Colorado governor Jared Polis recently assembled a task force to develop the best possible plan for a return to in-person school. The task force includes brilliant folx I know, including Rebecca Holmes of the Colorado Education Initiative, my Colorado Education Association president Amie Baca-Ohlert, and Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, on whose teacher cabinet I will serve in my capacity as 2021 Colorado Teacher of the Year. The governor is visibly excited by the prospect of returning to in-person school, having declared on multiple platforms that students historically underserved will suffer more, academically speaking, than their White counterparts the longer in-person schooling is suspended.
But I’m left with a lot of questions. I am struggling to understand why, on November 24, 2020, when new COVID-19 cases are through the proverbial roof, that a conversation on a return-to-school is happening. I am combing the internet for ANYTHING that would suggest that returning to in-person school is the conversation we need to have at the moment.
I would like to be clear about something. I am not good at teaching remotely. I am struggling to be good at what made me Teacher of the Year: a commitment to relationships to support students growth and engagement, a willingness to sit with students for large chunks of time to guide them through difficult work, and a desire to connect with them in the classroom, the hallways, the cafeteria, so that they feel welcome and celebrated in our school. Schools are sacred places, and for me, school simply cannot be replicated online. This is not to ignore the amazing work done by our online educators who have supported students via internet platforms, it is simply not where I feel the most effective, and it certainly is not what I love about teaching. While I have been privileged enough to work from home, sleep a little later, and be there to support my own teenaged high school student who has the unfortunate fate of being quarantined with me 24-7, this kind of teaching is simply not sustainable for me.
There are some variables that I fear are out of everyone’s control. No matter the plans, I have observed enough, and heard enough disaster stories to know that the best-laid plan for return to school…well, you know the rest.
The Virus and the Vaccine
Dr. Anthony Fauci made it very clear in the spring that we do not decide when it is safe to return to our pre-March 13 activities. The virus decides. Looking at the spike in cases that started in the fall feels like satire. Like, how is it possible that the number of positive cases just began to soar? Clearly, it has to do with more people spending time indoors with people who are not a part of their pandemic bubble, refusal to mask or socially distance, all of those things. I remember it being suggested on the FiveThirtyEight that since most protesters for Black Rights Matter were masked, and there were very few cases reported after those gatherings, so perhaps we could return to mostly normal activities if we mask?
Then the news came from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca that vaccines were imminent. Never mind that Democracy Now! recently reported on significant concerns regarding Pfizer’s vaccine, the optimism began to flood from all quarters, public and private sectors.
To its credit, most reputable media outlets seem to be telling us to hold our horses. There are major questions. On the amazing Politically Reactive podcast, W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu discussed the realities of a vaccine with renowned Baylor chemist Dr. Peter Hotez, who pointed out that a vaccine that is approved will be very tough to roll out as quickly as it may be needed. “I’ve never had to think about how we get one billion doses out, these numbers boggle the mind,” he said in the interview. He also pointed out, as many others have, that most of these vaccines need to be stored at minus-94 degrees. To paraphrase Hari, not exactly a thing you can store in the Walgreens next to the Arizona Iced Tea.
This got me thinking about the inefficiencies that await us even when there is a vaccine. Pfizer has stated that theirs could be rolled out in mid-December, but this, of course, does not mean that we will get vaccinated in mid-December. Then there is the question of who gets to be at the front of the line when it comes to a vaccine. There are obvious choices: elderly people, especially those in nursing homes, EMTs, frontline medical professionals, firefighters. But after that?
I teach in a school district that is around 71% Black and Latinx. I teach in a public middle/high school that has almost exactly the same racial breakdown. According to this study published in the Colorado Sun, Black and Latinx COVID-19 hospitalizations are significantly disproportionate to their population numbers.
What this means for me, as a teacher whose students come from every corner of the city is that (a) I am more likely to be in contact with a young person carrying the virus and (b) they are also more likely to be in contact with a person carrying the virus. I’ll take you through this. The overwhelming majority of my students come from households with the following characteristics: they do not have health insurance. Their parents are either essential workers, in the service industry, or working construction. Not jobs that may be done via Zoom, and certainly not jobs that will provide them with income in the event that they must quarantine. Often, these households are large. One of my students has eight siblings. Another has five. Another has four. The overwhelming majority of my students are NOT only children, and they live in small spaces. In addition, it is common for extended family, especially grandparents, to live with them.
