disabilities. These students need to be physically in school or alternative services need to be worked out.
Next, elementary students have current instructional patterns which lend themselves to the recommended protocols and whose attention spans often require in person re-direction. The average class size for K-12 in the U.S. is about 24 students. According to the University of Georgia’s School of Design and Planning Laboratory, the 20 elementary school children would need 1,029 square feet of classroom area, while the same number of secondary students require over 300 more square feet to total 1,344, thus elementary schools have smaller space requirements even given social distancing.
Finally, for the other grades, teachers and administrators need to look at what instruction requires onsite equipment or in person group project work to be successful and how that can occur with masks and safe social distancing. Maybe students in middle and high school could have two days onsite for hands-on instruction or group/project work and three days online? This would be easier for teachers. Or will students only come in mornings or afternoons (likely easier for parents?) We need to think of schools for what they are: providers of a variety of services which include education and not solely places where children go to get them out of the house for seven hours a day. The more we can adequately match space to learning needs the less concern there will be about whether desks are three or six feet apart.
Uncertainty is leading 1 in 5 teachers to consider not returning to work and 30% of parents very likely to pursue at home learning options. These are challenging times which call for creative solutions. Solutions that also recognize the likelihood of another surge in the fall even in states which have the virus under control. Solutions that school budgets can afford.