What this means is that avoiding contact in the event of a positive test result is next to impossible. In addition, if a young person goes to school, and comes into contact with a person carrying the virus, the chances that that young person returns home and passes the virus to a vulnerable or compromised person in their household increase dramatically. And then the essential workers, the workers who must go to a job site to get paid, risk carrying the virus to their workplaces. This could all happen within a few days, and since COVID-19 symptoms take a while to show up, if at all, it’s even more difficult to ascertain the risk and reality of spread.
I want to be very clear about something: I am not worried about being sick myself. I am a healthy person. I take care of myself when I am sick. I mask. I isolate. I never see anyone outside of my three-person pandemic bubble. I have insurance. I can work from home. My pay has not been reduced.
I do NOT wish to spread it to my students and their communities. FACTUALLY my students’ communities are significantly more at risk than their affluent counterparts, especially those in private schools (as an aside, I am told that private schools have operated largely without incident all year. I am also told that they did ZERO collection of data or best practices to be shared across the education system). It isn’t about risk to me, or even my circle. It’s about whether those who do not have what I have could withstand this. As a friend of mine who had COVID-19 and still struggles with the after-effects told me, “you do NOT want COVID.” He was an uber-fit guy, a trail marathoner, a lifelong athlete.
Parents and Disclosure
As the producer and co-host of the podcast Too Dope Teachers and a Mic, I receive numerous stories from educators as to why they are apprehensive and terrified of a possible return to in-person classes in January. Leaders across the state seem to belief that they can simply will safe, in-person school to begin in a few weeks. Even DPS Board of Education member Jennifer Bacon blithely stated “when we return in January” during a press release that wasn’t even about the pandemic! They were addressing the departure of Superintendent Susana Cordova. Just saying it confidently with a smile will not, as my students would say, manifest in-person school.
I am told of parents who do not answer honestly on health screenings, who send their sick children to school, not out of any malice, but because they simply cannot miss work as a matter of survival. I want to specifically state that these families were already on shaky economic ground before the pandemic, and now, they are forced to talk themselves into sending children to school. Can we guarantee that parents who cannot afford childcare will be able to afford it in the event that their child is sick, or, heaven forbid, the parents become incapacited by illness? Are we able to address the myriad reasons that parents may make the difficult choice to send a sick child to school? And are we providing impactful and honest messaging about why it is important for kids to stay home if they are sick. Are able to say that COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be the same threat to children that it is to adults, but that we still don’t know enough about how the virus is transmitted? Are we able to say that we aren’t just worried about kids getting sick, but also transporting the virus home and spreading it before they themselves show symptoms? Are we able to say that we must keep communities safe, not just individuals?
In Schools: Honor System?
My final question is whether teachers will be named as essential workers. As I stated before, I cannot fathom what our medical professionals on the front lines are facing daily. It is obvious that some individuals must be vaccinated first. But in a recent and unofficial communication that attempted to predict what groups would be considered early, teachers were not named as a high-priority group, despite the clamoring from certain quarters, not to mention the defeated and outgoing President of the United States. I was informed that we probably fit into x-y-z group, but not being named as a professional who will receive the vaccine as soon as possible is shocking to me, especially since in normal times, I see 150 young adults daily, and even during the pandemic, it would still be 25-50. My spouse taught in-person as an ECE teacher, and every day was a harrowing attempt to keep students distant, masked, not touching, and all of this has been priority over teaching content and academics.
The CDC has, time and again, affirmed that safe distance is six feet apart and masked. And yet, almost immediately, our school system (as well as others, I can imagine) started to tell educators and building leaders that, in effect, three feet is probably fine. Even our teachers, intelligent and educated professionals, have broken the rules, allowing students to eat together, play together, take off their masks, and have chosen to eat together, unmasked, despite unequivocal guidance from firms like the CDC and other medical professionals.
There is a lot to control for. As this body of intelligent people begins this challenging work, it is critical that they make a plan not just to re-open schools, but to anticipate every possible setback, every inefficiency, and center science. Anything less would be dishonest, and we already voted someone out who was dishonest about this reality that we face.